The benefits of yoga: how gentle stretching can protect your memory

And stretch!

benefits of yoga on memory woman stretching looking out to sea
(Image credit: Getty Images / PeopleImages)

If your idea of regular aerobic activity is huffing and puffing while you ease the cork from your Saturday-night bottle of wine, we've got some good news for you.

The benefits of yoga

While you've probably heard that regular aerobic exercise can stave off age-related cognitive decline and guard against the onset of dementia, simple,gentle stretches can be just as effective. According to research published in The Journals of Gerontology Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, the benefits of yoga are so great that you no longer need to run, sweat or even invest in fancy equipment to reap the anti-ageing benefits of physical activity. So, grab one of your best yoga mats and clear some space in your living room, pronto!

So, just how can yoga help improve your memory? The idea is that yoga helps aid relaxationwhich, in turn, allows memories to be processed properly. Scientists 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 eight weeks, the yoga group's performance on tests of information recall, mental flexibility and task switching was much more speedy and more accurate. Not only had they become better at multitasking, but their working memory capacity also increased. The stretch-and-strength group demonstrated no such effects. Sounds like something you might want to try? Here's everything you need to know about the health benefits of yoga…

How simple stretches can help your memory

The good news? Just gentle stretching can make a big difference.The benefits of yoga and the effects it can have are not to do with tying yourself up in knots, says lead researcher Neha Gothe. Instead, it's all about mindful focus. "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. Running? Then it's much easier to get distracted by everything around you. But, get distracted during yoga, and you could end up kissing the mat!"

New to yoga and not sure where to start? "Keep your expectations low the first couple of times you try, but keep coming back to it," saysyoga instructor Chatty Dobson, owner of FLEX Chelsea."Even the most gymnastic yogis fall out of their balances – laugh it off and keep on trying. Yoga is far more about letting the ego go than it is about body contortion.Try a whole bunch of classes and a number of different teachers. Some you’ll hate and never do again and some you’ll love and want more of. Don’t bother with what you don’t enjoy – life’s too short!" At home? Try this 10-minute morning stretch by Yoga With Kassandra.

Benefits of yoga: relieve stress and anxiety

Gothe's study also found that yoga's well documented stress-busting effects may play a role in boosting memory. "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.

In fact, yoga is ideal for easing feelings of stress and anxiety. "Slowing the breath, being more mindful of your body and how it moves will all help with relaxation," says Chatty. "The longer you sit and look for these things, and the more you engage with them, then slowly the anxiety fades as your focus shifts."

The type of stretching you try can make a difference, too. "Unlike many types of exercise, yoga activates both the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS)," says Chatty."Strong flows (such as Vinyasa and Ashtanga) help builds energy within the body, engaging the SNS – our fight or flight response. In contrast, restful postures, meditation, and many other breathwork techniques, encourage our rest and digest mode, with the PNS.Research has shown that when the PNS activation is swiftly followed by the SNS, relaxation is all the more deep."

Yoga also aids fat loss and builds strength

Of course, it's not just your brain that will benefit if you start stretching regularly. Another of the many benefits of yoga is weight loss and toning."Fat loss is a result of caloric deficiency," says Chatty. "So yes, you will lose body fat by practicing yoga. But you’ll not just lose fat, you’ll gain awareness, body positivity and more."

Plus, yoga is also brilliant for building strength. "Immense control is needed in all yoga asana (even sitting and standing)," says Chatty. "During yoga, you're working with your own bodyweight, which is a lot more than your average kettlebell or dumbbell. Yoga strengthens and tones all muscles of the body, opposed to weight training, which typically focuses on just targeted muscle groups."

Faye M Smith

Faye M Smith is an award-winning journalist with over 15 years experience in the magazine industry. Her continued work in the area of natural health won her the coveted title of the Health Food Manufacturers’ Association (HFMA) Journalist of the Year Award 2021. Currently Health Editor across several brands including woman&home, Woman and Woman’s Own, Faye specialises in writing about mental health, the menopause, and sex and relationships.