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Yoga Better for Brain Function Than Aerobic Exercise, Study Finds

in Science, Thanks for the tip


A little bone for the yogis in the age old yoga versus exercise debate? A small new study shows 20 minutes of yoga beats out 20 minutes of aerobic exercise for the old thinking noodle. (That’s your brain!)

Researchers at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign studied “The Acute Effects of Yoga on Executive Function“, or as the peer-reviewed article was titled, and which generally means yoga’s effect on cognitive processes (working memory, reasoning, problem solving, attention, planning, etc.). The study which will be published in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health, involved 30 non-yoga practicing undergraduate women who participated in 20 minutes of Hatha yoga, accompanied with meditation and deep breathing as well as 20 minutes of “aerobic activity” which meant running on a treadmill.

What’s worse than having to run on a treadmill for 20 minutes? Having to take a test afterwards. Researchers had participants do cognitive testing following both the yoga and the running exercises to measure working memory and inhibitory control (attention span). And guess what? Yoga beat the pants off running when it came to brain function.

Lead researcher Neha Gothe (currently a professor of kinesiology at Wayne State University) told the Daily Mail:

“It appears that following yoga practice, the participants were better able to focus their mental resources, process information quickly, more accurately and also learn, hold and update pieces of information more effectively than after performing an aerobic exercise bout.”

As opposed to when the participants “showed no significant improvements on the working memory and inhibitory control scores” after the 20 minutes of jogging or walking on the treadmill.

And all the scientists lightbulbs light up! Because this is cause for further research and investigation. Edward McCauley, co-author of the study and director of the Exercise Psychology Lab where the research was conducted, notes:

“This study is extremely timely and the results will enable yoga researchers to power and design their interventions in the future. We see similar promising findings among older adults as well.

Yoga research is in its nascent stages and with its increasing popularity across the globe, researchers need to adopt rigorous systematic approaches to examine not only its cognitive but also physical health benefits across the lifespan.”

Sure it’s a small study, and there is much more to be explored about the effects of not just physical yoga poses, but the meditation and breathing components of most Western yoga practices (and for guys, too). But, hey, this is good news! That perhaps some of us already knew? And besides, it’s a great conversation piece the next time your runner pals talk about how ah-MAZ-ing their runner’s high is and how they don’t really need yoga cause, like, running is their meditation. You can simply nod your head and smile, and then share with them just how smart you are. (No offense, runners. We love endorphins, too!)

The study concludes that more research needs to be done on non-traditional, mind-body exercises like yoga (and tai chi, for example) and just how much they seep into the rest of our daily activities when we’re not knee-deep in virasana.

“The breathing and meditative exercises aim at calming the mind and body and keeping distracting thoughts away while you focus on your body, posture or breath,” Gothe told the Telegraph. “Maybe these processes translate beyond yoga practice when you try to perform mental tasks or day-to-day activities.”

A little like…living your yoga.

This could bode well for further research on the effects of yoga and autism and ADD/ADHD, as well as psychiatric disorders or other brain-related conditions.



11 comments… add one
  • Delving in deeper to address how yoga helps to bring awareness into the moment and aligns and opens energy centers in the body (chakras), could expand this topic more. The mind functions better from a place of equanimity and ease of stress. Since many forms of exercise increase stress in the body, it is not surprising that there effects were dismal.

    “The reason we practice asanas is to expand prana deep into the body.” -Jois

    peace. love. ~Jt Brown, BE

  • Science

    I am certain yoga is good for the mind, but the conclusion is narrowly focused on the acute effect on short term memory, and it is based on a flawed methodology that includes sampling bias, no control group, and distortion by law of small numbers. The participants not being regular practitioners are engaging in a novel fine motor exercise, which in itself has a priming effect on learning. I will be more receptive to such findings when the sample size is statistically significant and the novelty factor is eliminated. For instance, Group B should be composed of regular yoga practitioners who engage in novel aerobic exercise and should be tested in reverse order.

    • Vision_Quest2

      Yes, that would make more sense. Aerobic exercise has posed an unusual challenge for heretofore regular, dedicated, practically completely yoga practitioners, myself included. I have my circulatory problems, personally, and had to make the switch. But I have noticed an adjustment period (if they did not give up altogether) when yoga practitioners who were used to yoga as their primary exercise, chose to or needed to do cardio dance.

      And, all the books on aging persons’ learning and memory cite studies that tend to favor cardio activity when it comes to cognitive processing speed, even in healthy aging people.

  • sak

    there is ample research to show the benefits of yoga on the brain and the body. we organize a monthly talk show to highlight what is coming out of research labs in relation to yoga, called the Yoga Cure Panel.

    Our previous panel featured a leading kundalini yoga researcher from Harvard talking about the effects of yoga on both the neural circuits and on the physiological systems. Plus how it can be used for treating insomnia etc – the recording is here http://www.blogtalkradio.com/curepanel/2013/04/22/dr-satbir-khalsa-on-the-cure-panel-talk-show–episode-9

    And there is research now showing how Yoga can be used to treat patients with PTSD – the leading researcher David Emerson of the Justice Resource Institue will talk about this today at 6 pm EST (jun 13)

    The talk will feature 3 yoga instructors as panelists who will be joining the conversation with expert.

    The show can be heard live here http://www.blogtalkradio.com/curepanel/2013/06/13/yoga-for-trauma-with-david-emerson-from-jri or ppl can dial (718) 664-6574

  • There is nothing like some yoga to clear your mind. I can totally see how yoga is more beneficial to thinking than aerobic exercise. Very interesting information.

    • Vision_Quest2

      YogaFit is a very forgiving, almost Jane Fonda-esque type of yoga-calisthenics fusion.
      Very forgiving, very middle path, very non-self-mortifying. “Tapas” isn’t even in their vocabulary–YF is for regular people with regular bodies (it isn’t even for the marathoner/duathloner, necessarily). Compared to studio yoga (YogaFit is taught primarily in mid-range to upscale gyms)–and I’ve done both–it does NOT evoke the cortisol response as does regular studio yoga. You are not comparing apples to oranges when you compare most studio yoga to YogaFit, you are comparing apples to honey tangerines. Of course, any study YogaFit might do will not show quite the difference.

      By the way, I shout out to YogaFit and to some (more cardio) forms of Kundalini yoga. Yogi Bhajan knew what he was doing when he’d souped up the practice.

      Sorry, but my mild is showing …

  • Ahhh! There’s nothing like doing both running and yoga!

  • Yoga hope

    I suffer from a brain aneurism and have short term memory issues and quite other mental issues, I use yoga for rehabilitation and it helps tremendously. Do not need a study to confirm how efficient yoga and meditation are. I find out the positives effects everyday.

    • These kind of experiences, when you know for certain that something really helps you and don’t need any confirmation for it, are the best. I wish you good luck with your condition.

  • I am no longer sure the place you’re getting your information, but great topic. I needs to spend some time studying much more or understanding more. Thanks for great information I used to be in search of this info for my mission.

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