Staying aerobically fit, and sticking to an exercise routine like running, is good for your brain and overall health. But new research points towards yoga as another option for those who want to protect their brains from Alzheimer’s — and who may enjoy physical activity that’s a bit more calm.
Yoga — the ancient practice originating in India that incorporates stretching, flexibility, strength and mindfulness — may keep the brain healthy, boost memory and lower the risk of neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s, according to a new review of 11 studies.
Because many studies about yoga’s brain benefits have been inconclusive, the researchers of the review aimed to examine the connection between yoga and brain health in the hopes of coming to a more solid conclusion.
Aerobic Exercise and the Brain
It’s well established that aerobic exercise — like running, swimming or anything that gets your heart rate up — may be one of the single most important things you can do for your brain and body health. Exercise is known to stimulate neurons, reduce the risk of dementia and even slow down the aging process.
Wendy Suzuki, a neuroscientist at New York University, says that even mild to moderate exercise can reduce your risk of dementia by 30 percent. In a past Being Patient interview, Suzuki referred to a study that found the most intensely active women had the lowest chances of developing dementia.
“If you were high-fit, you were 90 percent less likely to have developed dementia,” Suzuki said. “That tells me that in the range of exercise that’s attainable — these are not Olympic athletes here — we can change our probability of getting dementia by between 30 percent with walking and 90 percent with being a high-fit person.”
Yoga’s Effect on Alzheimer’s
Though aerobic exercise and fitness has largely been studied in the context of neurodegenerative diseases, researchers haven’t focused as much specifically on yoga. This newest analysis provides further evidence that yoga may also have memory-saving effects on the brain.
In five of the 11 studies, participants without any yoga background took yoga sessions every week for 10-24 weeks. Researchers compared their brain health before and after those 10-24 weeks of yoga sessions. In the other studies, researchers measured brain changes in people who do yoga regularly, and compared them to those who don’t.
The researchers concluded that overall, yoga appeared to cause beneficial brain changes in the hippocampus, which is linked to memory, as well as the amygdala, which regulates emotions. The study also showed that yoga kept the prefrontal cortex, cingulate cortex and default mode network larger as well.
“From these 11 studies, we identified some brain regions that consistently come up, and they are surprisingly not very different from what we see with exercise research,” Neha Gothe, kinesiology and community health professor at the University of Illinois and an author of the study, said in a news release.
“For example, we see increases in the volume of the hippocampus with yoga practice,” Gothe continued, noting that it’s this particular region of the brain that’s associated with memory and “is first affected in dementia and Alzheimer’s research.”
As a person ages, the hippocampus and amygdala tend to shrink. If yoga keeps those regions larger, it may protect against cognitive impairment later on.
Gothe still wants to understand how exactly yoga is benefiting the brain. “Yoga is not aerobic in nature, so there must be other mechanisms leading to these brain changes,” she said. “So far, we don’t have the evidence to identify what those mechanisms are.”
One possibility, however, is that yoga is able to reduce stress, which in turn has a positive effect on brain health. In previous research, Gothe found that people who did yoga for eight weeks had a lower cortisol response to stress, and performed better on decision-making and attention tests.
“The practice of yoga helps improve emotional regulation to reduce stress, anxiety and depression,” Gothe said. “And that seems to improve brain functioning.”
The researchers’ goal is to further study yoga’s impact on the brain. But for now it’s safe to say that incorporating some yoga into your physical activity may benefit both your brain and body.