Why Yoga Might Be The Key To Preventing Falls As You Age

Feb 6, 2015

Credit Lyn Tally / Creative Commons

There’s a new study out of the University of Miami that’s being put into practice at yoga studios in Naples.

The study quantifies the health benefits of yoga for aging populations—particularly the way some poses can help the elderly avoid harmful falls.

In Naples, Laurie Orlando is incorporating some of these new moves into her therapeutic yoga class at Bala Vinyasa.

Her students are older than your average yoga students. Orlando said her average student is between 50 and 80 years old.

She said she’s tailored her class to the Naples’ aging population.

“The class is completely supportive,” she explained. “We use chairs, bolsters, straps blankets—anything they need to help them get on and off the floor. Or we teach strictly in the chair, if they cannot move on and off the floor. It helps to create more balance and stability in their bodies without them really sitting in their limitations.”

She said a lot of her students are recovering from surgeries or just trying to stay active as they get older.

That’s why she’s incorporating moves aimed at helping them stay agile and prevent falls.

Joe Signorile teaches Exercise Physiology at the University of Miami and authored the study.

Signorile, along with his research partners, came up with a type of yoga practice aimed at preventing harmful falls among elderly people.

He said he wanted to capture the growing popularity of yoga and turn it into to a sort of preventative medicine.

“Everybody you talk to wants to do yoga,” he said. “So why not give them programs with a modification of these classic poses—and maybe more important the transitions between these poses—so that they can go ahead and use a practice that they love.”

Signorile teamed up with yoga teachers in the area to come up with some of these moves.

Luca Richards was one of them. He’s an instructor at Bala Vinyasa in Miami.  Richards said yoga is a full body workout that really anyone can do, but it can be modified to reach specific goals.  He said that’s what makes it a perfect exercise to use as a kind of prescription.

"Everybody ages and we also know that one of the major problems that creates injuries with aging is falls. So, if we can reduce the number of falls we can have a positive impact not only on the individual, which is very important, but obviously on health care costs themselves." -- Joe Signorile, University of Miami

“For our falls prevention we wanted to do more ballistic movement,” he explained. “We wanted to do a bit more upper body strengthening and also balance work. We actually rearranged the sequence that we work with here at the studio to create a sequence that would support the students to where we wanted them to get to.”

Richards said it also helps that yoga doesn’t take a lot of equipment and can be done practically anywhere.

Signorile said part of his goal is to make sure people stay relatively agile as they age.

“So it’s not just about how strong am I, it’s how quickly can I move through a movement,” he said. “You can picture without having any biomechanics background or anything else: if I can recover more quickly from a stumble, than I can at least reduce the probability of injury from the fall.”

Signorile said using yoga as a prescription for people vulnerable to falls could help everyone.

“Everybody ages and we also know that one of the major problems that creates injuries with aging is falls. So, if we can reduce the number of falls we can have a positive impact not only on the individual—which is very important—but obviously on health care costs themselves,” he said.

Signorile presented his research at one of the biggest national yoga conferences last year. He said since then there has been a growing interest in using yoga as a method of fall prevention.

Angela Goodner, who also works at Bala Vinyasa in Naples, said her studio was already looking at ways to serve her elderly clients.

And having these specific classes, Goodner said, has opened the doors to people who didn’t think yoga was for them.

For one, she said people recovering from surgeries were hesitant to try any type of exercise.

“Then we had the people who we would encounter every day who would say, ‘I can’t do yoga. I don’t have good enough balance. I am not flexible enough.’ People who were afraid of a more traditional class,” she explained.

But now, Goodner said, there is research to back up what they’re doing.

And it’s had results already. Mary Beth Rowley has been attending therapeutic yoga for four months. Her doctor recommended she start taking classes after some pretty bad neck and shoulder injuries.

“My neck and shoulders have really benefited from the slow holding poses and so on,” she said. “It’s given me a lot of relief.”

She said she also feels like her hips are stronger, too.  Mostly Rowley said she just feels more “aligned,” which is something she says is hard to describe, but really affects her everyday life.

Signorile said he now has a slew of graduate students interested in carrying out his preliminary research for their theses.

He said he is also trying to secure some funding to continue his research, which includes yoga therapy for people living with Parkinson's disease.

Signorile said he hopes yoga will join the ranks of Tai-Chi and other practices aimed at keeping people healthy and agile as they age.

You can read more about Signorile's study by clicking here and here.

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