New study finds yoga may protect against frailty in mature adults

  • New research shows that one type of exercise may help protect against frailty in older adults.
  • The exercise helped participants gain better mobility and leg strength.
  • Experts recommend that older adults make regular exercise a priority.

Staying active is important for overall health, but it can become more challenging as you age. That’s why it’s important to find exercise routines that can support your health while improving other aspects of your life.

Now, a new scientific analysis from researchers at Harvard University suggests that yoga is a great option for helping seniors regain strength and improve their mobility. The study, which was published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, looked at 33 studies of 2,384 participants over the age of 65. The researchers found that yoga — usually Hatha yoga with Iyengar or chair-based methods — increased walking speed and the ability to get up from a chair. Both metrics are linked to less vulnerability and longer lifespan.

While yoga for seniors isn’t a new concept, this is the first time the practice’s effects have been measured against a slew of different metrics doctors use to define frailty in older patients. The researchers found that yoga was most closely associated with improved walking speed (slow walking speed is associated with a higher risk of death in older adults), along with improved leg strength to help with things like being able to get up from a chair or bed. .

Worth noting: Yoga didn’t seem to affect balance as much, nor did it seem to affect grip strength (another sign of frailty).

“Up to 50% of adults aged 80 and over are estimated to be frail and global prevalence is expected to rise as our population ages. We need more interventions to help with frailty,” said lead study author Julia Loewenthal, MD, a geriatrician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an instructor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

“There are limited opportunities to improve or prevent frailty,” said study co-author Ariela Orkaby, MD, MPH, director of frailty research in the division of aging at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. . “We hope to identify strategies that can improve the health of older adults.”

So, why might yoga be helpful for seniors, and what other low-impact exercises should older Americans consider? Here’s the deal.

Why might yoga be useful for seniors?

The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) notes that yoga is growing in popularity among older Americans, citing nationwide survey data showing that nearly 7% of US adults age 65 and older practiced yoga in 2017, compared to 3 .3% in 2012.

However, the NCCIH emphasizes the importance of safety when older adults practice yoga, recommending that people start with classes identified as “gentle” or for seniors to get personalized advice and learn proper form. The NCCIH also suggests chair yoga for seniors with limited mobility.

Research has shown that yoga can be beneficial for seniors. Not only is it a gentle, low-impact form of exercise, a small study from the NCCIH found that yoga practitioners had more gray matter in their brains compared to people who don’t practice yoga, regardless of age. (Gray matter helps with information processing, including movement, memory and emotions.) The researchers also found that the volume of certain brain regions increased with the number of years a person practiced yoga and how many times they practiced per week.

Doctors say they have also seen the benefits of yoga in elderly patients. “These findings are completely consistent with what we see clinically,” said Alfred Tallia, MD, MPH, professor and chair of the division of family medicine and community health at Robert Wood Johnson Medical School.

“A lot of yoga involves stretching,” he explains. “We lose flexibility in our bodies as we age, and the stretching involved in many parts of yoga can help restore and maintain flexibility, which can reduce falls and other injuries.”

Yoga is also typically low-impact “meaning it avoids many of the ill effects of high-impact aerobic activities like running while increasing flexibility,” says Dr. Tallia.

“Most yoga focuses on lower extremity exercises — which can lead to lower extremity endurance,” says Ryan Glatt, CPT, director of the FitBrain Program at the Pacific Neuroscience Institute in Santa Monica, California.

Yoga also “touches many different physiological systems in the body, which could explain why it helps with general measures such as mobility or gait speed,” says Dr. Loewenthal. Yoga involves poses in a variety of positions, such as standing, sitting, reclining, and even upside down, and in a standing position there’s the potential to build muscle strength in the legs and work on balance and coordination, she explains. (Her study didn’t find that yoga had a significant impact on balance, but many of the participants did chair yoga.)

“The transitions between positions provide some practice for performing these actions in the real world, such as getting up from a chair,” says Dr. Loewenthal. “So while yoga practices don’t usually achieve the same aerobic exercise capacity as things like cycling or swimming, there are many other benefits that can help older people function more efficiently in their daily lives.”

How Often Should Older Americans Exercise?

Exercise recommendations for older Americans are similar to what public health experts suggest for younger adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), adults age 65 and older need at least 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity, such as brisk walking, or 75 minutes a week of vigorous activity, such as walking, jogging, or running. run. It’s also important to have muscle-strengthening activities at least two days a week and do activities that improve balance (such as standing on one foot) three days a week, the CDC says.

However, the CDC makes a point of saying that older adults should do their best to be as physically active as their abilities and circumstances allow, noting that some physical activity is better than none.

What other exercises are good for seniors?

The National Institute on Aging (NIA) recommends that older Americans focus on four types of exercise: endurance, strength, balance and flexibility. Here’s what they suggest for each:


  • Brisk walking or jogging
  • Work in the garden
  • Dancing
  • Swimming
  • Misuse
  • Climb stairs or climb hills
  • Play tennis or basketball


  • weightlifting
  • Carrying groceries
  • Grabbing a tennis ball
  • Arm curls above the head
  • Arm curls
  • Push ups on the wall
  • Lifting your body weight
  • Using a resistance band


  • Tai Chi
  • Standing on one foot
  • The walk from heel to toe
  • The balance walk
  • Standing from a seated position


  • Stretch your back
  • The inner thigh stretches
  • Ankle stretches
  • Stretch the back of your legs

“My favorite exercise to recommend for older people is swimming,” says Dr. Tallia. “This combines many of the benefits of low-impact, highly aerobic exercise with stretching and movement of all muscle groups and joints.”

Dr. Loewenthal says walking is a preferred form of exercise for many of her older patients. “But it’s not enough as we get older,” she says. “It is very important to also work on strength, balance and flexibility. …It is very important to choose something that you enjoy doing and that touches on multiple elements of physical activity: endurance, strength, balance and flexibility.”

When it comes to adopting a new exercise routine as an older American, Dr. Tallia that it really is best to check in with your doctor first, especially if you have a chronic condition. “Starting slow reduces the chance of injury or an adverse reaction by giving the body a chance to adjust to the new movement and cardiovascular stress,” he says. “But the bottom line is that exercise is good and helps promote better functioning and longer life in the elderly.”

Orkaby recommends staying in tune with your body while you exercise. “If a routine gets easy, consider changing the time interval and intensity,” she says. “The most important thing is that you choose an activity that’s fun and you’re more likely to stick with it.”

Korin Miller is a freelance writer specializing in general wellness, sexual health and relationships, and lifestyle trends, with work appearing in Men’s Health, Women’s Health, Self, Glamor and more. She has a master’s degree from American University, lives on the beach, and hopes to one day own a teacup pig and a taco truck.

Leave a Comment