Protect Your Heart With the Easiest Exercise in the World

I learned in medical school, "If you can move, you're alive."

It has stuck with me since. It's one reason I recommend movement as one of the most powerful ways to improve your health.

Everything from burning calories to strengthening muscles and elevating positive moods comes from simple exercise.

You don't need intensive, difficult, or time-consuming exercise to reap the incredible health benefits movement offers.

For example, we've written about how many people fail to meet their New Year's resolution to work out and recommended the time-saving program called high-intensity interval training.

And today, I want to talk about the easiest exercise in the world – yoga.

People have practiced its many forms for centuries. Even though it's simple, it protects your heart just as well as aerobics.

Yoga grew out of a Hindu religious philosophy of uniting the mind and the body. But yoga as it's practiced today in the U.S. generally leaves out the religious overtones. More often, people use yoga to exercise... as a way to control their breathing, strengthen their core, and stretch their muscles.

Over the past three decades, the research on the health benefits of yoga has piled up. Here are the big four...

1) Yoga reduces stress.

Stress takes a big toll on cells, especially on the protective caps on the ends of your DNA, called telomeres. These caps wear down each time your cells divide, so they disappear as you age. When the telomeres are gone, the cell stops dividing and dies. Stress makes telomeres shrink faster than normal, which leads to a host of age-related diseases.

Yoga protects your telomeres. In a study released last year, researchers studied telomere length in a group of women with higher-than-normal stress levels: breast cancer survivors. Participants who practiced yoga maintained the length of their telomeres over an eight-week period... while those who only had a one-day seminar on stress had shorter telomeres.

2) Yoga protects your heart.

In a comprehensive review of random-controlled trials published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, researchers analyzed 37 clinical trials that focused on yoga. They found that participants who practiced yoga saw decreases in blood pressure and heart rate equal to the decreases caused by aerobic exercise. The scientists attributed the findings not only to the physical strength yoga builds, but also the stress-relieving practices it uses.

And another study done at the University of Kansas showed that yoga cuts your risk for atrial fibrillation. This condition is an irregular heartbeat that can lead to blood clots in the heart, and strokes.

3) Yoga strengthens the brain.

As we age, our brains lose gray matter – where the clusters of nerve cells live. It's responsible for much of our brain's functions, including muscle control, memory, vision, hearing, emotions, and decision making.

In a paper published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, researchers scanned images of participants' brains. They found significant increases in gray matter in people who practiced yoga. In fact, the more hours a week someone did yoga, the greater the amount of gray matter.

4) Yoga helps arthritis.

Yoga relieves stress on your joints, providing relief from arthritis. In an Indian study from 2001, researchers tested grip strength – a common measure in arthritis studies – before and after yoga. Their participants included people with and without arthritis. After at least two weeks of practicing yoga, both groups saw improvements in grip scores.

And a more recent study in the Journal of Rheumatology introduced yoga to people with either rheumatoid arthritis or osteoarthritis. People from both groups practiced yoga once a week for eight weeks. And both yoga groups saw improved flexibility, physical activity, and walking.

A couple members of my research team go to a yoga class about once a week.

If that's too frequent for you, do what I do: I practice yoga poses at least two to three times per week... and do a yoga group session about twice a month. I also often do what's called Thai yoga therapy... which combines yoga poses and stretching with a type of massage.

If you have never done yoga before, sign up for a class. To make sure you stick with the classes, find a yoga buddy. Or, as my senior analyst Matt Weinschenk suggests, buy a block of yoga classes. Making that kind of commitment makes it harder to come up with excuses to skip class.

Many gyms and yoga studios offer senior-focused practices as well. Instructors design these programs for folks over the age of 50 who may have trouble holding poses for too long or have joint or back problems. You can search for local yoga classes right here, but don't forget to check your local gyms and senior centers as well.