If you’re looking for more brain power and a better memory as you age, experts at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have identified an exercise you can do at home that produces benefits in as little as eight weeks.
In a study of more than 100 people between the ages of 55 and 79, the Illinois researchers found that performing hatha yoga three times a week for eight weeks can help you improve your information recall, boost your ability to mentally switch tasks and increase your intellectual flexibility. (The people in the study who merely stretched and performed toning exercises did not experience these improvements.)
The mental benefits of yoga were observed in both men and women and in people of all ages
Hatha yoga incorporates a form of meditation that uses focused breathing to increase mental focus. At the same time as you meditate, you move through a progression of yoga postures.
“Hatha yoga requires focused effort in moving through the poses, controlling the body and breathing at a steady rate,” says researcher Neha Gothe. “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.”
Adds researcher Edward McAuley: “Participants in the yoga intervention group showed significant improvements in working memory capacity, which involves continually updating and manipulating information. They were also able to perform the task at hand quickly and accurately, without getting distracted. These mental functions are relevant to our everyday functioning, as we multitask and plan our day-to-day activities.”
To get started doing this type of yoga, you can buy a video and follow the instructions in your living room. Alternatively, you can attend a local class.
“These studies suggest that yoga has an immediate quieting effect on the sympathetic nervous system and on the body’s response to stress,” says 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.”