New research from Harvard Medical School indicates that yoga may be as effective as conventional exercise in lowering the risk of heart disease. A review of yoga and cardiovascular disease was recently published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology and summarized on the Harvard Health Blog (“More than a stretch: Yoga’s benefits may extend to the heart,” April 2015). People from all age groups participated in the study and various kinds of yoga were reviewed. Overall, those who practiced yoga showed improvements in several factors that affect heart disease risk, such as weight and blood pressure.
Yoga’s combination of physical activity, breathing and meditation make it a winning pastime for retirees who want to improve their health and wellness but don’t want strenuous activity: Gentle stretching of the muscles can make them more sensitive to insulin; deep breathing may help lower blood pressure; meditation, meanwhile, relieves stress and promotes positive mental health and emotional well being. Yoga can even help people recovering from a heart attack with cardiac rehabilitation.
This study joins a growing body of evidence that points to yoga’s health benefits. Last year the Washington Post reported how “Yoga for seniors can help with balance, agility and strength. But injuries do happen” (August 2014). The article stressed the importance of practicing yoga with a skilled, experienced instructor. People with osteoporosis, for example, should work with a specially trained yoga instructor one-on-one rather than in a class. Seniors are more likely than any other age group to have preexisting conditions. Older adults are generally less mobile, less strong and have poorer balance—and need to be mindful of the negative side effects of yoga stretches on muscles and bones. Medicine and gerontology professor Gale A. Greendale led a study at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and found that yoga improved the condition known as hyperkyphosis, or “dowager’s hump.” However, 60% of the participants in the study (all aged over 60) developed musculoskeletal soreness and/or pain as a side effect.
But Greendale concluded that the benefits of yoga for seniors still outweigh the downsides. The key is to start at the right level and progress at a comfortable pace. As one rehabilitation expert puts it: If age and gravity are the “tartar” of our skeletal system, yoga is the postural “dental floss” which we should dedicate at least five minutes to twice a day. Add that to your list of daily health tips!