For seniors who may be rushing to squeeze in a few more pretzel-twisting sessions to ease their stress from a hectic holiday season, this is a gentle reminder: Take it easy with the yoga. It can be good for you, but don’t overdo it or you may hurt yourself.
The Washington Post reported that the number of yoga devotees has climbed to an estimated 36.7 million Americans, many of whom find that stretching and posing in various styles makes them breathe and feel better, as well being more limber, focused, and relaxed. Yoga also has special appeal to older practitioners, 17 percent of them in their 50s and 21 percent 60 and older, according to a study conducted by a yoga publication.
But public health researchers from the University of Alabama Birmingham, after examining electronic data on almost 30,000 yoga-related injuries that led patients to emergency room treatment between 2001 and 2014, reported that:
Participants aged 65 years and older have a greater rate of injury from practicing yoga when compared with other age groups. Most injuries sustained were to the trunk and involved a sprain-strain. While there are many health benefits to practicing yoga, participants and those wishing to become participants should confer with a physician prior to engaging in physical activity and practice only under the guidance of certified instructors.
The Washington Post story adds some helpful safety ideas to that sensible counsel, suggesting that participants start slow, don’t attempt poses that exceed their capacity, and that they recognize that yoga has many different schools and styles, some of which are best suited only for those with considerable athleticism and suppleness.
Although these ideas may sound common sense enough, the New York Times Magazine not that long ago stirred a hornet’s nest of angry practitioners when it published a long feature, How Yoga Can Wreck Your Body. The piece was packed with discussions of research showing that yoga had been linked to serious back, neck, and joint injuries, and even paralysis (tied to long maintenance of some difficult poses) and strokes (linked to twisting, pressure poses on neck arteries). The author of the story, William J. Broad, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and a longtime New York Times science writer and a yoga practitioner himself, wrapped up his sometimes controversial views about the exercise in a book, The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards.
In my practice, I see the major harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services and the big damage that can be inflicted on them by brain and spinal cord injuries, including those due to sports and exercise. Although much, deserved attention has focused on the woes related to head trauma and concussions connected with football and other contact sports, experts have warned that care and safety should be top concerns in all recreational activities. This includes yoga and its smart, careful practice by mature grownups who should be well versed in the wisdom of moderation.
Yoga can benefit seniors, as can other activities that keep them physically active and engaged. Indeed, they may thrive more if they shift their minds from fretting only about their age-related frailties and health shortcomings to what one wellness support program calls “living your best every single day.” As the days grow packed and hectic during the holidays, a little gentle-stretching and mind-calming yoga might be a boon for older and younger practitioners.
And by the way, for those baby boomers who may be trying to avoid exercise by claiming that their joints ache when the weather, as it does in Washington, turns damp and gloomy, well, Harvard researchers have debunked that notion. They did so by comparing more than 11 million records on Medicare visits with weather data, finding that older patients, after controlling for various factors, sought care for bone and joint pain just as often on dry as wet days.