- New research finds that one type of exercise can help protect against frailty in older adults.
- This practice helped the participants with better mobility and leg strength.
- Experts recommend that older adults make regular exercise a priority.
Staying active is important for overall health, but it can become more challenging as you age. With that said, it’s important to find exercise routines that can support your health while also improving other areas of your life.
Now, a new scientific analysis by Harvard researchers suggests that yoga is a great option for helping older adults regain strength and improve mobility. The study published in Annals of Internal Medicine, looked at 33 studies of 2,384 participants over the age of 65. Researchers found that yoga—usually hatha yoga that includes Iyengar or chair-based styles—increased walking speed and the ability to get up from a chair. Both measures are associated with decreased frailty and increased longevity.
While yoga for the elderly is not a new concept, this is the first time that the effects of the practice have been measured against the plethora of different measures that clinicians use to identify weakness in older patients. Researchers found that yoga was most associated with improving walking speed (a slower walking speed is associated with an increased risk of death in older adults), along with improving leg strength to help with things like the ability to get up from a chair or bed. .
Worth noting: Yoga doesn’t seem to have a significant effect on balance, and it also doesn’t seem to affect hand grip strength (another sign of weakness).
“It is estimated that up to 50% of adults aged 80 or over are vulnerable and global prevalence is expected to increase as our population ages. Lead study author Julia Lowenthal, MD, a geriatrician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and instructor in medicine at the College of Medicine, says. Harvard Medicine: “We Need More Interventions to Help Treat Weakness.”
“There are limited options for improving or preventing frailty,” notes study co-author Ariela Orkabe, MD, MPH, director of fragility research in the Department of Geriatrics 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 beneficial for seniors, and what other low-impact exercises should senior Americans consider? Here’s the deal.
Why might yoga be beneficial for the elderly?
The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) notes that yoga is becoming more popular among older Americans, citing nationwide survey data showing that nearly 7% of American adults ages 65 and older practiced yoga in 2017, compared to by 3.3% in 2012.
The NCCIH stresses the importance of safety when seniors practice yoga, however, recommending that people start with classes designated as “gentle” or that seniors get one-on-one counseling and learn proper form. NCCIH also suggests chair yoga for seniors with limited mobility.
Research has found that yoga can be beneficial for older adults. Not only is it a gentle, low-impact form of exercise, a small study from the NCCIH found that yoga practitioners have more gray matter in their brains than people who don’t do yoga, regardless of their age. (Gray matter helps process information, including movement, memory, and emotions.) The researchers also found that the volume of certain regions of the brain increases with the number of years a person has been practicing yoga and the number of times a week they have been doing it.
Doctors say they’ve also seen yoga benefits in older patients. “These findings are completely consistent with what we see clinically,” says Alfred Talia, MD, MPH, professor and chair of the department of family and community medicine 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 stretches involved in many parts of yoga can help restore and maintain flexibility reducing falls and other injuries.”
Yoga is also typically low-impact “meaning that many of the negative consequences of high-impact aerobic activities such as running are avoided while enhancing flexibility,” says Dr. Talia.
“Most yoga focuses on lower-limb exercises — which can lead to lower-limb endurance,” says Ryan Glatt, director of the FitBrain Program at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, California.
Yoga also “touches many different physiological systems in the body, which may explain why it helps with an overall measurement such as movement or walking speed,” says Dr. Lowenthal. She points out that yoga includes poses in a variety of positions such as standing, sitting, lying down, and even upside down, and in a standing position, there is the potential to build muscle strength in the legs and work on balance and coordination. (Her study didn’t find yoga to have a significant effect on balance, but many of the participants did yoga exercises.)
says d. Lowenthal: “Transitions between positions provide some practice for doing these actions in the real world, like liking standing up from a chair.” “So while yoga practices usually don’t reach the same aerobic capacity as things like cycling or swimming, there are plenty of other benefits that may help older adults function more efficiently in their daily lives.”
How often should older Americans exercise?
Exercise recommendations for older Americans are similar to what public health experts suggest for younger adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adults age 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 or jogging. or run. The CDC says it’s also important to have at least two days a week of muscle-strengthening activities and to do activities that improve balance (such as standing on one foot) three days a week.
However, the CDC notes that older adults should do their best to be as physically active as abilities and circumstances allow, noting that some physical activity is better than none.
What other exercises are useful for the elderly?
The National Institute on Aging (NIA) recommends that older Americans focus on four types of exercise — endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility. Here’s what they suggest for each:
- brisk walking or jogging
- work apron
- Bike riding
- Climbing stairs or hills
- Play tennis or basketball
- Weight lifting
- Carry groceries
- Catch a tennis ball
- Upper arm curl
- arm curl
- Wall push-up
- Lift your body weight
- using a resistance band
- tai chi
- Stand on one foot
- Walking from heel to toe
- Balance walk
- Standing up from a sitting position
- Stretch your back
- Inner thigh extends
- Ankle extends
- Stretch the back of your legs
“My favorite exercise that I recommend for seniors is swimming,” says Dr. Talia. “This combines many of the benefits of high-impact, low-impact aerobic exercise with stretching and movement of all muscle and joint groups.”
Dr. Loewenthal says that walking is the preferred form of exercise for many of her older patients. “But it’s not enough as we get older,” she says. “It’s really important to work on strength, balance, and flexibility. … It’s critical that you choose something you love to do that touches on multiple elements of physical activity—endurance, strength, balance, and flexibility.”
When it comes to taking on a new exercise routine as an older American, Dr. Talia says it’s really best to check with your doctor first, especially if you have a chronic condition. “Starting slowly will reduce the chances of injury or a negative response by giving the body a chance to adjust to the new movement and cardiovascular stressors,” he says. “But the bottom line is that exercise is good and helps promote better performance and a longer life in older people.”
Orkaby recommends staying in tune with your body during exercise. “When the routine becomes easy, consider changing the interval and intensity,” she says. “Most importantly, choose an activity that you enjoy and are more likely to stick with.”
Corinne Miller is a freelance writer specializing in general wellness, sexual and relationship health, and lifestyle trends, with work appearing in Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Self, Glamor, and more. She has a master’s degree from American University, lives on the beach, and hopes to own a cup of tea and a taco truck one day.