Cardiologist Dean Ornish, M.D., made headlines with his claim that yoga and meditation when combined with improvements in diet and exercise habits, could reverse heart disease. Since then, research into the health benefits of yoga, especially its effect on adults 50-plus, has exploded. Here are some reasons to practice yoga as you age:
“Yoga has a powerful effect on stress and hypertension and can help people reduce the amount of medication they need,” says Amy Wheeler, yoga professor at California State University at San Bernardino. In a review of 17 studies published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, researchers reported significant reductions in blood pressure for interventions incorporating three basic elements of yoga practice: postures, meditation, and breathing. Researchers speculate that the slow, controlled breathing inherent in yoga practice decreases nervous system activity, which helps manage blood pressure levels.
“People in their 50s often develop the beginning stages of osteoporosis and low bone density,” notes Melinda Atkins, a yoga teacher in Miami. Studies consistently show that the weight-bearing activity of yoga helps slow bone thinning, reducing the risks of osteoporosis, particularly among postmenopausal women.
Keep excess pounds at bay
Yoga enhances concentration and determination in all aspects of life. Practicing it every day “improves willpower and shifts your focus toward wellness rather than instant gratification,” says Larry Payne, yoga director at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. In a 2014 study out of India, published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, researchers reported that people with diabetes who did yoga 3-6 days per week for 8 weeks, shed more pounds and inches than those who walked for the same time period.
Yoga induces the relaxation response, an alpha state between awake and asleep that helps modulate the way the body responds to stress. When faced with a potential threat (or ongoing stress), your heart beats faster, your muscles tense and you start to sweat. Yoga stops this process in its tracks, reducing your heart rate, lowering blood pressure and easing respiration. Case in point: A 2015 study published in the Journal of Complementary and Alternative Medicine reported that women who participated in a 60-minute yoga class twice a week reported greater reductions in anxiety after the 8-week study period compared to those who didn’t participate.
Protect your joints
During your late 50s and early 60s, you may begin to notice that your joints aren’t as fluid as they used to be. Practicing yoga regularly can help lubricate joints, staving off debilitating disorders like carpal tunnel syndrome and arthritis. “It’s important to start caring for your joints, to help maintain your independence and preserve your ability to perform daily activities as you get older — things like brushing your teeth, combing your hair, getting dressed,” says Wheeler. Yin yoga, a type of practice where poses are held for up to 20 minutes, may be especially beneficial for lubricating and nourishing the joints.