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Yoga Combats Frailty in Older Adults

Research shows practicing yoga helps older adults remain active and strong.

Key points

  • A systematic review finds yoga can help prevent frailty among older adults.
  • Specifically, yoga helps to improve walking speed and leg strength, two indicators of wellness in aging.
David L/peopleimages/Adobe Stock
David L/peopleimages/Adobe Stock

More than half of adults in the U.S. over age 80 experience frailty, an increased health vulnerability that hampers their ability to cope with everyday life.

Frailty is a complex condition that involves a variety of physical and mental factors including walking, balance, cognitive impairment, and other chronic health problems. Frailty can reduce endurance levels, make it more difficult to live independently, reduce quality of life, and increase the risk of dying sooner.

A new systematic review published in the Annals of Internal Medicine asks the question: Can yoga help to prevent or improve frailty? Researchers reviewed 33 randomized controlled studies on the benefits of yoga for people over 65. In total, there were more than 2,300 participants age 60 and older.

The review found that participating in a regular yoga practice improved walking speed and leg strength – two important measures of frailty. Walking speed was an especially important measure because earlier research shows that slower walking speeds are associated with an increased risk of dying in older adults.

The studies in the review included two types of yoga: Iyengar-based practices, which use modifications and props to help people with all mobility levels participate, and chair-based yoga. The findings suggest that Iyengar yoga may be more effective because it involves more standing and balance compared to chair-based yoga.

“There’s a potential for movement-based mind-body practices to be really helpful for promoting healthy aging over the lifespan because they provide a physical and cognitive health benefit, but also because they have a spillover effect that can lead to having a healthier lifestyle overall,” said Julia Loewenthal, the lead author of the study. “It may be helpful to get involved in a healthy practice like this at a younger age, but with that said, we still saw clinically meaningful results in an older population. It’s never too late to start a yoga practice or exercise regimen to help with your overall health status in your later years.”

A regular yoga practice offers other benefits as well. Previous research shows yoga is effective at addressing the symptoms of depression. One systematic review found that the more yoga participants practiced each week, the fewer symptoms they showed. And an earlier review found that yoga is an effective tool for pain relief.

The take-home message: Practicing yoga, even later in life, helps to combat frailty – a complex health condition that increases the risk of falling, hospitalization, and dying among older adults.

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