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Yoga is actually an easy, simple practice that can be enjoyed by many, from toddler age and up. The benefits are so plentiful that yoga is now recognised as an alternative health therapy, alongside acupuncture and osteopathy, etc. Here we explore why yoga is so beneficial for older adults, and provide some top tips to help you get started so that you feel confident to roll out your mat.
Asana (yoga postures) or meditation, or a combination of the two, have been shown in studies to reduce pain in people suffering from arthritis, back pain, migraine, fibromyalgia, carpal tunnel syndrome, osteoporosis, and many more chronic conditions which the majority of us tend to suffer with as we age. Take chronic back pain as a further example, many studies have shown that yoga is comparable to that of standard exercise therapy in relieving lower back pain, and that just one weekly yoga session is shown to increase mobility more than the standard medical care for the condition. By relieving your pain through yoga, you may find that you need to take less pain medication, which in turn gives your liver a break, and could save you some money
Regular yoga practice can help you to reduce your blood pressure, another common problem that older adults tend to battle. Studies have shown that yoga has a pacifying effect on the entire nervous system and that Pranayama, the act of yogic breathing, encourages you to breathe deeper, therefore allowing blood to flow more easily through the vessels. This makes sense, as high blood pressure can sometimes be attributed to stress, and by adapting your breathing you can reduce your stress levels as well.
Yoga encourages the breath to slow and the body to relax, creating a shift from the sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight stress response) to the parasympathetic nervous system (rest and digest), which is calming and restorative. It is when the body is in the rest and digest state that it lowers the blood pressure and heart rate, and increases blood flow to the intestines and reproductive organs. Many yoga exercises, including cobra pose, cat-cow stretch pose, child pose, and triangle pose are known to reduce blood pressure and improve circulation. If these poses sound too complicated, don’t be discouraged, even simply lying in corpse pose (flat on the floor, feet falling comfortably to the sides and arms loose by your side) has been shown to reduce blood pressure in adults by up to 26 points in systolic blood pressure (the top number) and up to 15 points in diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) compared to lying or sitting on the sofa. The same study showed that the higher the initial blood pressure, the bigger the drop, simply from lying on the floor and focusing on the breath.
Alternatively, if you have low blood pressure, there are yoga exercises to help improve this condition as well, the spinal twist, chair pose, extended side angle pose, and camel pose are all recommended.
As mentioned above, various relaxation exercises you practice in yoga are shown to help your circulation, especially in your hands and feet. It literally gets your blood flowing. Yoga also helps you to get more oxygen into your cells, allowing for general improved function. Any inversion pose, such as downward facing dog, encourages blood to flow from the legs and pelvis area back to the heart, which pumps the blood to the lungs to be freshly oxygenated. This is especially helpful if you have any swelling in your ankles or legs from kidney or heart problems. Any twist exercise, such as triangle pose, is thought to ‘wring out’ venous blood from the internal organs and allow freshly oxygenated blood to flow in, once the twist is released. Even simply lying on the floor and putting your feet up against the wall with your legs as straight as possible encourages blood to flow away from swollen ankles.
Another major cause for concern as we age is the higher risk factor for heart attacks and strokes. Yoga boosts levels of red blood cells and hemoglobin, which carry oxygen to the tissues and thin the blood by making platelets less sticky, and by cutting the level of clot-promoting proteins in the blood, leading to a decrease in heart attacks and strokes (as blood clots can often be the cause of these).
As you practice yoga you tend to increase your heart rate, even if you are not undertaking a particularly challenging session. If you wish to actively improve your heart health, try aerobic yoga sessions such as ‘yoga flow’ or ‘Ashtanga’. However any yoga practice can improve cardiovascular conditioning, as it lowers the resting heart rate, can improve your maximum uptake of oxygen during exercise, and increases endurance. So if you prefer the idea of a slower, more gentle session, this will still benefit you in the long run.
As we grow older, the efficiency of the immune system deteriorates, leaving us susceptible to various diseases and infections. By contracting and stretching your muscles and by moving your organs around as you move from posture to posture, you increase lymphatic drainage, in turn boosting your immune system.
The lymphatic system is the body's network of vessels and nodes that circulates lymph, a transparent fluid rich in white blood cells that forms an important part of the body's immune system and helps remove toxins. The system pumps fluid through the body several times a minute, with assistance from the muscles. If the lymph nodes are damaged as a result of infection, trauma or surgery, the flow of lymph is disrupted and excess fluid builds up, causing tissues to swell and reducing the amount of oxygen available to the lymphatic system. This interferes with wound healing and increases the risk of infection. By staying active through yoga exercises, you encourage the fluid to keep pumping through your body, creating optimum function of the lymphatic system, helping it to fight infection, destroy cancerous cells and dispose of toxic waste products.
As we mentioned in our ‘Veganuary: would it have been worth it?’ blog, weight-bearing exercise can significantly improve bone and muscle health. As osteoporosis, arthritis and poor bone health are common conditions amongst older adults, weight-bearing exercise is particularly important to practice as we age. Stronger muscles also protect us from arthritis and back pain, and can help to prevent falls. Yoga is a great, gentle option for you if you are looking to improve your bone health and your strength, it involves many postures where you are lifting your own weight.
Some exercises such as downward-facing dog, upward-facing dog and cobra help to strengthen the arms, and poses such as tree pose and low lunge help to strengthen the legs and ankles, which are particularly vulnerable to osteoporotic fractures. By holding the postures over the course of several deep breaths helps to build muscular strength. Studies also show that yoga practice increases bone density in the vertebrae, once again proving that increased strength and flexibility in that area can help to prevent and relieve back pain.
Interestingly, Yoga also has the ability to lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which may lead to helping the body to keep calcium in the bones. If your cortisol levels are chronically high, it can extract calcium and other minerals from the bones and it can also interfere with the laying down of new bone, putting you at higher risk of osteoporosis.
As mentioned above, yoga helps to lower cortisol levels. High levels of cortisol are linked to depression, lower immune function, osteoporosis, undermining memory, and could even cause permanent changes in the brain. Additionally it has been known to increase blood pressure and lower insulin resistance, as well as contribute to weight gain, risk of diabetes and heart attack. By engaging in the deep breathing that yoga encourages, you regulate the amount of hormones secreted by the adrenals and keep the cortisol levels low.
While anxiety and depression may appear to be a young person’s problem as it has been linked to the overuse of social media, excess exposure to blue light through TV screens, phone screens, tablet screens, and so on, older adults can be just as susceptible to anxiety and depression, only for other reasons. Loneliness and isolation is a major factor affecting our mental health, along with physical health issues, chronic and severe pain and cognitive decline, damage to the body due to injury or sickness, and disability.
Anxiety can cause us to tense unnecessarily, some of us don’t even realise we are doing it, but this unconscious tensing of muscles can turn into a bad habit and leave us with chronic tension pains such as soreness in the wrists from gripping the phone or steering wheel too tight, or head, face and neck ache from scrunching our eyes at the computer screen or simply hunching our shoulders up all the time. Yoga can make us more aware of these tense areas and, over time, we can focus on relaxing them and in turn relax ourselves.
Studies have shown that a consistent yoga practice improves depression and leads to a significant increase in serotonin levels (the ‘happy hormone’). Not only that, but yoga is also shown to decrease levels of monoamine oxidase, an enzyme that breaks down neurotransmitters, and of course decreases cortisol. Yoga also slows down the mental loops of frustration, regret, anger, fear, and desire that can all cause stress. By learning how to quiet the mind, you can overcome these stressors and in the long run improve your response to stress and reduce depression.
Yoga can also be a social activity, so by joining a regular yoga class you would be engaging with like-minded people and getting yourself out and about, reducing any feelings of loneliness or isolation. It is said also that when you commit financially to something you are more inclined to stick with it – encouraging you to make it a regular practice – and practice is key, the most dramatic improvements of yoga for improving depression, and in fact for any of the above points, have been seen in people who are dedicated, long-term practitioners.
Another common complaint as we grow older is that our digestion tends to slow down. We are more prone to ulcers, irritable bowel syndrome, higher risk of bowel cancer, and flatulence and constipation. Moving the body in general facilitates more rapid transport of food and waste products through the bowels. Yoga involves lots of twisting movements, thought to be beneficial in getting waste through the system. Yoga also eases stress as mentioned above, and the less stressed we are, the less we may suffer in terms of digestion. There are some great postures that help specifically with digestion, butterfly pose helps to clear bowel movements, cat-cow stretch pose helps to massage the digestive organs therefore improving digestion, and wind relieving pose releases flatulence (hence the name).
A glorious side effect of a regular yoga practice is that our sleep improves. People who regularly practice yoga tend to start falling asleep more easily, and once they have fallen asleep, the quality of their sleep is much better. This is due to a higher awareness of the breath and an ability to use the breath to create a relaxed state, the physical effects of the time spent on the mat doing a thorough workout, and the mental benefits of reduced stress and anxiety.
If you struggle to get to sleep, yoga can actually be a great activity to do just before bed to encourage sleep. It is a great way to wind down after a busy day, or even just to switch your mind from ‘awake mode’ to ‘ready for sleep mode’. The practice of holding postures for a long period of time, mixed with relaxing music and a quiet, peaceful setting is a great recipe for a good night’s sleep. As mentioned above yoga helps to unwind the nervous system, it increases blood flow to the brain’s central sleep centre, and stimulates glands that are responsible for releasing the hormones that are essential to sleeping.
A common worry amongst older adults is the fear of falling - due to being off-balance (dysfunctional movement patterns), decreased muscle strength, poor bone density, and longer recovery time. Yoga has been shown to significantly improve balance. Better balance of course means fewer falls.
When yoga is practiced regularly, it increases proprioception, which is the ability to feel what your body is doing, and where it is in the surrounding space.
Yoga improves mental clarity and calmness which can also help to prevent the risk of falling, because awareness levels are heightened, coordination is improved, and reactions are faster.
As mentioned above yoga also improves bone and muscle strength, helping to prevent falls but also helping to protect the bones and improves the immune system, reducing recovery time, should a fall occur.
Older adults tend to suffer with stiff joints and reduced flexibility due to inactivity. This can lead to pain and immobility. Poor posture can also lead to knee problems and back pain.
Yoga is a fantastic, low impact activity that can reduce pain and reverse immobility, as it allows you to use your joints without risk of injury, and strengthens the muscles around the joints, lessening the load. Yoga includes various exercises such as back bends, forward bends, and twists, all which help to keep the disks in the spine supple. This is what helps to improve posture.
Yoga encourages you to move and stretch in new ways, it also takes the joints through their full range of motion, helping to prevent degenerative arthritis by engaging areas of cartilage that aren’t usually used. Think of joint cartilage as a sponge, it only receives fresh nutrients when its fluid is squeezed out and a new supply can be soaked up. When cartilage does not receive this fresh supply, it wears out exposing the bone underneath. This is why yoga has been shown time and time again through studies to improve, and in some cases reverse, arthritis and osteoporosis.
Diabetes is another battle for many older adults, as we struggle to maintain healthy blood sugar and cholesterol levels. Yoga has been shown to lower blood sugar levels and LDL, the bad cholesterol. It also has been found to increase HDL, the good cholesterol. Yoga lowers blood sugar in many ways, some of which have been mentioned above, through encouraging weight loss, by lowering cortisol levels and adrenaline levels, and improving sensitivity to insulin. When blood sugar levels are reduced, so is the risk of diabetes and diabetic complications such as heart attack, kidney failure, and blindness.
So it is safe to say that yoga is a great, low impact exercise, that everyone should be able to incorporate into their lives and see a huge benefit from a regular practice. We could go on about more benefits, such as more mindful eating, fighting sugar cravings, alleviating fatigue, but it is clear from the points covered above that everyone would benefit from a daily yoga practice, no matter how slow or short. In fact, studies have shown that on average, a person only has to practice yoga for 12 minutes per day, a few times a week, to experience the benefits listed. This should give you great peace of mind if you are thinking of giving it a try.
Chair yoga could be a great starting point for you if you are thinking of taking the plunge, especially if you have mobility problems or are feeling especially apprehensive. Chair yoga provides many of the same benefits as listed above, but gives you the support that you may feel you need at the beginning. Chair yoga increases flexibility, for example helping you to bend and reach your toes, helps alleviate body pain, tension and fatigue, relaxes the neck and back muscles, and helps co-ordinate body movements and improves sense of balance. There are some fantastic resources online, especially on youtube, where you can find free videos, some that are just 5 or 10 minutes long.
If you want to try the ‘real thing’, be sure to invest in a good quality yoga mat that will offer you the correct support. You want one that is thick enough to support your knees, but not so thick that there is little support for the wrists and ankles (think about the thickness of a gymnastics mat - that would be difficult to do yoga on). If you decide to try out a class at your local gym or leisure center they will provide mats, and you can ask the instructor for advice on purchasing your own.
To ensure that you get the most out of your yoga practice, it would be best for you to start in a class with a trained instructor. Yoga for older adults tends to focus on repeating certain movements and taking time to move efficiently, rather than holding postures for a certain length of time.
Be sure to consult your doctor before starting a new exercise regime.
References: Harvard Health / Yoga International / Verywellfit / The Telegraph / yogajournal.com / artofliving.com / Light on Yoga, B.K.S. Iyengar
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