• Irina Sheftel

Yoga for 60+: what do we know from research?

40% of adults in high-income Western countries do not engage in sports or any physical exercise. Inactivity rises with age – we tend to move less as we age, and this increases the risk of chronic disease and disability.  To be healthy and independent in older age we have to stay active and move.  Is yoga a good choice of physical activity and how it compares to other forms of fitness.

Fact #1  Yoga can slow down aging 

Even a mild asana practice improves strength, flexibility, balance, and mobility over time. Research shows that gentle stretch and tension in regular yoga can slow down age-related muscle loss.  On the other hand, breathing and meditation practices help to reduce stress and improve the regulation of emotions. These positive changes in the body lead to a delay in cell aging - read more about it here.

Yoga is not a miracle cure, but a sustainable lifestyle or a supportive care modality for all ages.

Fact #2 Anybody who can breathe can do yoga

Yoga might be a good choice of exercise in older age because it can be modified for any physical limitation. Clinical applications of yoga include severe motor conditions such as multiple sclerosis and stroke. A clinical trial published last week investigated the effects of yoga in people with Parkinson Disease, including participants who needed an assistive device to walk. The yoga program was as effective as stretching and resistance training in improving mobility, with the additional benefits of a reduction in anxiety and depressive symptoms.

Fact #3 Yoga Improves both physical and mental health in 60+

The first meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials to evaluate the impact of yoga on mental health in older adults was published in 2018. The article reviewed the results of 12 previous experiments, with a total of 752 participants. People aged 60+ years who practiced yoga were compared to those who did not engage in any exercise. The analysis showed that yoga improved both quality of life and mental wellbeing. 

A newer meta-analysis that came out last week compared yoga in the older population with other physical exercises (walking, chair aerobics). The authors looked into 22 previously published randomized controlled trials, with over 2000 participants. While all types of exercise improve balance, flexibility, and general wellbeing, yoga also reduces depression scores.

The effects of yoga on mood and emotions are likely explained by the combination of mindful awareness, breathing, and the attitude of self-compassion. Besides, yoga classes are typically social environments that promote human connection, which is essential for mental wealth.

Fact#4 Yoga is increasingly integrated into healthcare

All studies above have found significant statistical effects of yoga practice, but the effect sizes were often not huge. This means that while we can expect yoga to improve the quality of life in general, it might work better for some practitioners than for others. 

Yoga is not a miracle cure, but a sustainable lifestyle or a supportive care modality for all ages.

The effects of yoga might be similar to those of other mindful movement practices, such as tai chi or qigong. According to a recent report in the American Journal of Public Health, the use of these techniques in the US has increased from 5.8% in 2002 to 14.5% in 2017, and an increasing number of practitioners are being referred by their medical doctors. Integration of various holistic approaches in healthcare is happening slowly. But is absolutely necessary, given the aging of the population and the increasing pressure on healthcare providers. 

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