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Healthy Aging

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Yoga’s Benefits from Head to Toe

Yoga is so much more than strengthening exercise. Even gentle poses can ease stress, improve balance, and boost energy. Learn what a Johns Hopkins expert and yoga researcher knows about the benefits and how to get started simply.

Senior woman demonstrating a yoga position inside a studio.
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Yoga Classes for Seniors

“If you’re new to yoga, it’s good to sign up for a class so you can learn good form,” Jeter says. Call local yoga studios, gyms, or senior centers and ask if they offer classes taught by a teacher trained to work with older people or those with physical limitations. A gentle yoga class can be a good choice. Chair (or seated) yoga is a great option if your mobility or balance is limited, according to Jeter. Move at your own pace—and remember that any yoga pose can be modified so it’s right for you. Just ask your teacher. 

Whether you’re capable of a flowing sun salutation—a simple series of stretches—or a Tree pose on one foot as your arms reach for the sky, “yoga is for you,” says Pamela Jeter, Ph.D., a yoga researcher at Johns Hopkins University. “You don’t have to be extremely fit or super-flexible. At any level—basic or advanced—yoga poses and breathing have wonderful benefits for your mind and your body.”

Jeter’s research takes place at the Wilmer Eye Institute. In a recent study, she found that an experimental eight-week yoga program geared for people who are legally blind improved balance, reduced stress, and led to better sleep. And in 2014, Jeter and other Johns Hopkins experts reviewed 15 studies that looked at yoga’s effects on balance, falls and fear of falling in healthy people. Their conclusion: Yoga has the potential to reduce balance-related falls, ease worries that you’ll tumble, and improve balance while standing or walking—all good news for older adults who face a higher risk for falls and balance issues.

Yoga goes far beyond being a passing trend. “Yoga is a form of exercise, but it’s more than that,” says Jeter, who also teaches yoga. “Steady breathing is so important, and it also affects your nervous system in beneficial ways that go beyond burning calories or making muscles stronger. Simply learning to plant your feet firmly as you do a pose strengthens the connections that keep you coordinated and flexible, for example.”

Notable benefits of yoga include:  

More energy and brighter moods. You may feel increased mental and physical energy, a boost in alertness and enthusiasm, and fewer negative feelings after getting into a routine of practicing yoga.

Better joint health for those with arthritis: Gentle yoga eased some of the discomfort of tender, swollen joints for people with arthritis, according to a Johns Hopkins review of 11 recent studies. Slow movements and deep breathing increase blood flow and warm up muscles, while holding a pose can build strength. Moving from one pose to the next helps improve range of motion in joints.

Heart help. Regular yoga practice may reduce levels of body-wide inflammation that contribute to the progression of heart disease. It may even lead to healthier blood pressure, cholesterol levels, blood-sugar levels, and body weight—all factors that help reduce risk for heart disease. Yoga isn’t a substitute for moderate-intensity cardiovascular exercise like walking or bicycling, though; rather, it’s a supplement.

Back pain relief. Yoga is as good as basic stretching for easing pain and improving mobility in people with lower back pain.

Less stress. In groups of people as different as expectant mothers, women with breast cancer, and those with painful fibromyalgia, yoga programs eased stress.

Definitions

Inflammation (in-fluh-mey-shun): The redness and warmth around a cut or scrape is short-term inflammation, produced by the immune system to aid healing. But another type called chronic inflammation, triggered by compounds from abdominal fat, gum disease and other factors, lingers in the body. Research suggests this type increases the risk for heart disease, diabetes, dementia and some forms of cancer.

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