The Science of Yoga Ed.

Research continues to show that yoga has positive benefits for overall health and wellness and these benefits aren’t just limited to the hardcore yogis. Kids and teens both have a lot to gain from the movement and breath that yoga has to offer. Check out the research behind yoga to learn more.

Yoga supports physical fitness.

According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (2013), consistent physical activity is essential to promote health and fitness in children, including cardiovascular endurance, muscular strength and endurance, flexibility and weight control. With more than one in three children considered overweight or obese (CDC, 2015), getting kids involved in physical activity is more critical than ever.

As a form of aerobic exercise, yoga provides a great option to help children and teens be active. Plus, as a non-competitive activity with low-aerobic intensity, yoga is ideal for children and teens who may not feel comfortable participating in other sports, or who may be intimidated by more vigorous forms of exercise (Birdee et al., 2009). In research studies, yoga has demonstrated positive effects on the overall cardiovascular fitness and body mass of children (Birdee et al., 2009). In particular, research conducted on Yoga Ed. programming at The Accelerated School in Los Angeles found that students who participated in Yoga Ed. classes improved their aerobic capacity and their upper body strength over the course of the year, and saw more improvement in flexibility as compared to their peers who participated in standard P.E. classes (Slovacek et al., 2003).

Yoga supports the brain.

As kids and teens grow, their brains require support to help them not only learn and perform in school, but also to develop skills and habits to become balanced, healthy adults. Research shows that exercise actually helps to create new brain cells and has a powerful effect on the parts of the brain that produce serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine, which all directly impact learning (Ratey, 2008). Because movements and breathing exercises in yoga engage multiple networks throughout the brain (Ratey, 2008), yoga can provide both a full-body and full-brain workout. Studies have also shown that yoga can improve focus, concentration and executive function (Birdee et al., 2009), so that kids and teens can perform better in school and develop skills for long-term success.

Yoga helps to reduce stress and anxiety.

Kids and teens are stressed. In fact, according to the National Institutes of Mental Health, one in four children between the ages of 13 and 18 has an anxiety disorder. Beyond impacting the happiness of children and teens, stress and anxiety can have long-term effects on health, and can lead to serious health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and obesity (Ratey, 2008).

Physical activity is known to help relieve stress, but yoga may go further than exercise alone. Studies show that yoga has a positive effect on reducing stress and improving overall mental and emotional wellbeing (Birdee et al., 2009; Noggle et al., 2012), by:

  • Reducing perceived stress and increasing self-compassion, so that the mind can deal with stress more effectively and lessen its toll on the body (Gard et al., 2012)

  • Regulating the brain and nervous system, to reduce the physical stress response and improving brain function (Sengupta, 2012).

Yoga improves sleep quality.

Research also shows that a regular yoga practice can improve sleep quality by decreasing sleep onset time and number of awakenings while increasing total sleep time, sleep efficiency, and subjective sleep quality (Khalsa, 2004). This is especially important for children and teens, who require sleep for healthy growth and development, and aren’t getting the sleep they need (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2014).

Ideally, kids and teens would all have the time and opportunity to get the exercise they need every day but this isn’t always the case. In fact, according to the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, 80% of school districts in the United States have made cuts to P.E. in favor of more instructional time (Alliance for a Healthier Generation, 2015).

The good news is that even in small doses, exercise still works.

Taking short exercise breaks during the day, also known as brain breaks, can still impact physical fitness measures such as aerobic fitness and flexibility and has been shown to boost cognitive and brain health (Gomez-Pinilla & Hillman, 2013). The important thing is to just get kids moving, no matter where, when or for how long. So, even if you can’t unroll a mat and get kids or teens do a full yoga class, small doses of breath and movement through chair yoga can still be hugely beneficial, both physically and mentally.


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Megan Carroll

Megan Drissell Carroll, MPH, CHES, RYT is a public health professional based in Saint Louis, Missouri. She has a special interest in how yoga and mindfulness can support health, wellbeing, and longevity, and nerds out over all things anatomy, physiology, and gender studies.

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