A good workout can help your brain as much as your body, you’ve no doubt heard. That’s one reason why so many people go for a run when they want to clear their heads. But did you know that, when it comes to boosting your mental prowess, you’re probably better off striking a yoga pose than hitting the track or treadmill? A new study shows why…
Participants included 30 adults who did not regularly practice yoga or any similar type of mind-body based exercise (such as tai chi). Each came to the study center on three separate days and took tests designed to measure various aspects of cognitive function.
On one day, they did no exercise prior to taking the tests. On another day, they did 20 minutes of yoga poses, focusing on their breathing and ending with a brief seated meditation, then immediately took the cognitive tests. And on yet another day, they ran on a treadmill for 20 minutes (getting their heart rates up to 60% to 70% of maximum) and then took the same cognitive tests.
The results were surprising—because the participants scored significantly higher after doing yoga than after an aerobic workout or after no exercise. Specifically…
- One test measured inhibitory control, the ability to ignore irrelevant information and maintain focus on relevant items. On a computer screen, the participants saw numerous rows of arrows facing left or right and had to press the arrow on the keyboard that corresponded to the direction of the arrows in a certain “target” position. Results: The average score for correct responses after yoga was 90%…but just 83% after running, which was about the same as after no exercise.
- Another test looked at working memory (which is responsible for creating and storing memories and retrieving information), with the participants having to remember ever-changing sequences of shapes and respond as quickly as possible. Results: The average score was 87% after yoga…but just 77% after running and 78% after no exercise. Response time also was faster after yoga—an average of 0.55 seconds, compared with 0.64 seconds after running and 0.60 seconds after no exercise.
Explanation: The researchers offered several possible reasons why yoga boosts brain power. Other studies have shown that yoga improves mood, and better mood is associated with better cognitive function. Yoga also reduces the anxiety that can get in the way of tasks that require full attention. In addition, yoga’s emphasis on body awareness and breath control may help enhance the ability to concentrate.
Some questions remain, of course. This study did not demonstrate how long the mental performance-enhancing benefits of yoga might last, given that the participants took their cognitive tests within five minutes after finishing their yoga sessions. And the participants in this study were all women, so we can’t say for sure whether men would benefit similarly (though it makes sense that they would).
Still, provided you have your doctor’s go-ahead to do yoga, there’s certainly no harm—and potentially much to be gained—in doing some yoga poses whenever you feel in need of a brain boost or are about to tackle some challenging mental task. For inspiration and pose illustrations: Check out the Yoga Journal Web site.