Evidence shows yoga may protect against frailty

New research has uncovered a previously unknown fountain of youth, but it might require you to stretch yourself a little.

Earlier this month, the Annals of Internal Medicine published its findings from 33 randomized, controlled studies of 2,384 participants over the age of 65. The researchers determined that yoga, a multicomponent mind-body practice, improves several aspects of physical and psychological health and could decrease frailty in older adults.

The over 3,000-year-old tradition has been regarded in modern culture as a holistic approach. In the medical world, its benefits have become more prominent, with the National Institutes of Health classifying yoga as a form of complementary and alternative medicine, according to the National Library of Medicine. The results of these latest studies are a promising sign of how the practice could enhance the physical and cognitive health of aging adults, Julia Loewenthal, MD, Aging/Geriatrics, Internal Medicine for Brigham and Women’s Hospital, told The Harvard Gazette. Loewenthal was one of the authors who reviewed the 33 studies on yoga and aging.

“(Yoga) may be helpful to get involved in a healthy practice like this at a younger age, but with that said, we still saw clinically meaningful results in an older population, " Loewenthal said. “It’s never too late to start a yoga practice or exercise regimen to help with your overall health status in your later years.”

The trials examined how the study subjects were affected by yoga-based interventions, including at least one session of physical postures on a frailty scale that included markers such as walking speed, balance, handgrip strength, and endurance. Yoga styles were primarily based on Hatha yoga and most often included prop-based Iyengar or chair-based methods.

The study population included individuals from myriad backgrounds and living experiences, including those living with chronic disease, community dwellers, and nursing home residents.

The study design, yoga style, and small sample sizes of older adults could limit the implications of the findings. In the future, the researchers hope to use other measures to determine frailty and begin studying the subjects at younger ages. The average age of participants was 72.

“There’s a potential for movement-based mind-body practices to be really helpful for promoting healthy aging over the lifespan because they provide a physical and cognitive health benefit, but also because they have a spillover effect that can lead to having a healthier lifestyle overall,” Loewenthal said.