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Study: Short Yoga Sessions Boost Brain Power

The benefits of yoga stretch beyond injury prevention and stress reduction. A 20-minute mat session also makes your brain work better, according to new research.

Your yoga practice may be doing more for your body than combatting work stress and giving your muscles a good stretch between strength workouts. New research from the University of Illinois suggests that short bouts of yoga may also make your brain work better. 

In the study published in the Journal of Physical Activity & Health, 30 college students were asked to complete two cognitive exercises that involved identifying shapes on a computer screen. The first time through, the participants conducted the experiment without working out beforehand; the second time, they walked or jogged on a treadmill for 20 minutes before doing the exercise; and the third time they preceded the exercise with a 20-minute hatha yoga session that included yoga poses, seated meditation, and deep breathing.

Researchers found that yoga outperformed both aerobic exercise and no exercise when it came to keeping the students sharp. The single 20-minute bout of yoga improved their focus and helped them process information faster and more accurately than they did without it. Plus, its brain benefits kicked in more quickly than compared with cardio—they students got a cognitive boost about 30 minutes after completing their last pose.

So, does that mean it’s time to completely abandon your running shoes for a sticky mat? Probably not. Previous research has shown that cardio is also good for the brain. Still, yoga has a leg up (literally) on a sweaty run. In addition to scaling back stress and anxiety (which in turn improves brain function), yoga keeps your mind focused on a single task—a technique you can easily transfer to other areas of your life. 

So, if you’ve got a big work presentation on tap for this afternoon, use your lunch break to squeeze in a short yoga class instead of zoning out on the treadmill.

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