"I Have Arthritis. Is Yoga Right for Me?"

Yoga has become one of the most popular fitness activities in the U.S., with more than 20 million Americans taking part in this mind-and-body practice. More and more seniors are unrolling their yoga mats and assuming the downward-facing dog and tree poses in classes held in senior centers, senior living communities and even churches. Medical researchers have found that yoga improves flexibility and strength, lowers stress, relieves lower back pain, reduces the risk of falling and even improves memory—and these certainly are all benefits older adults can use.

But what about people with arthritis? It might seem counterintuitive to stretch the joints when they hurt! It's tempting instead to rest those knees and hips as much as possible. Yet experts say physical activity is one of the best ways to manage the pain and stiffness of arthritis. To learn whether yoga is a safe and effective form of physical activity for people with arthritis, a research team from Johns Hopkins Medicine recently conducted the largest study to date on the subject.

Dr. Clifton O. Bingham, who is director of the Johns Hopkins Arthritis Center, became interested in the topic through his medical practice. He reports, "It was watching what happened with my patients and the changes in their lives as a result of practicing yoga that got me involved in the first place."

Co-researcher Dr. Susan J. Bartlett adds, "There's a real surge of interest in yoga as a complementary therapy, with one in 10 people in the U.S. now practicing yoga to improve their health and fitness. Yoga may be especially well-suited to people with arthritis because it combines physical activity with potent stress management and relaxation techniques, and focuses on respecting limitations that can change from day to day."

To learn more, the team studied a group of people with two common types of arthritis, knee osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis. Half of the study subjects took part in an eight-week yoga program specially tailored for people with arthritis. At the end of the test period, researchers assessed the physical and mental well-being of the study subjects, and found that those assigned to the yoga program experienced 20 percent less pain, as well as enhanced energy levels and improved mood. The group that did yoga also reported that they were better able to complete physical tasks at work and home; they also experienced a slight increase in walking speed. And the effects lasted for months after the study.

Not Any Yoga Class Will Do

Seniors holding yoga matsThe National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health reports, "Yoga is generally low-impact and safe for healthy people when practiced appropriately under the guidance of a well-trained instructor," but warns that people with certain health conditions—including glaucoma, hypertension and sciatica—should talk to their doctor before participating in yoga, and practice caution, with positions modified and tailored for their individual condition.

This goes for people with arthritis as well. The yoga program in the Johns Hopkins study was conducted by experienced yoga therapists with special training to modify the poses for people with arthritis. Says Dr. Bingham, "People with arthritis who are considering yoga should talk with their doctors about which specific joints are of concern, and about modifications to poses. Find a teacher who asks the right questions about limitations and works closely with you as an individual. Start with gentle yoga classes. Practice acceptance of where you are and what your body can do on any given day."

The study was published in the Journal of Rheumatology.

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