15 Health Benefits of Yoga for Aging Athletes
Aging is inevitable. But you can slow it down and approach it more gracefully than you'd ever imagined.
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It is said that aging is a privilege denied to many. Yet it can be challenging to gracefully acknowledge the many changes that accompany an increase in age, especially the changes that are difficult to see but easy to feel, including stiffness, aches, and lack of stability.
The inevitable aging process affects each of us in various ways, yet regular movement, including the practice of yoga, can help slow the effects of time. And it doesn’t matter where you’re starting from or at what age you begin.
What to Expect as You Age
With time, your body becomes less flexible, less stable, slower, weaker, and less competitive in endurance. You lose elasticity in muscle, fascia, and, perhaps most obviously, skin. As a result, you need to acclimate to having a different perspective on physical goals. Even if you modify your practice for common afflictions, yoga can often mitigate or relieve symptoms. Whether you’re dealing with heart issues or diminished lung capacity, decreased bone density or muscle loss, back pain or an artificial knee, doing yoga can make you feel better.
You want to allow your approach to yoga to be dictated by any physical changes. The yoga sutras, which contain ancient wisdom on an array of topics, tell us simply that yoga poses should be steady and comfortable. Knowing that this is the only prescription for your practice can free you from feeling like your yoga practice has to look a certain way. A yoga student can do a handstand or not. A lunge or not. A balance pose or not. Your practice is your practice. Find strength and ease and do what works for you.
We tend to be well versed in the perceived negative changes that come with aging. Yet we hear very little about the attendant wisdom, confidence, and life experience of having spent decades on Earth. And let’s be honest. We know few people who actually want to be twenty-one again. With every passing year, we tend to experience enhanced self-confidence, body image, empathy, and decision-making. Perhaps not coincidentally, these are also benefits of a regular yoga practice.
15 Ways Yoga Can Benefit Aging Adults
1. Osteoporosis and Osteopenia
Problem: As you age, your bone density decreases. For some people, accelerated bone loss, known as osteopenia or osteoporosis, results in increased susceptibility to fractures.
How yoga can help: The extent to which you experience bone less may have as much to do with genetics and gender as it does your physical activity level, but movement and weight-bearing exercises keep bones healthier for longer. Weight-bearing exercises can marginally increase bone density, although the gains are relatively small. Still, yoga is valuable not only because of its potential effect on your skeleton but because it increases body awareness and enhances balance.
Tips for your yoga practice: Weight-bearing lunge poses—including Warrior I, Warrior II, Reverse Warrior, and Extended Side Angle Pose—help build hip and leg strength. Balancing poses—such as Warrior III and Tree Pose—enhance your stability and guard against falls that can cause fractures.
Because bone density loss makes your spine more fragile, talk to your medical team to create a plan of safe movements. Depending on the degree of your osteopenia, it might be wise to limit poses that require folding forward or minimize the degree to which you fold. The same is true of poses that require twisting—be gentle in approaching movements that cause your spine to rotate or skip twisting poses all together.
Problem: Arthritis can cause daily pain in joints like hands, knees, wrists, or elbows. It can make you feel stiff and creaky, limiting comfortable range of motion.
How yoga can help: Recent research shows that a regular yoga practice can aid in reducing joint pain and help in improving joint flexibility. A regular yoga practice might also reduce inflammation.
Tips for your yoga practice: Avoid weight bearing in your hands and wrists, a common location of arthritis pain.
3. Spinal stenosis
Problem: Spinal stenosis, the narrowing of the spinal canal or vertebral openings, can squeeze your spinal cord and cause radiating pain and numbness that affects your hips, legs, and even your shoulders.
How yoga can help: A yoga practice that cautiously approaches forward folds and side bending and avoids extension (backbends) can help significantly reduce pain.
Tips for your yoga practice: If you have stenosis and osteoporosis, you might avoid forward folds altogether. In general, avoid big, deep movements of the spine. Less is better. Safe yoga, though, can help you build strength and create better postural habits, which can help alleviate chronic pain. Seek an experienced yoga teacher or yoga therapist with knowledge of your condition.
4. Disc issues
Problem: Herniated, bulging, or slipped discs can press on your spinal cord or nearby nerves, causing spasms, limited movement, and radiating pain. Disc issues and back pain are more common in the lower lumbar region but may occur anywhere along the spine.
How yoga can help: Yoga can help you build core strength and flexibility in your spine, and these two things can go a long way toward remedying back pain.
Tips for your yoga practice: If you experience pain from disc issues, often it is best to avoid forward folds or any pose that causes your spine to round, as this can exacerbate the issue by squeezing the disc more. Instead, focus on gentle backbends and poses that challenge your abdominal muscles and strengthen your hips.
5. Core strength and back pain
If you’ve ever experienced back pain, you’ve probably been given the advice to strengthen your core. That wisdom is logical—building up the muscles in your trunk, back, abdomen, hips, and legs means that your spine is better supported.
How yoga can help: Any new yoga movement will likely result in a stronger core. As you move your body in new ways, your major stabilizing muscles have to adapt. Yoga offers specific poses for core strength, too.
6. Nerve pain and neuropathy
Problem: When nerves are injured, pain, weakness, numbness, cramping, or tingling can occur as a result. In peripheral neuropathy, this often occurs in limbs, hands, feet, fingers, and toes. Nerve issues can result from a myriad of illnesses. Often caused by circulatory system issues, neuropathy also can be a side effect of other diseases or injuries.
How yoga can help: Yoga poses improve circulation; movement alone can help! Body awareness is also key.
Tips for your yoga practice: The more you are aware of what exacerbates or helps with pain or numbness, the better you are at making wise choices with your movement practices. Yoga allows you to explore your body in slow, safe movements. It gives you the opportunity to get to know what works for your nerves. Be sure to move slowly and pay careful attention to your body’s response in each pose.
See also Why More Western Doctors Are Now Prescribing Yoga Therapy
7. Ligament tears
Problem: Ligament tears are common in aging, stressed, and over-used joints, especially knees, shoulders, hips, and ankles. As we age, we put increasing stress on these joints, which can result in abrasions and tears. If the ligaments give out, or if the joint is degraded, you may find yourself with a replacement.
How yoga can help: Yoga is useful for ligament issues in several ways: First, yoga helps you strengthen the muscles around your joints. Your knees, for instance, will be better protected if your glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps are strong. Many common yoga lunge poses help keep your legs strong. Yoga is also useful if you are recovering from a ligament tear injury, as it allows you to continue moving even amidst injury.
Tips for your yoga practice: You should choose a gentler practice as you heal, and omit any poses that cause you discomfort or otherwise exacerbate your injury. Finally, yoga is adaptable enough to continue even if you experience a hip or knee replacement. You’ll be able to come back to a yoga practice, and doing yoga after a replacement—with your doctor’s approval—may even speed the healing process.
8. Tendonitis and tendonopathy
Problem: Although it’s often a temporary condition, tendon inflammation can cause joint pain and stiffness, and it can also create instability in weight-bearing movements. And as tendons age they can degrade, a condition called tendonopathy.
How yoga can help: Acute tendonitis generally requires some days of rest. But after allowing time to heal, yoga can be useful in helping establish new movement patterns. Because tendonitis is often caused by repetitive movements, slowly practicing a variety of yoga poses offers you a chance to continue movement but in new and various ways—shoring up the muscles around the tendon and giving inflamed areas a chance to heal.
Tips for your yoga practice: If your health-care team diagnoses tendonopathy, ask which movements are safe and which you should avoid for your particular situation. Follow their directions in your home practice and convey them to your yoga teacher in class. Because of yoga’s adaptability, you will be able to find poses and sequences that continue to work for you.
9. Myofascial tightening and stiffness
Problem: As we age, we lose flexibility in our muscles and connective tissue due to a loss of collagen, which results in stiffness, imbalance, and less confidence while balancing.
How yoga can help: If you don’t use it, you lose it! A regular yoga practice can help reverse some of that acquired stiffness. Gentle, regular stretching can help keep your body fluid and flexible. We’re often as amazed as our yoga students when we see the changes that habitual stretching and movement can confer. You don’t have to touch your toes, but yoga might get you a little closer to them. Yin Yoga in particular targets the connective tissue through long holds.
10. Hormonal changes
Problem: In women, menopause can bring temperature changes and hot flashes.
How yoga can help: Some studies have shown that a restorative yoga practice can help decrease the hot flashes that can come with hormonal changes.
Tips for your yoga practice: During a yoga class, it can also be helpful to lighten the amount of clothing you’re wearing or dress in layers so that when you feel warm, you can peel off a longer-sleeved shirt. Some yoga classes are warmer than other others. If you plan to attend a class, ask in advance about the temperature of the room.
11. Blood pressure
Problem: High blood pressure is one of the most common ailments that affect adults as they age. One in three American adults has high blood pressure. Rapidly transitioning from standing upright to folding forward can exacerbate dizziness, a common symptom of low blood pressure and a side effect of common medications for high blood pressure.
How yoga can help: Some studies show that regular yoga can lower blood pressure, so a routine yoga practice will help.
Tips for your yoga practice: As you move, avoid transitions that put your head below your heart, and opt out of sequences that require you to move quickly from standing to forward folding.
Problem: Age-related lung changes can aggravate asthma, so as you age, bouts of asthma may increase.
How yoga can help: If your asthma is provoked by exercise, yoga is a good fit, since with yoga your heart rate stays relatively low.
Tips for your yoga practice: Keep in mind that in some classes yoga teachers use essential oils or incense to enhance the students’ experience. While this is a lovely intention, if you are asthmatic, strong scents can be triggering. It’s appropriate to ask in advance if these types of scents will be used in class and to request that they be omitted. Calling ahead to verify this may be the wisest choice.
13. Breathing issues
Problem: Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), chronic bronchitis, and emphysema make breathing very challenging and limit your ability to do cardiovascular activities.
How yoga can help: Yoga is low impact. For this reason, it is a useful movement practice if you have COPD or similar respiratory problems. Additionally, a yoga practice often has pranayama, or breath practices. Focusing on inhaling and exhaling can be useful if you have a chronic breathing problem, since breathing exercises can potentially help strengthen muscles used in respiration. Time spent in mindful breathing can also help you have more awareness of your breath; noticing when you get breathless or when you feel short of breath can help you seek treatment quickly.
14. Sleep issues
Problem: Night wakefulness or restlessness may disrupt sleep.
How yoga can help: Intentional, slow breathing can foster a sense of relaxation and calm. A slow yoga and stretching routine before bed can help encourage drowsiness and tranquility. In fact, studies show that yoga can help you fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer. Exercise of any type helps tire us out and promotes exhaustion, which can lead to better quality sleep.
15. Chronic illness
Problem: Chronic illness can cause debilitating pain, depression, even hopelessness.
How yoga can help: Yoga can be effective as a pain-management tool for some afflictions, including rheumatoid arthritis and fibromyalgia. Since yoga is so adaptable, it can be practiced in a chair or hospital bed. It may also be a helpful meditative tool.
Bonus 16: Boredom and loneliness
Problem: Experience isolation, boredom, and depression as you become less involved in activities outside of your home.
How yoga can help: Last, though less quantifiable, is the benefit of experiencing something new and different. Whether yoga is entirely new to you or you simply try a different style of yoga or a new-to-you teacher, experiencing something outside of your everyday routine can have a profound affect on your physical, psychological, and emotional wellness. All the better if you can not take the learning curve too seriously and share the experience with a friend.
See also Feel Better As You Age With Yoga
Adapted from Lifelong Yoga by Sage Rountree and Alexandra Desiato, published by North Atlantic Books. Copyright © 2017 by Sage Rountree and Alexandra Desiato. Reprinted with permission of publisher.