Poor fitness is the biggest obstacle to healthy aging. More than anything, our physical abilities shape the quality of daily life. Whether we remain independent, active, and free of injury is ultimately determined by the steps we take to build strength, balance, and flexibility. Challenging these key components of health with total body exercises, such as yoga, allows us to overcome obstacles and continue leading free and fulfilling lives. In fact, yoga strength, balance, and flexibility exercises are one of the most effective ways of promoting health. They work multiple muscle groups, protect our joints, and enhance our range of motion.
Yoga strength exercises focus on the back, joints, and abdominals. These areas are the core of our stamina and fitness. They keep us stable, allowing us to focus our energy in any direction.
Each of us has four sets of abdominals linking the upper and lower halves of our body. Along with the back muscles, they are the cornerstones of balance and activity.
Strong abdominals provide a stable base for movement. They hold us upright, reinforcing the spine so we can transfer greater power through our arms and legs.
Your back is made up of mutually supporting muscle groups. It is one of the strongest parts of our physique, underpinning almost every movement in the upper and lower body.
We rely on our back and abdominal muscles to perform basic actions such as pulling, lifting and carrying, which is why they are referred to as our core. Every action we take depends on them to absorb and channel the forces within our body.
Joints are multilayered structures made of bone, sinew, and cartilage. They are held together by ligaments, tough bands of connective tissue that protect and support our range of motion. These are buttressed by cartilage and synovial fluid that lubricate the joint and prevent friction. Around these are a series of muscles called tendons, that power movement and cushion the force of impact.
Joints degrade over time unless supported with regular exercise. First, inactivity prevents synovial fluid from circulating. Then muscles start to weaken, forcing bones to absorb greater amounts of force. As a result, cartilage wears down and becomes inflamed, making it painful to move our limbs. Finally, ligaments become stiff, further restricting motion and depriving the joint of much-needed support.
By contrast, safe and gentle movement strengthens muscles, ligaments, and cartilage, even in older adults. In seniors suffering joint pain, gentle exercise has been shown to reduce symptoms, with yoga being particularly effective.
Yoga strength exercises stimulate our natural ability to adapt. Using resistance and body weight, they build muscle mass, improve bone density, and combat weakness throughout the body.
Balance is a function of our eyes, ears and central nervous system. Eyes allow us to judge depth and distance, as well as our position relative to our surroundings. Equilibrium receptors in the inner ear let us track movement, acceleration, and rotation. Finally, our nervous system keeps us aware of our body’s location in space.
Because balance is a composite sense, each of these systems are closely connected. Vision is dominant but relies on the other two in order to create a clear picture of our situation. For example, one of the reasons you react quickly to changes in balance is because your eyes are fed information from your inner ear. In addition, touching an object creates a visual image in the mind. Consequently, because each sense is interlinked, strengthening any one of them leaves the others better able to do their job.
Balance is a background sense, so even though it requires constant effort, we are rarely aware of it; though this does not mean it is beyond our control.
Yoga strength and balance poses sharpen our perception by challenging two key reflexes. First is the vestibular ocular reflex, which keeps our vision stable while our head is moving. Second is the vestibular spinal reflex, which controls our posture. Though these processes are automatic, regular exercise trains them to better recognize and integrate sensory data, which leads to smoother, more precise movements.
In addition to its physical benefits, yoga also improves balance by relieving stress. Surprisingly, there is an overlap in our brain between the areas that process emotion and the areas that process feedback from the inner ear. This means motion not only affects our mood (think of riding a roller coaster for instance), but our mood also affects how we respond to motion. Anxiety specifically makes it harder for us to interpret signals from our inner ear, which is why people are more likely to experience vertigo when they are stressed. Yoga, with its mindful approach to well-being, is the perfect antidote. By encouraging participants to slow their breathing and focus on the present, it helps lower blood pressure and stress hormones. After several weeks, people report feeling calmer, more relaxed, and more balanced.
Flexibility lets us move our joints through their full range of motion. This keeps them fresh and limber, ensuring our cartilage and supportive tissue receive adequate blood flow and lubrication. In addition, it prevents muscles, ligaments, tendons, and joint capsules from becoming stiff and restricting our movement. Greater range of motion also helps us react quickly and nimbly, making it possible to change direction or shift our weight to maintain balance and avoid harm.
Perhaps most importantly, flexibility allows us to take full advantage of our strength. Whether walking, running, lifting, or carrying, muscles that can fully extend are able to exert and withstand greater amounts of force. Flexibility also ensures weight is distributed evenly during physical activity. A restricted joint places greater stress on other areas of the body, which must work harder to compensate. Because tired muscles are worse at protecting and stabilizing joints, this type of fatigue puts us at greater risk of injury, such as torn ligaments or tendons. Furthermore, inflexibility in one area can create problems elsewhere. For example, tight hamstrings can throw your hips out of alignment and cause lower back pain.
Modern life encourages inactivity. People find it easy to drive or sit on the couch, depriving themselves of the stimulus they need to stay fit. The effects of inactivity grow worse with age, until it becomes impossible to perform even basic tasks.
Yoga strength, balance, & flexibility exercises are an easy way to escape this trap and preserve our physical abilities. It allows us to move at our own pace, rebuilding our fitness or raising it beyond what we had previously imagined.
Jasmine El Nabli MS RDN is a Registered Dietitian who empowers and educates individuals through her scientific, holistic approach to health and happiness. With the right tools, skills, and knowledge, she shows people how to create healthy and sustainable eating habits through small changes to daily life.