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Just 20 Minutes of Yoga Can Significantly Enhance Brainpower

Update Date: Jun 06, 2013 04:03 PM EDT

Got a big exam coming up? Instead of cramming, try a short yoga session.

A new study conducted at the University of Illinois found that a single. 20-minute session of Hatha yoga significantly improved participant' speed and accuracy on tests of working memory and inhibitory control. 

The study found that participants performed significantly better immediately after the yoga practice than after moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise for the same amount of time.

The study, published in the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, involved 30 undergraduate female participants.

"Yoga is becoming an increasingly popular form of exercise in the U.S. and it is imperative to systematically examine its health benefits, especially the mental health benefits that this unique mind-body form of activity may offer," Illinois kinesiology and community health professor Edward McAuley said in a news release.

Participants either completed 20-minute yoga sessions or walked or jogged on a treadmill for 20 minutes.  Each of the participants worked out at a suitable speed and incline of the treadmill, with the goal of maintaining 60 to 70 percent of their maximum heart rate throughout the exercise session.

"This range was chosen to replicate previous findings that have shown improved cognitive performance in response to this intensity," the researchers wrote in the study.

Investigators found that yoga sessions significantly improved reaction times and accuracy on cognitive tasks.  However, participants showed no improvements in cognitive tasks after completing aerobic exercise sessions.

"It appears that following yoga practice, the participants were better able to focus their mental resources, process information quickly, more accurately and also learn, hold and update pieces of information more effectively than after performing an aerobic exercise bout," lead researcher Neha Gothe of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign said in a news release.

"The breathing and meditative exercises aim at calming the mind and body and keeping distracting thoughts away while you focus on your body, posture or breath. Maybe these processes translate beyond yoga practice when you try to perform mental tasks or day-to-day activities," she added.

Researchers said many factors could explain why yoga improves cognition.

"Enhanced self-awareness that comes with meditational exercises is just one of the possible mechanisms. Besides, meditation and breathing exercises are known to reduce anxiety and stress, which in turn can improve scores on some cognitive tests," Gothe explained.

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