Researchers find this relaxing activity might be as good for the brain as cardio

Doctors have known for a long time that the brain sees benefits from aerobic exercise. With imaging studies, researchers are able to show that increasing your heart rate with a jog or bike ride strengthens connections in many brain networks and aids in new neuron growth.

A new study, conducted by scientists from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, shows that yoga also strengthens many of the same brain networks as aerobic exercise.

Your brain can benefit from yoga

In this review, the research took a look at 11 peer-reviewed studies that combine brain imaging with yoga practices. Yoga is not aerobic in nature, but the review identified four brain regions and several brain networks that benefit from yoga practice.

The four brain regions are:

  • The hippocampus. This brain structure plays a huge role in memory and “is also the structure that is first affected in dementia and Alzheimer’s disease,” wrote Neha Gothe, one of the study’s authors. Gothe suggests that the hippocampus is shown to grow larger with yoga practice, which can mitigate the onset of dementia and Alzheimers, just like aerobic exercise has been shown to do.
  • The amygdala and the cingulate cortex. These two brain structures contribute to emotional regulation and are also shown to benefit from yoga exercise. Based on the review, it can be seen that the amygdalae of people who practice yoga regularly are larger than those of people that don’t practice at all. A larger amygdala contributes to increased circuit function between the amygdala and the cingulate cortex, which leads to improved emotional regulation.
  • The prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex, which is a brain region just behind the forehead, essential to making plans, decision-making, multitasking, and picking the right option. This piece of the brain is also shown to be bigger in the brains of people who regularly practice yoga.
  • The brain’s “default mode network.” The default mode network is the circuit of brain regions across the entire brain that helps in planning, memory, and self-reflection. These are some of the most active brain networks when people aren’t engaged in any one particular thing. This network has been shown to function more efficiently as a result of practicing yoga.

What do these improvements mean?

All of these combined changes in brain structure and function are linked to improved performance on cognitive tests as well as better measures of emotional regulation in those that practice yoga.

Authors from this study emphasize that research is just starting to scratch the surface of the benefits of yoga for the brain, and state that there is a long way to go before we fully understand the mechanisms behind these brain improvements.

As a result of improved emotional regulation, Gothe hypothesizes that can lead to a lower stress response, one of the leading causes of improvements throughout the brain.

“In one of my previous studies, we were looking at how yoga changes the cortisol stress response,” Gothe said. “We found that those who had done yoga for eight weeks had an attenuated cortisol response to stress that was associated with better performance on tests of decision-making, task-switching and attention.”

While this review is a good start to looking at how yoga may benefit the brain, more research studies are needed in order to fully understand the the mechanisms that yoga exercise uses to cause these improvements.

“The science is pointing to yoga being beneficial for healthy brain function, but we need more rigorous and well-controlled intervention studies to confirm these initial findings,” study author Jessica Damoiseaux said.