New study finds yoga may protect against frailty in mature adults

  • New research reveals that a type of exercise may help protect against frailty in older adults.
  • The practice helped participants have better mobility and leg strength.
  • Experts recommend that seniors make regular exercise a priority.

Staying active is important for overall health, but it can become more difficult as you age. With that, it’s important to find exercise routines that can support your health while improving other areas of your life.

Now, new scientific analysis from researchers at Harvard University suggests that yoga is a great option for helping older adults regain strength and improve mobility. The study, which was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, reviewed 33 studies involving 2384 participants over the age of 65. The researchers found that yoga – usually Hatha yoga which included Iyengar or chair-based methods – increased walking speed and the ability to rise from a chair. Both of these measures are linked to less brittleness and increased longevity.

Although yoga for the elderly is not a new concept, this is the first time that the effects of the practice have been measured against a multitude of different parameters that doctors use to define frailty in elderly patients. Researchers found that yoga was most closely linked to improved walking speed (slow walking speed is associated with a higher risk of death in older adults), as well as improved leg strength to help with things like being able to get up from a chair or bed. .

Note: Yoga doesn’t seem to impact balance as much, nor does it seem to impact grip strength (another marker of frailty).

“It is estimated that up to 50% of adults aged 80 or over are frail and the global prevalence is expected to increase given our aging population. We need more interventions to help with frailty,” says the study’s lead author, Julia Loewenthal, MD, a geriatrician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

“There are limited options for improving or preventing frailty,” says study co-author Ariela Orkaby, MD, MPH, director of frailty research in the Division of Aging at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and assistant professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. “We hope to identify strategies that can improve the health of older adults.”

So why might yoga be helpful for older adults, and what other low-impact exercises should older Americans consider? Here’s the deal.

Why could yoga be useful for seniors?

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) notes that yoga is becoming increasingly popular with older Americans, citing national survey data that shows nearly 7% of American adults age 65 and older practiced yoga in 2017, up from 3.3% in 2012.

The NCCIH emphasizes the importance of safety when older adults practice yoga, however, recommending older adults start with classes identified as “gentle” or older adults to seek individual counseling and learn correct form. The NCCIH also suggests chair yoga for seniors with limited mobility.

Research has found that yoga can be helpful for older people. Not only is it a gentle, low-impact form of exercise, but a small NCCIH study found that yoga practitioners had more gray matter in their brains than people who don’t practice yoga, regardless of their age. (Gray matter helps process information, including movement, memory, and emotions.) The researchers also found that certain brain regions increased in volume with the number of years of yoga practice and the frequency of practice per week.

Doctors say they have also seen the benefits of yoga in elderly patients. “These findings are completely consistent with what we’re seeing clinically,” says Alfred Tallia, MD, MPH, professor and chair of the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

“A lot of yoga involves stretching,” he explains. “We lose flexibility in our bodies as we age, and the stretching involved in many parts of yoga can help restore and maintain flexibility, which can reduce falls and other injuries.”

Yoga is also generally low-impact “meaning that many of the harmful consequences of high-impact aerobic activities like running are avoided while improving flexibility,” says Dr. Tallia.

“Most yoga sessions focus on lower extremity exercises, which can lead to lower extremity endurance,” says Ryan Glatt, CPT, director of the FitBrain program at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, Calif.

Yoga “also affects many different physiological systems in the body, which might explain why it helps with an overall measure like mobility or walking speed,” says Dr. Loewenthal. Yoga involves poses in a variety of positions like standing, sitting, lying down and even upside down and while standing it is possible to develop leg muscle strength and work on balance and coordination, points out- she. (His study did not find that yoga had a significant influence on balance, but many participants did chair yoga.)

“Transitions between positions provide some practice for doing these actions in the real world, like getting up from a chair,” says Dr. Loewenthal. “So while yoga practices generally don’t achieve the same aerobic exercise capacity as things like bicycling or swimming, there are many other benefits that can help older people function more efficiently in their lives. daily.”

How often should older Americans exercise?

Exercise recommendations for older Americans are similar to what public health experts suggest for young adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adults ages 65 and older need at least 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity activity such as brisk walking, or 75 minutes per week of vigorous-intensity activity such as hiking, jogging, or running. It’s also important to have at least two days a week of muscle-strengthening activities and to do activities that improve balance (like standing on one foot) three days a week, according to the CDC.

However, the CDC is keen to say that older adults should do their best to be as physically active as their abilities and conditions permit, noting that some physical activity is better than none.

What other exercises are good for seniors?

The National Institute on Aging (NIA) recommends older Americans focus on four types of exercise: endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility. Here’s what they offer for each:


  • Brisk walk or jog
  • garden work
  • Dancing
  • Swimming
  • Cycling
  • Climbing stairs or hills
  • Play tennis or basketball


  • Lifting weights
  • Transport groceries
  • Grab a tennis ball
  • Bending the arms above the head
  • arm loops
  • Wall pumps
  • Lift your body weight
  • Use a resistance band


  • tai chi
  • Standing on one foot
  • Heel-to-toe walking
  • The balance walk
  • Standing from a seated position


  • Stretch your back
  • Inner Thigh Stretches
  • Ankle stretches
  • Stretch the back of your legs

“My favorite exercise to recommend for older people is swimming,” says Dr. Tallia. “It combines many of the benefits of low impact, highly aerobic exercise with stretching and movement of all muscle groups and joints.”

Dr. Loewenthal says walking is a favorite form of exercise for many of his elderly patients. “But that’s not enough as we get older,” she says. “It’s really important to also work on strength, balance and flexibility. … It is very important to choose something that you enjoy doing and that touches on several elements of physical activity: endurance, strength, balance and flexibility.

When it comes to starting a new exercise routine as an older American, Dr. Tallia says it’s really best to check with your doctor first, especially if you have a chronic condition. . “Starting slowly will reduce the risk of injury or adverse reaction by giving the body a chance to adjust to the new movement and cardiovascular stresses,” he says. “But, ultimately, exercise is good and helps promote better functioning and longer life in older adults.”

Orkaby recommends staying in tune with your body as you train. “As a routine gets easier, consider changing the time interval and intensity,” she says. “Most importantly, pick an activity that’s enjoyable and you’re more likely to stick with it.”

Portrait of Korin Miller

Korin Miller is a freelance writer specializing in general wellness, health and sex, and lifestyle trends, with work appearing in Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Self, Glamour, and more. She has a master’s degree from American University, lives near the beach, and hopes to one day own a teacup pig and a taco truck.

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