NCCAM has supported a fair number of studies on the potential health benefits of yoga. Of particular interest has been exploring the role of yoga as a strategy for alleviating symptoms such as chronic pain or stress or for promoting healthier lifestyles. There is still a lot we don’t know, but there is a growing body of clinical research evidence that now suggests that yoga can enhance quality of life, reduce psychological stress, and improve some mental health outcomes. Recent research also suggests that the addition of yoga or mindfulness meditation practices may be associated with promoting weight loss and healthier eating habits.
Equally important as the exploration of its potential health benefits is research on the safety of yoga. Yoga is often promoted as a safe and effective exercise program, and although the risk of serious injury from yoga is thought to be quite low, that’s not always the case. Some poses may place too much strain on certain joints, particularly if they're not being done properly or modified appropriately for the individual. In rare cases, certain types of stroke as well as pain from nerve damage are also among the possible side effects of practicing yoga. But in fact, the physical demands and safety of yoga have not been well studied, particularly in older adults. So, that’s why it’s important that NCCAM-funded researchers are looking at the biomechanics of yoga.
A new NCCAM-funded study, by Salem and colleagues, uses biomechanical methods to quantify the musculoskeletal demands associated with commonly practiced yoga poses in older adults. Dr. Salem was our guest speaker at the January 14th NCCAM Integrative Medicine Research Lecture and spoke about the results of his Yoga Empowers Seniors Study, which was published this month in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
Researchers in this study found that musculoskeletal demand varied significantly across the different poses. For example, the Warrior Leading and Trailing poses were the only two poses that produced appreciable hip adductor joint moments of force (JMOFs). These JMOFs were about 4 times greater than the average peak JMOF generated when the participants walked at a comfortable speed. This type of finding can be clinical relevant in helping seniors determine the most appropriate poses and modifications. You can read more about how the study was conducted in our research spotlight. The safety of yoga is an area of ongoing interest to NCCAM, and I would agree with the authors that this study, though small, provides data that could be used in future studies to test the clinical effectiveness of goal-specific yoga programs and provide more options for the design of safe yoga programs.
People who practiced yoga or took natural products (dietary supplements other than vitamins and minerals) were more likely to do so for wellness reasons than to treat a specific health condition, according to analysis of data from the 2012 National Health Interview Survey (NHIS). Yoga users reported the most positive health benefits, compared to users of natural products and spinal manipulation. The analysis by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) was published in a National Health Statistics Report by the National Center for Health Statistics.
“Though yoga seems to play the biggest role, people who use a variety of complementary health approaches reported better wellbeing,” said Josephine P. Briggs, M.D., director of NCCIH. “This may suggest that people perceive more wellness benefit when they are actively involved in their health, for example by practicing yoga. More research is needed to better understand the ways yoga and other approaches impact overall health.”
The NHIS is an annual study in which thousands of Americans are interviewed about their health- and illness-related experiences. The 2012 NHIS asked participants about their use of complementary health approaches and whether they used them to treat a specific health condition or for any of five wellness-related reasons. Participants were also asked whether this use led to any of nine desirable health-related outcomes. The survey results are based on data from 34,525 adults aged 18 and older.
This analysis provides estimates of selected wellness-related reasons for and outcomes from the use of three complementary health approaches: natural product supplements; yoga; and spinal manipulation. Yoga users were much more likely than users of other approaches to report specific wellness-related outcomes, such as feeling better emotionally. They were also the most likely to report exercising more, eating better, and cutting back on alcohol and cigarettes. While the analysis did not show why yoga users reported greater wellness, more than 70 percent of yoga users reported a “focus on the whole person—mind, body and spirit” as a reason for practicing yoga. Specific findings of the analysis included:
- “General wellness or disease prevention” was the most common wellness-related reason for use of each of the three approaches.
- More than two-thirds of users of all three health approaches reported that their use improved their overall health and made them feel better.
- Nearly two-thirds of yoga users reported that as a result of practicing yoga they were motivated to exercise more regularly, and 4 in 10 reported they were motivated to eat healthier.
- More than 80 percent of yoga users reported reduced stress as a result of practicing yoga.
- Although dietary supplement users were twice as likely to report wellness rather than treatment as a reason for taking supplements, fewer than 1 in 4 reported reduced stress, better sleep, or feeling better emotionally as a result of using dietary supplements.
- More than 60 percent of those using spinal manipulation reported doing so to treat a specific health condition, and more than 50 percent did so for general wellness or disease prevention.
“The NHIS is the principle source of health information on U.S. adults. Our results suggest that complementary health approaches may play an important role in promoting positive health behaviors, including those we know impact chronic conditions” said Barbara Stussman, statistician for NCCIH and author of the analysis.