It’s clear that aerobic exercise has brain health benefits. Unfortunately, not everyone is willing to lace up their walking or running shoes, launch into a HIIT workout, or take a run, to get the cognitive perks that aerobic workouts offer.
Hitting the road for a long jog also isn’t the best option if you have joint issues that make high-impact activities risky. Still, everyone needs the heart-healthy benefits that exercise that boosts the heart rate offers. Could yoga be an alternative to aerobic exercise for preserving brain health?
The Power of Yoga
What exactly is yoga? It is a traditional Indian technique that combines physical motions, meditation, and breathing exercises to unite the mind, body, and spirit. Yoga is popular in contemporary society because it stretches the muscles and relaxes the mind. These are benefits that most people enjoy because it relaxes the body while it enhances muscle endurance, flexibility, and balance.
Yoga continues to grow in popularity and is safe for people of all ages. In fact, it’s the most popular complementary health practice among adults in the United States and it’s soothing to mind, body, and soul. Who doesn’t feel more relaxed and flexible after a yoga workout? It’s not a substitute for strength training, but it offers substantial benefits for the mind and body.
Beyond Flexibility: The Benefits of Yoga for Brain Health
It’s clear that yoga boosts flexibility and relieves stress, but is there evidence that yoga is beneficial for brain health too? Who isn’t concerned about slowing cognitive aging? It’s something that affects everyone to varying degrees. The question is whether yoga can slow the gradual decline in brain function that takes place as the decades go by.
One of the best ways to look at whether something has benefits is a metanalysis, an analysis of multiple studies looking at the same thing. These studies have an advantage as they look at many studies rather than a single one.
One meta-analysis of 11 studies showed that yoga practice reduces the odds of developing neurodegenerative illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, although more research is needed. Yoga postures help with focus, attention, alleviating mental tiredness, and enhancing self-awareness and memory recall. Those are powerful benefits.
Other studies in humans show that yoga has a moderate impact on measures of attention, processing speed, and executive function. All of these are important for brain health and function. Plus, some studies show that yoga practice increases the volume of regions of the brain, particularly the hippocampus, a structure important in memory and cognitive function.
Another study revealed that frequent yoga practitioners have a thicker cortex and more gray matter volume and density in regions of the brain associated with cognition than did non-yoga practitioners. Gray matter volume is also affected by years of yoga practice. Another perk: Regular yoga practice improves communication between different parts of the brain. Additionally, research indicates that yoga practice may help preserve brain cells from injury and damage.
Why Yoga Has Brain Health Benefits
It’s not clear why yoga is beneficial for brain health. One reason could be the stress-relieving aspects of yoga. Long-term, uncontrolled stress isn’t healthy for any organ of your body, and that includes the brain. Yoga teaches mindfulness, a meditation-like state of active awareness that helps people focus on the present moment while tuning out distractions. Keeping the mind focused on the present without judgment is an excellent stress reliever since it’s hard to worry about the past or future when you’re immersed in the present.
With yoga, you master breathing techniques that help with stress management. Breathing properly activates the vagus nerve, a major nerve involved in the rest-and-relaxation component of the nervous system. Yoga also creates awareness of breath. The breathing patterns you learn with yoga, called pranayama, are exercises you can do any time to manage anxiety and promote calmness. Breathing in a slow controlled manner is one of the quickest non-pharmaceutical ways to relieve stress.
Yoga Lowers Stress Hormones Too
Yoga may also reduce the stress hormone cortisol. When cortisol is high, it’s harmful to the brain, bone, and immune health. One study found that men who did yoga stretches experienced a drop in cortisol. Not surprising since this is consistent with the stress-relieving, relaxational effects of yoga. When cortisol is high and it’s sustained, it has other negative effects on health, including bone and muscle breakdown and immune suppression.
The relaxational benefits of yoga also help with sleep and high-quality sleep is a factor in preserving brain health and cognition. Studies in mice show that during sleep special channels called g-lymphatics remove damaged proteins from the brain. These are the same proteins that build up in the brains of people with Alzheimer’s disease. The activity of the g-lymphatics is like a clean-up for the brain, so it can eliminate damaged proteins that interfere with healthy brain function. Anything that helps you get a better night’s sleep is beneficial for brain health.
The Bottom Line
There is evidence that yoga is healthy for your brain because it reduces stress, but it may positively affect brain health in ways scientists aren’t aware of yet. With all the other health and fitness benefits of yoga, a boost in brain health is just another benefit to add to the list. Enjoy your yoga workouts and know that it could give your brain a boost too. Yoga workouts are an ideal way to balance out more intense strength training and aerobic workouts and help you recover mentally and physically from more intense training.
Eda N, Ito H, Akama T. Beneficial Effects of Yoga Stretching on Salivary Stress Hormones and Parasympathetic Nerve Activity. J Sports Sci Med. 2020;19(4):695-702. Published 2020 Nov 19.
Ghaffarilaleh G, Ghaffarilaleh V, Sanamno Z, Kamalifard M, Alibaf L. Effects of Yoga on Quality of Sleep of Women With Premenstrual Syndrome. Altern Ther Health Med. 2019 Sep;25(5):40-47. PMID: 31221931.
“Yoga for Sleep | Johns Hopkins Medicine.”.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/wellness-and-prevention/yoga-for-sleep.
“Yoga for better mental health – Harvard Health.” 18 May. 2021, health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/yoga-for-better-mental-health.
Crotty GF, Schwarzschild MA. Chasing Protection in Parkinson’s Disease: Does Exercise Reduce Risk and Progression? Front Aging Neurosci. 2020 Jun 19;12:186. doi: 10.3389/fnagi.2020.00186. PMID: 32636740; PMCID: PMC7318912.
“Yoga, meditation may reduce dementia risk.” 11 May. 2016, https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/310148.
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