Yoga Boosts Memory and Focus More than Exercise

Yoga may improve brain functioning more than aerobic exercise, at least as measured immediately after workout. This is the conclusion of a new study recently published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health.

The small study looked at 30 female college students, who didn’t practice yoga regularly, and compared them on a number of cognitive tests after they participated in a 20-minute yoga practice and jogged on a treadmill. The researchers found that cognitive performance on tests measuring memory and focus was significantly superior after the yoga practice as compared with both baseline and aerobic exercise.

Aerobic exercise is generally considered to be beneficial for brain health, so how to researchers explain the difference?

“While practicing yoga, you are focused on your breath and mindfully aware of your postures,” said study author Neha Gothe, an exercise psychologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in an interview with “These mental exercises seem to affect the way you think and focus outside of yoga practice. The practice also reduces anxiety and stress, and that in itself can lead to better cognitive performance.”

The increased mental performance lasted 30 to 40 minutes after the yoga session. More research is needed to determine whether practicing yoga regularly will lead to more lasting benefits for the brain in terms of enhanced learning, memory, and focus.

Surprisingly, the study did not show any mental performance boost from the 20 minute session of aerobic exercise, compared to tests taken before the exercise sessions. According to Gothe, however, previous research showing that aerobic exercise benefits brain function have looked at brain functions several hours after the activity.  In other words, yoga may have a more immediately apparent effect, while the results of aerobic exercise may kick in later. In addition, some of the previous studies on the cognitive benefits of aerobic exercise have looked at people who were very physically fit, indicating that the benefits of aerobic exercise may be cumulative over time.

Overall, the study offer promising results for people concerned about brain aging. It attests to the neuroplasticity of the brain: The brain is constantly getting reshaped and reconfigured and it is well known that new learning boosts this process and protects against memory loss. The promising result of this study is that getting as little as 20-30 minutes a day of yoga may well offer immediate benefits for brain health.

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