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Hatha yoga improves brain function in senior adults: study

Practising hatha yoga three times a week for eight weeks improved sedentary older adults’ cognitive performance, according to a research report by the University of Illinois – published in The Journals of Gerontology.

108 adults between the ages of 55 and 79 were split into two groups, balanced in age, gender, social status and other demographic factors. One group attended hatha yoga classes and the other group engaged in stretching and toning exercises instead, for the same number and length of sessions.

At the end of the eight weeks, the yoga group was faster and more accurate in its responses to information recall tests, mental flexibility and task-switching assessments than it had been before the exercise sessions. The stretching and toning group, however, saw no significant change in cognitive performance.

Hatha yoga is an ancient spiritual practice that involves meditation and focused breathing while an individual moves through a series of stylised postures – ideally suited for beginners, according to Neha Gothe who led the study.

“Hatha yoga requires focused effort in moving through the poses, controlling the body and breathing at a steady rate,” Gothe said. “It is possible that this focus on one’s body, mind and breath during yoga practice may have generalised to situations outside the yoga classes, resulting in an improved ability to sustain attention.”

Fellow research partner, professor Edward McAuley of the University of Illinois’ kinesiology and community health department detailed the findings: “Participants in the yoga intervention group showed significant in working memory capacity, which involves continually updating and manipulating information. They were also able to perform the task at hand quickly and accurately, without getting distracted. These mental functions are relevant to our our everyday functioning, as we multitask and plan our day-to-day activities.”

Previous studies, cited by Gothe, indicate yoga has an immediate 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 levels.”

According to the researchers – including Arthur Kramer, director of the University of Illinois’ Beckman Institute – the results of the study are only preliminary and involve a short-term intervention, therefore further research is needed to confirm the results and reveal the underlying brain mechanisms at play.

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Practising hatha yoga three times a week for eight weeks improved sedentary older adults’ cognitive performance, according to a research report by the University of Illinois – published in The Journals of Gerontology.
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