By now you've probably heard that exercise is the single most important thing you can do for your long-term health. In addition to its well documented effects on our waistlines and cardiovascular health, regular aerobic exercise is thought to stave off age-related cognitive decline and guard against the onset of dementia. If your idea of regular aerobic activity is huffing and puffing whilst you ease the cork from your Saturday night bottle of wine, though, we've got some good news for you. You don't need to run, sweat or even invest in a pair of trainers to reap the anti-ageing benefits of physical activity.
Researchers tested the cognitive functioning of more than 100 previously sedentary adults aged 55 and over before assigning them to thrice weekly Hatha yoga or stretching and strengthening classes. After 8 weeks, the yoga group's performance on tests of information recall, mental flexibility and task switching was demonstrably speedier and more accurate. Not only had they become better at multitasking, but their working memory capacity appeared to have increased. The stretch-and-strength group demonstrated no such effects.
The effects have nothing to do with tying yourself up in knots, according to lead researcher Neha Gothe, who believes that the mindful focus inculcated by yoga classes may generalise to external situations. "Hatha yoga requires focused effort in moving through the poses, controlling the body and breathing at a steady rate," she says. "While practicing yoga, you're not just moving your body - you're focused on your breath and mindfully aware of your postures. If you're doing other kinds of exercise, like running, it's much easier to get distracted by everything going on around you - but get distracted during, say, Triangle pose, and you could end up kissing the mat."
Gothe also acknowledges that yoga's well documented stress-busting effects may play a role. "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," she says.