There may finally be a new, non-drug remedy for osteoarthritis. It turns out chair yoga—which involves using a chair for support in modified yoga poses—could have real benefits for people who suffer from the condition. Researchers from Florida Atlantic University have found that the gentle style helped ease pain and increase mobility in older adults.
For the study, 131 seniors with osteoarthritis (the kind caused by lifelong wear and tear in the joints) in the knees, hips, feet, or ankles were divided into two groups. One group attended Sit N’ Fit Chair Yoga, a program developed by instructor Kristine Lee, twice a week. The rest of the participants attended a health education program twice a week, according to the report in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.
After eight weeks, the people taking chair yoga experienced a greater decrease in fatigue, pain, and pain interference (or the extent to which their discomfort interfered with their daily activities). They also had a greater improvement in their walking speed compared to the control group.
“For most people with osteoarthritis, chronic pain is a major issue, and they rely on many pain meds that can really affect their health,” says co-author JuYoung Park, PhD, associate professor at Florida Atlantic University's College for Design and Social Inquiry. “We know exercise, like aerobics, can help manage pain, but a lot of people aren’t able to do these exercises because they’re afraid of falling or balancing. Chair yoga offers a support system for them to do exercises.”
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The Sit N' Fit yoga class included both seated and standing poses, as well as breathing exercises, with a focus on relaxation and meditation. To see if the benefits of the 8-week program would last, the researchers followed up with the participants three months later.
By then, the participants' pain, fatigue, and gait speed had returned to their original levels. That's probably because they didn't keep up their chair yoga practice at home, says Park. “They liked coming to the class, seeing the instructor demonstrate the moves, and having the social aspect of it,” she explains.
But the positive effect on pain interference remained. Park believes the yoga practice taught participants how to better handle discomfort during everyday activities, such as household chores. “When they experience pain, they can use their relaxation and meditation techniques to get through it,” she says.
Celebrity yoga instructor and Health contributing editor, Kristin McGee, has found chair yoga to be helpful for many of her clients—not just those who have arthritis, but people with injuries or a disabilities, pregnant women, and clients carrying excess weight as well. McGee is the author of the new book, Chair Yoga: Sit, Stretch, and Strengthen Your Way to a Happier, Healthier You ($19, amazon.com).
“The instinct is to not move a joint that is painful, but you need to keep movement in the joint to allow fluid to flow through and so you don’t atrophy,” says McGee. “So chair yoga is a great low-impact option. Plus, breathing helps with pain management, and calms the nervous system.”
If you are interested in trying it, be sure to go slow and listen to your body, McGee says: “Pay attention to the difference between the discomfort of a stretch and actual pain." You can breathe through discomfort; but if something truly hurts, you should stop doing it.
To get started, she suggests three simple stretches—Eagle pose, High alter pose, and Triceps stretch. In the video below, you can watch McGee demonstrate these poses in a relaxing and restorative chair yoga flow that takes just about 10 minutes:
Extend your right arm in front of you to make an “L” shape, with your fingers pointing to the ceiling. Then wrap your left arm under and in front of your right arm, and try to bring your palms to a prayer position. Lift your arms away from your face and hold the stretch to open your shoulders.
High alter pose
Lift your arms over your head, interlace your fingers, and press the heels of your hands to the sky. Lean to one side, with the opposite hip anchored on the chair. Lengthen your lower back. Return to center and repeat on the other side.
Take your right arm overhead and pull the right elbow with the left hand to stretch your triceps, rotator cuff, and shoulder. (To modify this pose, hold onto either end of a towel.) Repeat on the other side.
These moves can be done at your desk or during your commute, says McGee, whether you're seeking relief from aches and pain, or you just need a breather.
The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health.