Is yoga as good for your brain as aerobic exercise?

So, you’re not into intense aerobic workouts. I can relate. For a long time, I got all my exercise from walking and yoga. That’s it. No heart-pumping spin classes, kickboxing, running or anything else intensely aerobic.

I know walking is technically aerobic, but I wasn’t walking fast enough to lose my breath or break a sweat. And I know some yoga classes are fast-paced, but those weren’t the kind I was taking. So, I wasn’t getting much aerobic exercise. And I often wondered… am I missing out?

After all, aerobic exercise is proven to improve your mood, support your immune system and lengthen your life. And then there’s its effect on your brain…

Countless studies show that aerobic exercise has a near-miraculous effect on brain aging. In fact, a 2016 study found that aerobic exercise not only prevents age-related brain shrinkage and cognitive decline… it also reverses it. So, could yoga alone provide the same brain benefits that a run or a heart-pumping boot camp class could?

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one asking that question. Some curious minds set out to find the answer. And what they found will have yogis everywhere feeling pretty confident that they don’t need to trade their yoga mat in for a gym membership any time soon…

Yoga has aerobic-sized brain benefits

A new research review published in the journal Brain Plasticity found that yoga has many of the same brain benefits as aerobic exercise.

The review looked at data from 11 studies that examined the connection between brain health and yoga, and here are the big takeaways…

Yoga practice can increase the volume of the hippocampus, the part of the brain in charge of memory and learning. The hippocampus typically loses volume with age. It’s also the first part of the brain impacted by dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. So, growth here is a good sign. But yoga’s brain benefits don’t stop at the hippocampus…

It also makes the amygdala larger, which helps with emotional regulation. Plus, it makes the prefrontal cortex, cingulate cortex and brain networks like the default mode network larger and/or more efficient. The prefrontal cortex helps with planning, decision-making, and multitasking. The cingulate cortex has a hand in emotional regulation, learning, and memory. And the default mode network helps with planning and memory.

All these brain changes may be why people in these studies who practiced yoga scored better on cognitive and emotional regulation tests.

But why exactly does yoga have so many brain benefits? It’s not aerobic, after all.

Researchers don’t know for sure. But they think it may have something to do with yoga’s ability to alleviate stress. Stress can shrink the hippocampus and worsen memory.

Whatever creates yoga’s brain benefits, I’m not complaining. I’ll be rolling out my yoga mat later today to stretch my way to a healthier brain.

How to reset your yoga routine for better brain health

In the past few years, I’ve started doing low-impact cardio workouts and HIIT workouts, because I found out I enjoy them more than I thought I would. But yoga is still my favorite form of exercise. And that won’t change any time soon.

So, if you’re a yoga lover for life like me, there’s no better time to dedicate yourself to a regular practice. At the start of the New Year, a few of my favorite YouTube yogis, like Yoga with Adriene and Fightmaster Yoga, create 30-day yoga challenges to help you get in the habit of a regular yoga practice. Check them out!

These yoga challenges are a great way to get back into your yoga practice. And you don’t have to start them in January. I often go back to past years’ yoga challenges if I feel like I need to reset my practice other times of the year. I suggest you do the same… especially if you’re dedicated to better brain health this year.

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Sources:

  1. Experts review evidence yoga is good for the brain — MedicalXpress
  2. Yoga Effects on Brain Health: A Systematic Review of the Current LiteratureBrain Plasticity
  3. Aerobic exercise: Top 10 reasons to get physical — Mayo Clinic

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Jenny Smiechowski

By Jenny Smiechowski

Jenny Smiechowski is a Chicago-based freelance writer who specializes in health, nutrition and the environment. Her work has appeared in online and print publications like Chicagoland Gardening magazine, Organic Lifestyle Magazine, BetterLife Magazine, TheFix.com, Hybridcars.com and Seedstock.com.