Yoga classes can help older people strengthen their legs. A review of 33 small clinical trials found that older adults who participated in yoga programs generally improved lower body performance and increased walking speed, reports USNews.
Experts say the results show yoga can help older people deal with some of the limitations in strength and movement that can come with age. At the same time, according to lead researcher Dr. Julia Leventhal, a geriatrician at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, it is difficult to give concrete advice based on the study.
The trials varied in the groups they studied, she said: sometimes healthy older people living at home, sometimes residents of nursing homes, sometimes people with conditions like knee arthritis or Parkinson's disease.
The studies also differed in the style of yoga they used, Loewenthal said.
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Yoga is an ancient practice that combines physical postures, breathing practices and meditation. However, in the modern world, yoga classes vary greatly in style - some prefer vigorous physical practice that requires people to move quickly.
For older people who want to start yoga, classes based on Iyengar may be suitable. This style of yoga focuses on postures, can be adapted for individuals, and uses equipment such as blocks, chairs, and other supports to help people exercise.
Leventhal also recommended that older people with chronic conditions talk to their doctor before doing yoga.
The review, published March 14 in the Annals of Internal Medicine, looked at 33 clinical trials from different countries. Some older people are randomly assigned to participate in a yoga program, others have compared yoga to other activities such as tai chi or regular exercise.
For the most part, the trials were small and short-term, ranging from one to seven months.
Overall, Loewenthal's team found that older adults who practiced yoga tended to achieve increases in lower body strength and walking speed compared to their peers who remained inactive. In trials that compared yoga to other activities, there was no clear winner.
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“Yoga doesn’t seem to have any advantage over exercise or tai chi,” Loewenthal said. "We can't say if yoga offers any particular benefits."
Loss of leg strength and walking speed can be indicators of frailty—decreased strength and functioning of the body, which put older people at increased risk of disability, falls, and hospitalization. However, in the trials included in the review, weakness was not specifically measured, Leventhal said. Therefore, it is unclear whether yoga can help prevent or manage infirmity as such.
Dr. Neil Alexander is a specialist in geriatrics at the University of Michigan and director of the Ann Arbor Educational and Clinical Center for Geriatric Research.
He said the review was "well done" but the test data leaves too many unknowns to draw conclusions. One big missing piece, he says, is what exactly yoga practitioners have done to increase leg strength and walking speed.
"You don't know what they were working on," he said.
He noted that tai chi is now much better understood than yoga, and tai chi has been shown to help older people reduce their risk of falls. Tai chi focuses on slow, fluid movements combined with mental imagery and deep breathing. There is still a need for comparable yoga research, he added.
This does not mean, however, that older people should stay away from yoga. Neil practices Iyengar yoga himself. He agreed that this style could be a good starting point.
“You need an adaptive style of yoga,” he said. “You don’t need flow-based yoga as you move in and out of poses.”
And while you can easily find a yoga class on YouTube, Neil stressed the importance of teaching beginners in person where they can get professional attention.
“I tell people that they need to start with group classes,” he said.
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According to Leventhal, this creates a barrier in the form of cost. Yoga classes are not covered by insurance and can be expensive.
She encouraged seniors to look for places other than regular yoga studios, such as their local senior center, hospitals, or YMCA. They may offer classes that are designed for the elderly - inexpensive or even free.