Yoga Benefits Elders
By Jennifer Van Pelt, MA
Adults aged 65 and older are the fastest-growing segment of the American population. By 2030, there will be an estimated 72 million adults over the age of 65—nearly 20% of the total population.1
Today’s elders are more active and more interested in exercising to stay fit than any previous generation, and many of them are practicing yoga. While the media often portray yoga as an exercise for the thin, flexible, athletic, and/or young, almost anyone can practice yoga—including older adults of any age and fitness level.
Clinical studies have reported that yoga adapted for elders can significantly improve overall physical fitness in frail elders,2 sleep quality and mental health status,3 posture and mobility,4 and balance.5 Yoga has been shown to benefit elders with dementia in long term care facilities6 and decrease the fear of falling and fall risk in those living in retirement communities.5
Older yoga participants are likely to range from the very frail to the very fit, and recommendations for integrating yoga into a health and wellness program depend not only on participants’ individual fitness levels but also on their medical conditions. In 2007 and 2008, 58% of women and 53% of men had high blood pressure; 55% of women and 42% of men had arthritis; 27% of women and 38% of men had heart disease; 21% of women and 24% of men had cancer; 9% of women and men had chronic bronchitis or emphysema; and 9% of women and men had experienced a stroke.1 Additionally, in 2007, 42% of older adults had functional limitations in activities of daily living.1
Special Training Required
Yoga poses can be adapted to benefit any older adult regardless of his or her health status. If elder patients want to attend fitness classes, many gyms and senior centers offer yoga instruction designed specifically for them, including SilverSneakers YogaStretch, Silver Age Yoga, and YogaFit Seniors. Class instructors have undergone special training to teach and modify yoga for elders, including those with movement limitations. Yoga poses can be facilitated through the use of chairs and other props. More active elders who can easily get down on the floor and up again can use floor mats.
For other types of older adults’ yoga classes outside of these branded programs, the instructor’s training, experience, and attitude are critical to ensure older adults’ safety. Of utmost importance is the instructor’s ability to create and maintain physically and mentally safe environments for older students.7 This is especially the case if older adults are integrated into classes with younger participants and others with differing abilities.
It’s common for yoga instructors to encourage participants to “push themselves” into poses. This attitude is likely to create stress for older participants and increase the risk of injury. In yoga classes where hands-on adjustments are common, an instructor without training in elder yoga can inadvertently injure older adults by moving their bodies into poses. These injuries can be as severe as broken bones for those with osteoporosis.
In addition, many yoga instructors have no CPR/automated external defibrillator (AED) training. Generally, an instructor at a gym is required to have such training. Because a large percentage of older adults may have heart disease and/or high blood pressure as well as respiratory issues, CPR/AED training is essential in the gym environment. Encourage patients to ask specifically whether the class instructor has the appropriate training and experience in teaching elder yoga students.
Suggestions for Elder Patients
Practical tips for advising older patients about adding yoga to their exercise program include the following:
• Look for classes specifically designed for older adults or chair yoga classes designed for participants with movement limitations.
• Don’t assume that a class called “gentle” or “beginning” yoga is appropriate for elders with medical conditions. These types of classes are often geared toward participants with a high level of fitness who are simply unfamiliar with yoga. While the class may move at a slower pace, the poses may be challenging and unsafe for older adults. However, gentle or beginning yoga classes for participants of any age may be appropriate for active elders without major health issues or those who’ve been practicing yoga for several years and consider themselves experienced yogis or yoginis.
• Avoid yoga poses that may be unsafe or may aggravate a medical condition. For example, forward bends and other poses that place the head below the heart are generally contraindicated for elders with high blood pressure, glaucoma, retinal conditions, or vertigo.
• Ask the instructor how to modify a pose if it’s uncomfortable or unsteady. Trained instructors should explain modifications that can be made and show ways to use props to assist elders with poses.
• Suggest patients use DVDs designed for older adults when they practice yoga at home. Recommend elders preview the DVD before doing the poses to ensure they can perform them at home without an instructor’s guidance.
— Jennifer Van Pelt, MA, is a group fitness instructor and healthcare research analyst/consultant in the Reading, Pennsylvania, area.
1. Federal Interagency Forum on Aging-Related Statistics. Older Americans 2010: Key Indicators of Well-Being. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office; 2010.
2. Chen KM, Fan JT, Wang HH, Wu SJ, Li CH, Lin HS. Silver yoga exercises improved physical fitness of transitional frail elders. Nurs Res. 2010;59(5):364-370.
3. Chen KM, Chen MH, Chao HC, Hung HM, Lin HS, Li CH. Sleep quality, depression state, and health status of older adults after silver yoga exercises: cluster randomized trial. Int J Nurs Stud. 2009;46(2):154-163.
4. Zettergren KK, Lubeski JM, Viverito JM. Effects of a yoga program on postural control, mobility, and gait speed in community-living older adults: a pilot study. J Geriatr Phys Ther. 2011;34(2):88-94.
5. Schmid AA, Van Puymbroeck M, Koceja DM. Effect of a 12-week yoga intervention on fear of falling and balance in older adults: a pilot study. Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2010;91(4):576-583.
6. Fan JT, Chen KM. Using silver yoga exercises to promote physical and mental health of elders with dementia in long-term care facilities. Int Psychogeriatr. 2011;23(8):1222-1230.
7. Krucoff C, Carson K, Peterson M, Shipp K, Krucoff M. Teaching yoga to seniors: essential considerations to enhance safety and reduce risk in a uniquely vulnerable age group. J Altern Complement Med. 2010;16(8):899-905.