Falls can be a serious threat for older Americans. One-third of adults over age 65 fall each year, and one out of five falls causes a serious injury.
But a new study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggests yoga — specifically hatha yoga — can dramatically reduce the risk of falls for older adults.
"The yoga we chose is also called chair yoga. It does not require the participant to get onto the floor," said Dr. Irene Hamrick, a professor of family medicine at UW-Madison and a lead researcher on the study. "The poses all can be done in the standing position while holding onto a chair or another surface like the wall."
For the study, the 38 participants attended an hour-long yoga class twice a week, for eight weeks. They were assigned to do five minutes of meditation at home.
Half of the group was also assigned to add in 10 additional minutes of yoga along with the meditation. Hamrick said researchers wanted to determine whether additional home yoga would lead to better outcomes.
Then, six months after the study began, researchers checked back in with the participants.
"We showed improvement in all balance and strength parameters that we measured. That’s just the Berg balance test and a number of other measures," Hamrick said. "But in addition to these intermediary measures, we also found fall reduction."
During the six months before the study, 15 participants reported 27 falls.
But during and up to 6 months after the study, 13 participants reported 14 falls, an almost 50 percent reduction in falls.
Hamrick said the study wasn’t extensive enough to know exactly why the yoga classes and meditation led to a decrease in falls — whether it was the mental focus or the physical activity that helped.
Past studies have shown that yoga can significantly improve balance.
"When we asked participants what they thought made the difference, they said, 'I'm much more aware of the four points of my foot on the floor,'" Hamrick said. "So it might have also been more the awareness, but we also don’t know how much meditation or breathing exercises might have contributed to the improvement in falls. That is all something that needs to be studied further."
The researchers did not find a significant difference between the group that practiced extra yoga at home and the group that did not. Hamrick said this could be replicated in a larger study to determine why that is.
At the same time, Hamrick’s past research indicates that a little bit of extra physical activity, no matter what it is, can make a big difference when it comes to preventing falls.
Hamrick says that can look like balancing on one leg while brushing your teeth, or using extra muscles while wiping off the kitchen table.
This can be helpful, Hamrick says, because often participants will stop exercising for fall reduction after the class ends.
"We really have to change the mindset of all of us because more and more data is coming out of the benefits of exercise," she said. "For everything from cancer to preventing dementia and of course, falls."