Low-impact exercises such as yoga have a number of benefits. Not only can it provide the physical benefits of exercise, yoga may also help stave off cognitive decline, according to a recent study of older adults with early warning signs of waning memory.
While I believe most benefit from high-intensity interval training (HIIT) for optimal health, there's no doubt that yoga can also be beneficial. It has mental, emotional and even spiritual benefits that can be very helpful for those struggling with stress-related health problems.
Yoga can be viewed as a form of moving meditation that demands your full attention as you gently shift your body from one asana (yoga position) to another.
As you learn new ways of moving and responding to your body, your mind and emotions may shift and change as well. In a sense, you not only become more physically flexible, but your mental outlook and approach to life may gain some needed flexibility as well.
Studies have repeatedly demonstrated that physical activity helps keep your mind sharp with age, and this goes for activities such as yoga as well. Overall, inactivity is enemy No. 1 if you seek to optimize your cognitive function. According to The New York Times:1
"There also is growing evidence that combining physical activity with meditation might intensify the benefits of both pursuits.
In an interesting study2 ... people with depression who meditated before they went for a run showed greater improvements in their mood than people who did either of those activities alone.
But many people do not have the physical capacity or taste for running or other similarly vigorous activities. So for the new study ... researchers ... decided to test whether yoga, a relatively mild, meditative activity, could alter people's brains and fortify their ability to think.3,4
They began by recruiting 29 middle-aged and older adults ... who ... were anxious about the state of their memories and who, during evaluations ... were found to have mild cognitive impairment, a mental condition that can be a precursor to eventual dementia.
The volunteers also underwent a sophisticated type of brain scan that tracks how different parts of the brain communicate with one another."
The participants were divided into two groups. One group enrolled in a brain-training program consisting of mental exercises for one hour per week. They were also asked to practice at home for 15 minutes a day.
The second group participated in a Kundalini yoga class for one hour per week. They were also taught Kirtan Kriya meditation, which involves the use of mantras and fluid hand movements. They were asked to practice this meditation at home for 15 minutes each day.
Yoga Outperforms Standard Brain Training
After 12 weeks, all subjects again underwent cognitive tests and brain scans. Overall, all participants had improved to some degree, but the yoga group not only fared slightly better on memory tests, they also reported improvements in their mood. As reported in the featured article:
"The brain scans in both groups displayed more communication now between parts of their brains involved in memory and language skills.
Those who had practiced yoga, however, also had developed more communication between parts of the brain that control attention, suggesting a greater ability now to focus and multitask.
In effect, yoga and meditation had equaled and then topped the benefits of 12 weeks of brain training. 'We were a bit surprised by the magnitude' of the brain effects, said Dr. Helen Lavretsky ... who oversaw the study."
Why Yoga Is so Beneficial for Your Brain
Over the years, a number of studies have honed in on the brain benefits of yoga. For example, studies have found that:
•Twenty minutes of Hatha yoga improves your brain function (speed and accuracy of mental processing) to a greater degree than 20 minutes of aerobic exercise (jogging).5,6 Potential mechanisms include enhanced self-awareness and reduced stress.
•Yoga helps improve mental health, including psychiatric disorders like depression, anxiety, attention-deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and schizophrenia.7,8,9,10
Some of the studies suggest yoga can have a similar effect to antidepressants and psychotherapy.
•Yoga helps improve teenagers' emotional resilience and ability to manage anger. As noted by yoga educator and writer Iona Smith:11
"During adolescence, the frontal lobes of the brain (the seat of language and reason) are still being formed, leaving teens to overly rely on their amygdala (the seat of emotions) ...
The brain's malleability during adolescence marks a crucial stage in both cognitive and emotional development.
Luckily, researchers are now able to paint a clearer picture of some of the factors that allow students to thrive throughout high school and into adulthood, such as self-awareness, managing distressing emotions, empathy, and navigating relationships smoothly.
When students hone these skills, they are not only happier and healthier emotionally, but are also better able to focus on academics."
•By improving stress-related imbalances in your nervous system, yoga can help relieve a range of symptoms found in common mental health disorders.
Researchers also believe yoga can be helpful for conditions like epilepsy, chronic pain, depression, anxiety and PTSD by increasing brain chemicals like gamma amino-butyric acid (GABA).12
Other Mind-Body Benefits of Yoga
Other studies have demonstrated that regular yoga practice can impart a number of different physical, mental and emotional benefits, including the ones listed below.13,14,15,16
One explanation for yoga's wide-ranging effects is that it actually alters genetic expression — through its beneficial effects on your mind! In fact, the relaxation response triggered by meditative practices has been shown to affect at least 2,209 genes.17
Improved immune function18
Reduced risk for migraines21
Lowered risk of hypertension and heart disease22,23
Lowered cortisol (stress hormone) level by down regulating hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and calming sympathetic nervous system24
Improved sexual performance and satisfaction in both sexes25,26
How Yoga Aids Weight Loss and Promotes Good Health
Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, yoga has also been shown to aid weight loss. In one study,27 overweight yoga participants lost an average of 5 pounds whereas the non-yoga group gained 13 pounds. This held true even when accounting for differences in diet. Typically, HIIT is the most effective for weight loss, and the key to its effectiveness is the intensity. So how can the effectiveness of yoga — which is the converse of HIIT in terms of intensity — be explained?
According to Tiffany Field, Ph.D., director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami Leonard M. Miller School of Medicine, yoga's benefits are related to the fact that it does the opposite of more strenuous exercise. Rather than boosting your heart rate and stimulating your nervous system, yoga puts you in a parasympathetic state that lowers both your blood pressure and heart rate, and this helps promote a positivecascade of health effects.
This makes sense if you consider the adverse biological effects of stress. By promoting systemic inflammation, chronic stress can be a factor in everything from weight gain to high blood pressure and heart disease. It's also been shown to trigger the onset of dementia. What's worse, stress-induced weight gain typically involves an increase in belly fat, which is the most dangerous fat for your body to accumulate as it increases your risk for cardiovascular disease.
Stress actually alters the way fat is deposited because of the specific hormones and other chemicals your body produces when you're stressed. For example, recent research28 shows that chronic stress stimulates your body to produce betatrophin, a protein that blocks an enzyme that breaks down body fat. So by reducing stress you reduce inflammation, and along with it your risk for any number of health problems, including stubborn weight.
A 2011 review29 of published clinical studies on yoga also concluded that yoga movements stimulate skin pressure receptors that boost activity in your brain and vagus nerve, both of which influence the production and release of various hormones. As vagus nerve activity increases, the levels of stress hormones like cortisol decrease. It also triggers the release of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays a role not only in your mood, but also in appetite control and sleep patterns.
The Importance of a Comprehensive Fitness Program
Yoga and other simple restorative exercises tone and strengthen your body, increase circulation and oxygen flow, energize you for the day and help you unwind in the evening. However, studies support the use of yoga to strengthen brain function and improve common psychiatric disorders (along with many other health benefits, including pain relief and increased flexibility and strength).
I believe it's important to incorporate a variety of exercises into your routine for optimal results. Ideally, you'll want a comprehensive fitness program that includes HIIT and resistance training, along with flexibility- and core-building exercises like yoga. Daily non-exercise movement is also important, and simply walking more each day can go a long way toward warding off many common health problems.
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