As populations age globally, there is an increasing emphasis on healthy ageing, preventive medicine, and achieving wellbeing through lifestyle changes. Many of the health problems experienced by older adults can be prevented or delayed through a physically active lifestyle. Research in elderly populations shows that regular physical activity can benefit mobility, pain, mental health, and increase autonomy and life satisfaction. Despite these known benefits, an estimated 50-60% of adults aged ≥60 do not meet recommended physical activity levels4 (i.e., ≥150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity per week5).
Yoga is a popular form of physical activity with several health benefits relevant to older adults, including improved balance and mobility, cardio-metabolic health, cognition, sleep quality and quality of life. Yoga practice has also been associated with improvements in mood and mental health. These benefits are relevant as healthy ageing does not merely correspond to longevity but is also indicated by life satisfaction and overall ‘wellbeing’.
Subjective wellbeing is a measure of how individuals evaluate their own lives, and may be described in terms of life satisfaction. According to a recent survey of more than 2400 yoga participants, general wellbeing is a key motivation both initiating and continuing yoga practice. Moreover, the importance of subjective wellbeing is increasingly recognised in ageing-research, and is closely linked to health and quality of life in elderly populations. While previous yoga studies have tended to focus on the physical domains of health-related quality of life, its effects on the broader construct of life satisfaction remain unclear.
With a holistic focus that includes both physical and mental wellbeing, yoga could be a suitable activity for older adults who find aerobic exercise (AE) difficult due to musculoskeletal injuries or other health problems. No trials to date have compared the effects of yoga and AE on subjective wellbeing in physically inactive but otherwise healthy older adults. Such comparisons were needed as older adults constitute a large and growing segment of the population that requires updated information about the relative benefits and possible risks associated with different forms of physical activity.
To address these gaps, a study was conducted with a randomized controlled trial (RCT) to examine the effects on wellbeing of a 12-week yoga program in physically inactive adults aged 65 to 85 years. This intervention was compared to structured AE and a non-active control group.
In total, 82 adults (mean age 72.5 years, range 65–85, 77% female) were recruited. Of these, 27 were randomized to yoga, 29 to aerobic exercise and 26 to wait-list control. The 60-minute classes were designed for older adults by an experienced (>15 years) yoga instructor. Classes were offered at least three times/week and typically included between three and nine participants. The intervention was based on Hatha yoga, which consists of gentle physical postures (asanas) plus breathing exercises and is considered suitable for older adults39. Opening postures included: Cat/Cow pose, Mountain pose and Partial Sun Salute. Thereafter, classic Hatha yoga postures were instructed, including Chair pose, Plank, Tree pose, Warrior I and II, Downward facing dog, Side stretch, Spine twist, Cobra pose and Bridge pose. The finishing series includes relaxation exercises (Dead man’s pose). A detailed description of these movements can be found elsewhere39. Approximately 50 minutes was devoted to physical postures and 10 minutes to breathing exercises and relaxation (final pose).
The findings suggest that the beneficial effects of yoga on wellbeing may be similar to those of aerobic exercise versus the inactive group. However, the majority (78%) of yoga participants remained injury-free throughout the trial. By contrast, 37% of AE participants reported injuries related to exercise participation. Injury risk is an important consideration when recommending exercise interventions for older adults, where pre-existing conditions and frailty may complicate recovery and ongoing pain may further restrict physical activity. Compared to AE, yoga may be a less risky physical activity for older adults that has equivalent benefits for wellbeing.