Study of older adults suggests yoga and stretching are different (and yoga’s better)

I’m grabbing a little different takeaway from a study announced this week that tracked older adults.

First, I’ll give you the mainstream conclusion: Practicing hatha yoga may help older adults improve their cognitive functions. That’s the findings from a study from the University of Illinois. Here’s from a release (and here’s a link to the study and to additional coverage of the study here and here and here that sums things up as above):

Practicing hatha yoga three times a week for eight weeks improved sedentary older adults’ performance on cognitive tasks that are relevant to everyday life, researchers report.

The findings involved 108 adults between the ages of 55 and 79 years of age, 61 of whom attended hatha yoga classes. The others met for the same number and length of sessions and engaged in stretching and toning exercises instead of yoga.

At the end of the eight weeks, the yoga group was speedier and more accurate on tests of information recall, mental flexibility and task-switching than it had been before the intervention. The stretching-and-toning group saw no significant change in cognitive performance over time. The differences seen between the groups were not the result of differences in age, gender, social status or other demographic factors, the research team reported.


“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 generalized to situations outside of the yoga classes, resulting in an improved ability to sustain attention.”

“Participants in the yoga intervention group showed significant improvements in working memory capacity, which involves continually updating and manipulating information,” McAuley said. “They were also able to perform the task at hand quickly and accurately, without getting distracted. These mental functions are relevant to our everyday functioning, as we multitask and plan our day-to-day activities.”

What I couldn’t help focusing on is that the comparison group, rather than doing nothing, or walking or doing some other exercise, “engaged in stretching and toning exercises.”

That suggests, as Gothe’s quote notes, that the focusing of one’s mind, breath and body may have positive benefits.

May, or, if you like, does. (More study needed.)

To me, this comparison sounds really critical and extremely interesting — it is much closer to an “apples to apples” study — maybe a Granny Smith to a Fuji. Because what is it that separate yoga from stretching?

The researchers do note that their results are preliminary and with a small cohort of people, and so more study is needed — and I say, more study along these lines would be great.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

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