Chair Yoga Improves Balance in Alzheimer’s Patients, A New Study Shows

By: 
B Grace Bullock, PhD, E RYT-500

Alzheimer’s Disease is a progressive form of dementia that causes impairments in attention, memory, thinking and behavior. A new study finds that the Sit ‘N’ Fit Chair Yoga Program can help to significantly improve the balance control of older adults with Alzheimer’s, indicating that motor learning is still possible, even in people with dementia. What’s more, this study suggests that the program is not only safe and feasible but enjoyable as well.

As the average age of the world population increases, so does the prevalence of Alzheimer’s Disease. Alzheimer’s is most common form of dementia, affecting nearly 6 million American adults. As it progresses, the disease can be highly debilitating, leaving its sufferers with a very low quality of life.

A recent study to be published in Research in Gerontology Nursing examined whether the 8-week Sit ‘N’ Fit Chair Yoga Program would be feasible and beneficial for adults with moderate to severe dementia. This standardized yoga program is tailored specifically for older adults who are unable to engage in traditional yoga due to physical weakness, fatigue, or fear of falling according to the authors of the study.

The program involved twice weekly, 50-minute chair yoga sessions. The sessions included 10 minutes of breathing exercises (pranayama), 20 minutes of physical postures (asana) in a chair designed to strengthen and stretch muscles and improve flexibility and balance, 5 minutes of physical postures dedicated to improving balance control, and 10 minutes of relaxation and guided visualization.

Nine adults, 65 years of age and older (34% men) who were members of a dementia day care center, attended the yoga classes. Participants’ physical functioning, walking speed and balance were assessed at baseline then again after weeks 4 and 8 of the program, at 1-month follow up.

Chair yoga is feasible, effective and enjoyable

Participants attended 100% of the yoga classes. The authors of the study report that participants were not only engaged in the classes, but also were able to “accurately complete all of the postures, breathing, and meditative aspects of the program.” This is impressive as many yoga programs struggle with high dropout rates and flagging motivation.

The 9 participants demonstrated a consistent and statistically significant increase in their balance control from the beginning to the end of the yoga program. Remarkably, balance ratings continued to improve 1-month after program completion, suggesting the potential for long-term sustained benefits.  This is particularly noteworthy in light of the fact that the practices were performed in a chair. The authors attribute this result to increased body awareness that was cultivated during each yoga class.

Changes in fitness as measured using a 6-minute walking test were mixed. Significant gains were found in the first 4 weeks of the program, however participants’ average levels dropped below baseline ratings by the end of 8-weeks. At 1-month follow-up, the average level for the participants had increased slightly above their initial measures, suggesting that benefits were variable at best.

Participants did demonstrate consistent improvement in gait speed from pre-test to week 8, however their average gait speed dropped slightly by 1-month follow-up suggesting that these improvements may not be sustainable in the absence of the yoga program.

The article’s authors were particularly impressed with the fact that the 9 participants with moderate to severe Alzheimer’s Disease were able to complete “all aspects of the program, and did not lose interest in participation.” This is extraordinary considering the difficulty that some adults with dementia experience with attention, memory and fatigue.

While there is a limited ability to make inferences regarding the effectiveness of this program due to the lack of a control group and the small sample size, these initial data are promising and suggest that chair yoga may provide a feasible, safe and enjoyable option for older adults with dementia who are seeking to improve their quality of life.

 

B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT 500 is a psychologist, research scientist, educator, author, yoga and mindfulness expert and creator ofBREATHE: 7 Skills for Mindful Relationships. Her mission is to reduce stress, increase health and wellbeing and improve the quality of relationships. She offers classes, workshops, writing and research that combine the wisdom of applied neuroscience, psychophysiology, psychology and contemplative science and practice. Her goal is to empower individuals, groups, leaders and organizations to reduce chronic stress and increase awareness, attention, compassion, mindfulness and effective communication to strengthen relationships, release dysfunctional patterns and unlock new and healthy ways of being. Dr. Bullock is a Certified Viniyoga Therapist and Faculty at the Integrated Health Yoga Therapy (IHYT) Training program. She is the former Senior Research Scientist at the Mind & Life Institute and former Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. For more information see www.bgracebullock.com

 

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