- A new study shows that one type of exercise may help protect against frailty in older adults.
- The exercise helped the participants improve mobility and leg strength.
- Experts recommend that older adults make regular exercise a priority.
Staying active is important for overall health, but it can become more of a challenge as you age. With that, it’s important to find exercise routines that can support your health while also improving other areas of your life.
Now, a new scientific analysis by researchers at Harvard University suggests that yoga is a great option to help seniors regain strength and improve mobility. A study that was published Annals of Internal MedicineThe researchers found that yoga—typically Hatha yoga that included iyengar, or chair-based methods—increased walking speed and the ability to get out of a chair. Both of these metrics are associated with less fragility and increased longevity.
While yoga for the elderly is not a new concept, this is the first time that the effects of the exercise have been measured against a number of different metrics that doctors use to determine frailty in elderly patients. The researchers found that yoga was most closely linked to improved walking speed (slow walking speed is associated with a higher risk of death in older adults) and improved leg strength, which helps with things like getting out of a chair or bed. .
Worth noting: Yoga didn’t seem to affect balance as much, nor did it seem to affect handgrip strength (another sign of weakness).
“Up to 50% of adults over the age of 80 are frail, and the global prevalence is expected to increase as our population ages. We need more interventions to help frailty,” says study lead author Julia Loewenthal, MD, a geriatrician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
“There are limited options for improving or preventing frailty,” notes study co-author Ariela Orkaby, MD, MPH, director of frailty research in the Division of Aging at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “We hope to identify strategies that can improve the health of older adults.”
So why might yoga be beneficial for seniors, and what other low-impact exercises should older Americans consider? Here’s the deal.
Why can yoga be beneficial for seniors?
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) notes that yoga is becoming more popular among older Americans, citing national survey data showing that nearly 7 percent of American adults age 65 and older practiced yoga in 2017, up from 3 in 2012. 3 percent.
However, the NCCIH stresses the importance of safety when older adults practice yoga, but recommends that people start with classes identified as “gentle” or for seniors to get individualized advice and learn proper form. NCCIH also recommends chair yoga for seniors with limited mobility.
Studies have shown that yoga can be beneficial for seniors. It’s not just a gentle, low-impact exercise, one small NCCIH study found that people who practiced yoga had more gray matter in their brains compared to people who didn’t practice yoga, regardless of age. (Gray matter helps process information, including movement, memory, and emotions.) The researchers also found that the volume of certain brain regions increased with the number of years of yoga practice and the weekly practice.
Doctors say they have seen the benefits of yoga in older patients as well. “These findings are completely consistent with what we see clinically,” says Alfred Tallia, MD, MPH, professor and chair of the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.
“Most yoga involves stretching,” she explains. “We lose flexibility in our bodies as we age, and the stretching involved in many parts of yoga can help restore and maintain flexibility, which can reduce falls and other injuries.”
Yoga is also typically low-impact, “which means many of the adverse effects of heavy aerobic activity like running are avoided while increasing flexibility,” says Dr. Tallia.
“Most yoga focuses on lower-extremity exercises—which can lead to lower-extremity endurance,” says Ryan Glatt, CPT, director of the FitBrain program at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, California.
Yoga “also touches many different physiological systems of the body, which may explain why it helps with a general measurement like mobility or walking speed,” says Dr. Loewenthal. Yoga includes poses in a variety of positions, such as standing, sitting, lying down and even upside down, and standing has the potential to increase leg muscle strength and develop balance and coordination, she notes. (His study did not find that yoga had a significant effect on balance, but many of the participants did chair yoga.)
“Transitions between positions provide some practice for performing these activities in the real world, such as standing up from a chair,” says Dr. Loewenthal. “So while yoga workouts don’t usually achieve the same aerobic capacity as cycling or swimming, there are many other benefits that can help older people function more efficiently in their daily lives.”
How often should older Americans exercise?
Exercise recommendations for older Americans are similar to those recommended by public health experts for younger adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adults age 65 and older need at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise, such as brisk walking, or 75 minutes a week of vigorous activity, such as hiking, jogging, or running. It’s also important to do muscle-strengthening exercises at least two days a week and engage in activities that improve balance (such as standing on one leg) three days a week, the CDC says.
However, the CDC notes that older adults should do their best to be as physically active as their abilities and circumstances allow, noting that some physical activity is better than none.
What other exercises are good for seniors?
The National Institute on Aging (NIA) recommends that older Americans focus on four types of exercise—endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility. Here’s what they suggest for each:
- A brisk walk or jog
- Yard work
- Climbing stairs or hills
- Play tennis or basketball
- Lift weights
- Carrying food
- Catching a tennis ball
- Above, arm curls
- Hand curls
- Wall push-up
- Lifting body weight
- Using a resistance band
- Stand on one leg
- Walking from heel to toe
- Balance walking
- Stand from a sitting position
- Stretching the back
- Inner thigh stretching
- The ankle stretches
- Stretching the back of the legs
“My favorite exercise for older people is swimming,” says Dr. Tallia. “This combines many of the benefits of low-impact, high-aerobic exercise for stretching and movement of all muscle groups and joints.”
Dr. Loewenthal says walking is the most popular form of exercise for many of his elderly patients. “But it’s not enough as we get older,” he says. “It is really important to also work on strength, balance and flexibility. …The most important thing is to choose something that you enjoy and that touches on multiple elements of physical activity – endurance, strength, balance and flexibility.”
When it comes to starting a new exercise routine as an older American, Dr. Tallia says it’s really best to check with your doctor first, especially if you have a chronic medical condition. “Starting slow reduces the chance of injury or adverse reactions by giving the body a chance to adjust to the new movement and cardiovascular stresses,” he says. “But the main thing is that exercise is good and helps promote better functioning and a longer life for the elderly.”
Orkaby recommends staying in tune with your body while exercising. “When the routine becomes easy, consider changing the interval and intensity,” she says. “The most important thing is to choose an activity that is enjoyable and you are more likely to stick with it.”
Korin Miller is a freelance writer specializing in general wellness, sexual health and relationships, and life trends. Works have been published in the series Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Self, Glamor and much more. He has a master’s degree from an American university, lives on the beach and hopes to one day own a teacup pig and a taco truck.