Does Science Confirm the Healthy Aging Benefits of Yoga?

Related topics: Health & Wellness

Yoga is growing in popularity in the U.S., and millions of seniors are adding this ancient practice to their health and fitness routine. Is yoga a safe and worthwhile way to support healthy aging?

Yoga is a mind-body practice with its origins in ancient Asian philosophy. The various types of yoga all use specific poses, motions and structured breathing. Yoga practitioners hope to reduce stress, improve emotional and physical health and decrease pain.

For many years, the benefits of yoga were supported largely by anecdotal evidence. Medical researchers today are now investigating the science behind yoga. They are trying to determine how yoga affects the body, whether certain health conditions might be improved by the practice…and whether yoga is a good therapy to integrate into traditional healthcare that promotes healthy aging.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), which is one of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, has sponsored evidence-based research on the safety and effectiveness of yoga. NCCAM director Dr. Josephine Briggs says, "What we're seeing from our researchers—through the application of rigorous scientific methods—is evidence suggesting that yoga may help people manage certain symptoms, while it may not help with others. We're also learning about the safety of yoga, particularly when it is used in populations who are at increased risk of injury."

This at-risk population includes seniors. According to the NCCAM, yoga may help seniors deal with joint stiffness, low back pain, balance problems and depression—but seniors should take special care before starting yoga, and realize that not every yoga class may be appropriate for their health and level of conditioning. People with certain health conditions are at higher risk of injury during yoga, and a yoga program should be tailored to their specific health condition. For example, people with high blood pressure, glaucoma or sciatica should avoid certain poses. NCCAM advises seniors to consult with their healthcare provider before joining a yoga class.

Several medical schools are now developing senior-friendly yoga programs. University of Southern California professor George Salem is working on the "Yoga Empowers Seniors" study, which aims to understand the biomechanics of yoga in order to increase fitness and decrease the risk of falls. Salem cautions that yoga programs should be tailored for the individual—and that means taking into account the bones, joints and muscles of older adults.

Yoga Safety Tips from Orthopedic Specialists

Dr. Raj Rao of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons (AAOS) recently said, "A good yoga program—that slowly progresses to more difficult poses and more strenuous activity—can lower a person's heart rate, improve muscle and joint conditioning, decrease pain, and contribute to an overall sense of physical and mental well-being." But Rao cautions, "If not done properly, or if someone embarks on a strenuous yoga program without guidance, it can cause serious pain or discomfort, and even injury."

The AAOS offers these safety tips for yoga practitioners of every age:

  • Work with a qualified yoga instructor. Ask about his or her experience and credentials. If you choose to use a yoga DVD at home, look for one that comes highly recommended by your physician or other reliable sources.
  • Warm up thoroughly before a yoga session. Cold muscles, tendons and ligaments are vulnerable to injury. Make sure you cool down as well to relax your muscles and restore your resting heart rate and breathing rhythm.
  • Wear appropriate clothing that allows for proper movement. Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of fluids.
  • Select the class level that is appropriate for you. Start by taking a single beginner or introductory class before signing up for a complete session or class series.
  • If you are unsure of a pose or movement, ask questions. Your instructor should be able to suggest modified positions for older adults.
  • Know your limits. Do not try positions beyond your experience or comfort level. Beginners should start slowly and learn the basics first, focusing on gentle stretching and breathing rather than trying to accomplish difficult poses.
  • Learn what type of yoga you are performing. There are hundreds of different forms of yoga, some more strenuous than others. It is important to learn which type of yoga will best suit your needs.
  • Listen to your body. If you experience pain or exhaustion while participating in yoga, stop or take a break. If pain persists, speak with your physician.
  • Discuss any known illness or injury with your yoga instructor prior to the class so that he or she can recommend pose modifications.
  • If you have an underlying joint or spinal injury or arthritis, gentle stretching helps avoid stiffness. Remember, however, that just as in all other activity, flare-ups of pain or injury may occur with yoga if tissues are stretched or stressed too quickly and beyond their physiologic level.

For More Information

Watch an 18-minute video from the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) that looks at scientific studies about yoga and aging.    

UCLA's GeroNet Health & Aging Resources includes coverage of Prof. George Salem and the Yoga Empowers Seniors Study (YESS). UCLA researchers also recently released information on the use of yoga to reduce caregiver stress.  

The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons' Orthoinfo consumer information website includes information on yoga injury prevention.

This article is not intended to replace the advice of your doctor. Speak to your healthcare provider before beginning any exercise program or alternative/complementary medical practice.