Science Says Yoga Is Just as Beneficial for the Brain as Aerobic Exercise

Next time you plan to squeeze in some exercise, consider taking a yoga class. A review of 11 studies conducted by the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that yoga strengthens the brain and contributes to the growth of new neurons in the same way that aerobic exercise does. Of the 11 studies reviewed, five used participants with no background in yoga practice; they completed at least one session of Hatha yoga, which includes body movements, meditation, and breathing exercises, per week over the course of 10 to 24 weeks.

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Researchers compared participants' brain health at the beginning and end of the program to determine the cognitive benefits of yoga practice. The studies used brain-imaging technology such as MRIs and single-photon emission computerized tomography. Researchers found that yoga practice increased the volume of the hippocampus, which is involved in memory processing and can help prevent or delay dementia and Alzheimer's disease.

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"From these 11 studies, we identified some brain regions that consistently come up, and they are surprisingly not very different from what we see with exercise research," said University of Illinois kinesiology and community health professor Neha Gothe. Specifically, Gothe and her team of researchers found that yoga practice can the functionality of the prefrontal cortex, cingulate cortex, and brain networks, which are essential to planning, decision-making, and multitasking.

"The practice of yoga helps improve emotional regulation to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression," said Gothe. "And that seems to improve brain functioning." While the science indicates that there are significant health benefits to practicing yoga, more rigorous and controlled studies are needed to confirm researchers' initial findings.