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Chanting ‘Om’ for Bone Health: Could Yoga Be Part of the Solution to Maintaining Strong Bones?

A growing number of people are just saying “om” – and they’re not all part of the hip millennial set.

The number of yoga practitioners in the United States jumped 80 percent between 2012 and 2016, according to a survey by the Yoga Alliance, the nonprofit trade group that credentials yoga teachers. And of the 36.7 million American yoga practitioners in 2016, 21 percent were 60 or older, the survey found.

 

Enthusiasts routinely extol the many benefits of yoga, including improved strength and mental clarity. But a 2016 study by researchers at Columbia University and three other institutions also provided some promising evidence that practicing a yoga regimen for as little as 12 minutes a day may be enough to reverse bone loss among older adults with osteoporosis.

Researchers followed 741 people for an average of two years. Study participants were 68.2 years old on average when they joined the study, and 83 percent of them had osteoporosis or its precursor, osteopenia.

Of the study participants, 227 practiced yoga at least once every two days during the study. Researchers found that these more avid yogis had higher bone mineral density in the spine, hips and femur after the study ended as compared to study participants who practiced less frequently.

And not surprisingly to anyone who’s made yoga part of his or her daily routine, the study found that yoga produced a variety of additional health benefits.

“The ‘side effects’ of yoga include better posture, improved balance, enhanced coordination, greater range of motion, higher strength, reduced levels of anxiety and better gait,” the study authors noted.

While the results are promising, the study had limitations, such as the fact that the frequency of practice was self-reported.

According to Carol Krucoff, 63, a veteran yoga instructor, certified yoga therapist through the International Association of Yoga Therapy and co-author of the book “Relax Into Yoga for Seniors,” older adults who are new to yoga should proceed with caution. Along with her colleague Kimberly Carson, Krucoff has trained more than 700 yoga instructors on how to adapt yoga to be safe and effective for seniors through a program offered at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, North Carolina.

 

Tree Pose: This is a classic yoga pose. Krucoff teaches two variations that are very accessible to older adults – one touching a chair, standing on one leg, and the other touching a toe down but not holding on. (Reprinted with permission: New Harbinger Publications, Inc. Copyright © 2016 [Kimberly Carson and Carol Krucoff])

“Older adults are a very diverse population,” Krucoff said. “You can have an 80-year-old who runs marathons and you can have a 60-year-old who can’t get out of a chair.”

As a general rule, older adults who are new to yoga should avoid extremes, including difficult poses such as headstands, as well as the heat of hot yoga, which forces the heart to work harder, said Krucoff. Most importantly, she stressed that older adults – or anyone who is brand new to yoga – should “start where they are, not where they think they should be.”

Yoga doesn’t just make you flexible – it is itself flexible. For example, chair pose, or utkatasana (oot-ka-TA-sa-na), has a very tangible real-world application: It can help people get in and out of a sitting position – a common metric used to see if an older person can live independently, said Krucoff. “When we teach this in our yoga class, people are motivated because they want to stay in their homes.”

 

Chair Pose: The ability to get up and down from a seated position is critical to retaining independence as we age. This pose helps build strength and function. (Reprinted with permission: New Harbinger Publications, Inc. Copyright © 2016 [Kimberly Carson and Carol Krucoff])

Older adults with low bone mineral density can also modify their practice to make it safer.

“The way we teach our classes is that we avoid all postures that are contraindicated for people with osteoporosis, because it is so common in the older population,” Krucoff said. “Many older people have osteoporosis and don’t even know it.”

The National Osteoporosis Foundation recommends that people with the condition avoid postures that require them to bend forward from the waist. It’s better to hinge from the hips instead. For example, during the yoga move known as a standing forward bend, or uttanasana (oot-ta-NA-sa-na), Krucoff recommends bending your knees and going forward only far enough that you can keep your spine in a neutral – rather than rounded – position.

 

Tight Rope Pose: This balance pose is shown as Krucoff teaches it, next to a chair that can be held for support if necessary. This is a very accessible pose that is useful to boost balance. (Reprinted with permission: New Harbinger Publications, Inc. Copyright © 2016 [Kimberly Carson and Carol Krucoff])

Ready to roll out a mat and start reaping the health benefits of yoga? A good first step is to seek out instructors who have experience working with older clients, and pay attention to your own body. The goal is to “challenge, but not to strain,” according to Krucoff.

 

Lake Mudra: This is a supine pose that can help strengthen the core and enhance flexibility. (Reprinted with permission: New Harbinger Publications, Inc. Copyright © 2016 [Kimberly Carson and Carol Krucoff])

Yoga Resources for Older Adults

1. Many health plans and retirement groups offer SilverSneakers, a fitness program for people 65 and older. You can search for a SilverSneakers yoga class near you by typing in your city or zip code on this page: https://www.silversneakers.com/class/yoga/

2. If your Medicare Advantage or Medicare supplement plan includes a gym membership, check with the participating gyms in your area to see if they offer yoga classes. And keep in mind that some gyms and yoga studios offer yoga programs specifically geared toward older adults.

3. Check out yoga4seniors.com/find-a-teacher/ to find a yoga instructor in your area who has been trained to teach older adults.

4. If you’d like to take up yoga in the privacy of your own home, Carol Krucoff and fellow instructor Kimberly Carson’s DVD, “Relax Into Yoga for Seniors,” could be a great tool to help you get started: http://www.pranamaya.com/relax-into-yoga.html

Plans are insured through UnitedHealthcare Insurance Company or one of its affiliated companies. For Medicare Advantage and Prescription Drug Plans: A Medicare Advantage organization with a Medicare contract and a Medicare-approved Part D sponsor. Enrollment in these plans depends on the plan’s contract renewal with Medicare.

Medicare has neither reviewed nor endorsed this information.

Consult your doctor prior to beginning an exercise program or making changes to your lifestyle or health care routine.