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This Gentle Exercise Can Help Keep Your Brain Healthy

June 9, 2024

Yoga is a hugely popular form of exercise, and no wonder: It’s an ancient practice that people have sworn by for millennia. The practice can help reduce stress and anxiety, fight chronic inflammation, and increase strength and flexibility. And now, new research shows that it may help to keep your brain healthy as well.

A recent small study suggests that yoga might help prevent cognitive decline in women. Brain health is a major public health issue, with more than 6 million Americans (and more than 55 million people worldwide) living with Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia. 

But what’s the best type of yoga, and how often should you practice it to reap the benefits? We spoke to a cognitive neurologist, a brain health nutrition expert, and registered yoga teacher to take a closer look at this new study and what it means for keeping your brain sharp. 

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How to keep your brain healthy 

In this 2024 controlled trial, 79 patients completed either 12 weeks of Kundalini yoga training or memory enhancement training. Kundalini yoga is a type of yoga that focuses more on spiritual practice and balancing the seven chakras than physical movement. It involves breathing exercises, chanting, and meditation to awaken the “Kundalini energy” believed to be coiled at the base of the spine. 

Dr. Alvaro Pascual-Leone, MD, PhD, chief medical officer and co-founder of Linus Health and a professor of neurology at Harvard Medical School, says this is an exciting study because there is a shortage of well-designed research into the effects of yoga and other mindfulness-focused activities on cognitive decline.

“Studies like this show that science often lags behind what is accepted culturally,” he says. “Activities like yoga, tai chi, and meditation have been practiced for thousands of years because our ancestors knew they helped their bodies and minds. Now science is proving how right they were.” 

Yoga has both a physical and mental component, which Dr. Pascual-Leone says has a greater effect on the brain than either alone. While the health benefits of physical activity get plenty of attention, exercise neuroscientists are interested in how breathing and meditation practices impact brain health. 

Other studies have also shown positive benefits of yoga training in protecting the brain: 

  • This 2022 study showed that even shorter yoga practices can help prevent cognitive decline in women at risk of dementia due to Alzheimer’s disease.
  • A 2019 systematic review of 11 studies found that yoga has a positive effect on the structure and function of the brain, which may reduce age-related and neurodegenerative declines. 
  • This 2020 review of 73 studies concluded that yoga significantly improves brain wave activity, which can improve overall cognitive function. 

How to practice yoga for brain health 

“The most beneficial type of yoga practice for brain health is one that combines mindfulness and physical activity,” says Maggie Moon, MS, RD, brain health nutrition expert and best-selling author of The MIND Diet. “Research has been done utilizing Hatha yoga, Iyengar yoga, general or unspecified yoga, and with this newest study, Kundalini yoga.” 

Dr. Pascual-Leone says the most beneficial kind of yoga is the one you enjoy most and are likely to practice regularly. Which leads to the question – how often do you need to practice yoga to improve cognitive health? 

As with any exercise, doing something is better than doing nothing. It’s also never too late (or early) to start incorporating yoga or other healthy habits that can help keep your brain sharp. 

“Ideally, yoga should be done consistently to obtain the maximum benefits. While this does not mean yoga must be done daily, it should be done somewhat frequently and regularly, such as four to five times a week,” says Mandy Enright, a registered dietitian and yoga teacher. “One study found that practicing yoga for an average of 30 minutes a week saw mental health benefits, but those who practiced more often saw greater benefits.” 

If you can’t commit to a daily practice, don’t let that discourage you from starting. Practicing yoga even just once a week can offer moderate cognitive benefits. Plus, yoga offers benefits beyond preventing cognitive decline. 

“In addition to brain health, regular yoga practice supports multiple aspects of successful aging, including cardiovascular, lung, muscle, and bone health,” says Moon. “It has been shown to help lower blood pressure, improve lung capacity, and maintain bone mineral density and functional strength, especially when combined with weight training.” 

Other strategies to keep your brain sharp 

There is no single behavior or intervention that will guarantee optimal brain health. However, key nutrition and lifestyle habits can help reduce your risk of cognitive decline. 

“What’s good for our mental health is also good for our physical health: quality sleep, good nutrition, exercise, lifelong learning and mental stimulation, rewarding social relationships, and having a purpose in life,” says Dr. Pascual-Leone. “To that, I would add the importance of controlling stress and realizing the value of silence by practicing an internal focus free of external stimuli. That’s one of the reasons that yoga is so good for our brains.” 

Consuming foods rich in antioxidants, phytonutrients, flavanols, and omega-3s can have significant benefits for brain health. These properties help to promote better blood flow and reduce inflammation, and they also promote better overall health of brain cells. Plus, cooking more at home provides a multitude of brain benefits.

“Not only do you have more control over what you are eating and the amounts, so you can get more of those brain-healthy foods, but cooking also is a great way to keep the brain in shape,” explains Enright. “You need math skills, spatial coordination, and utilization of senses when cooking, which all help to promote good brain health and longevity.” 

Read next: The 7 Best Foods for Your Brain Health, Say Dietitians

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