a woman in a yoga poseKeeping a sharp mind is important for older adults. Exercise, specifically yoga, is one way that adults can maintain their mental acuity as they age. Researcher Neha Gothe, formerly of University of Illinois and now at Wayne State University, investigated the effect of a regimen of hatha yoga on older adults. Gothe finds that hatha yoga improves cognition and reduces stress better than comparable, non-yogic exercise.

Hatha yoga is a type of exercise that focuses on breathing, mindfulness, and strength through a series of poses and movements. For the study, 108 adults between the ages of 55 and 79 exercised three times per week for eight weeks. Half of the group attended yoga classes and the other half completed an exercise program that included toning and stretching exercises. At the end of the eight week period, the researchers assessed the participants’ reaction times, information recall, and task-switching abilities.

The adults who participated in hatha yoga classes demonstrated greater improvements on cognitive performance tasks related to daily life. These adults had faster reaction times, sharper memories, and better multi-tasking skills than their peers who completed the toning and stretching exercises. Hatha yoga decreases the body’s response to stress more rapidly than typical exercise. This may be why the yoga participants performed better on cognitive tasks.

“These studies suggest that yoga has an immediate quieting effect on the sympathetic nervous system and on the body’s response to stress. Since we know that stress and anxiety can affect cognitive performance, the eight-week yoga intervention may have boosted participants’ performance by reducing their stress,” stated Gothe.

The findings suggest that not all exercise is created equal. To get the most out of a healthy lifestyle, older adults should vary their exercise routine and try new activities.

This research is published in The Journals of Gerontology.

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