Sedentary older adults who began practicing hatha yoga three times a week for eight weeks experienced a boost in working memory, according to a new study by the University of Illinois.
The research, published in The Journals of Gerontology Series: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, is one of the first studies to investigate the effects of yoga movement on the cognitive processes.
“Hatha yoga requires focused effort in moving through the poses, controlling the body and breathing at a steady rate,” said study leader and doctoral student Neha Gothe, who conducted the study with University of Illinois professor Edward McAuley.
“It is possible that this focus on one’s body, mind, and breath during yoga practice may have generalized to situations outside of the yoga classes, resulting in an improved ability to sustain attention.”
For the study, researchers observed 108 adults between the ages of 55 and 79, 61 of whom attended hatha yoga classes. The rest of the participants participated in stretching and toning exercises (but no yoga) for the same number and length of sessions. At the end of eight weeks, the group that practiced yoga three times a week performed better on cognitive tests than they did before yoga classes started.
On the other hand, the group that did the stretching and toning exercises saw no significant change in cognitive performance over time. This was still true after researchers factored in for age, gender, social status, or other similar factors.
The yoga participants displayed significant improvements in working memory capacity. “They were also able to perform the task at hand quickly and accurately, without getting distracted,” said McAuley. “These mental functions are relevant to our everyday functioning, as we multitask and plan our day-to-day activities.”
Previous studies have shown that yoga can offer immediate positive psychological effects by lowering depression, anxiety, and stress. “These studies suggest that yoga has an immediate quieting effect on the sympathetic nervous system and on the body’s response to stress,” said Gothe.
“Since we know that stress and anxiety can affect cognitive performance, the eight-week yoga intervention may have boosted participants’ performance by reducing their stress.”
“The study results are preliminary and involved a short-term intervention,” said the researchers. More research is needed to confirm the findings and uncover the underlying brain mechanisms.
This article first appeared on ‘Psych Central’ on 23 August 2014.