It’s been called a religion, a practice, and the world’s oldest form of exercise. Now it’s being studied academically for its anti-aging abilities.
Practiced as early as 3300 BC, the ancient discipline of yoga is seeing renewed research focus as scholars seek the key to graceful aging.
According to a recent study in the journal Advances in Geriatric Medicine and Research, new studies are taking a more disciplined approach to study the positive impacts of yoga by conducting rigorous analyses, including larger sample sizes, and engineering studies with better designs. Collectively, these studies show that yoga has positive effects on cellular aging, mobility, balance, mental health, and cognitive decline — in short, it can slow all of the factors that can combine to make aging so uncomfortable, disruptive, and deadly.
Yoga: A Short Primer
Yoga is a group of physical, mental, and spiritual practices that originated in ancient India. These practices were aimed at stilling the mind and recognizing the benefits of detached consciousness. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism all have traditional forms of yoga, although its exact origins remain unclear. While the practice has decided Eastern roots, today yoga is embraced and practiced by people of all backgrounds all over the world.
Yoga is gaining popular traction among people of advanced age, and those of limited mobility, as much of it can be done in a seated or reclined position, has minimal strength requirements, can have minimal time requirements, and has almost zero requirements for equipment or space.
Yoga is also popular because those who practice it say it has a wide range of benefits. Self-reported benefits of yoga include increased flexibility, increased muscle strength, improved muscle tone, improved respiration, increased energy, improved vitality, protection from injury, weight loss, maintenance of a balanced metabolism, and more.
Yoga Counteracts the Aging Process
In a study published this summer, Madhivanan, et al., cited recent research that supported the hypothesis that yoga counteracts the aging processes. This included a study that found that a 12-week course including classic yoga postures, breathing exercises, and meditation was associated with positive changes in the levels of biomarkers of cellular aging, including 8-OH2dG, which is a product of DNA damage. Other positive changes included improvements in oxidative stress markers and in telomeres, which are the cellular blocks that shorten with each cell replication.
Studies have also described the impact of long-term yoga on connectivity between the prefrontal and posterior cortex of the brain, which impacts working memory, spatial attention, and decision making. These studies cite evidence that showed that older women who practice yoga for at least eight years had better functional brain connectivity than those who had not engaged in yoga. A separate study found that a 90-day yoga and meditation retreat was associated with reductions in brain-derived neurotrophic factor, hypothalamic-pituitary axis activity, and increased IL-10 and decreased IL-12 indicators of lower overall inflammatory activity, which is associated with premature aging.
Results of a Three-Month Yoga and Meditation Retreat
In a 2017 study published in Frontiers of Human Neuroscience, Cahn, et al. described the results from participants in a three-month yoga and meditation retreat. Each person was assessed before and after the events for a variety of psychometric measures, brain-derived neurotrophic factors (BDNF), circadian salivary cortisol levels, and pro and anti-inflammatory cytokines.
“Participation in the retreat was found to be associated with decreases in self-reported anxiety and depression as well as increases in mindfulness,” the authors wrote, adding that there were a host of other anti-aging benefits, including:
Increases in the plasma levels of BDNF and increases in the magnitude of the cortisol awakening response (CAR).
The normalized change in BDNF levels was inversely correlated with BSI-18 anxiety scores at both the pre-retreat and post-retreat such that those with greater anxiety scores tended to exhibit smaller pre to post-retreat increases in plasma BDNF levels.
Plasma levels of the anti-inflammatory cytokine Interleukin-10 increased and the pro-inflammatory cytokine Interleukin-12 levels fell.
Contrary to the initial hypotheses, plasma levels of other pro-inflammatory cytokines, including Interferon Gamma (IFN-γ), Tumor Necrosis Factor (TNF-α), Interleukin-1β (IL-1β), Interleukin-6 (IL-6), and Interleukin-8 (IL-8) were increased after the retreat.
“Given evidence from previous studies of the positive effects of meditative practices on mental fitness, autonomic homeostasis, and inflammatory status, we hypothesize that these findings are related to the meditative practices throughout the retreat,” the authors wrote. “However, some of the observed changes may also be related to other aspects of the retreat such as physical exercise-related components of the yoga practice and diet. We hypothesize that the patterns of change observed here reflect mind-body integration and well-being. The increased BDNF levels observed are a potential mediator between meditative practices and brain health, the increased CAR is likely a reflection of increased dynamic physiological arousal, and the relationship of the dual enhancement of pro and anti-inflammatory cytokine changes to healthy immunologic functioning.”
Is Yoga a Right Fit for Your Anti-Aging Wellness Plan?
Researchers note that everyone, especially those of advanced age, should consult with their physician before starting a new exercise routine. That said, yoga has been shown scientifically to have a wide range of anti-aging benefits. You may find you see an increase in mobility, a reduced risk of slipping and falling, protection against cognitive decline, increased strength and flexibility, and improved sleep and mental wellbeing. Plus, those benefits were not found just in hard-core adherents — the Madhivanan, et al. study noted that “the typical intervention is of moderate duration, around 45 minutes per week for eight to 12 weeks.”
“The range of intervention types and difficulty levels provide the opportunity for almost anyone to participate and gain health benefits,” they noted.
Wondering how to get started with yoga? Many community groups hold yoga classes, and YouTube and other sites are chock full of tutorials and instructional videos.
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