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Yoga Improves Teens’ Mental Health

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

 

Can yoga lift the moods of teens? A new study from Boston says yes.

Yoga classes have positive psychological effects for high-school students, according to a pilot study at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. The results appear in the April Journal of Developmental & Behavioral Pediatrics, the official journal of the Society for Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics.

Since mental health disorders commonly develop in the teenage years, "Yoga may serve a preventive role in adolescent mental health," according to the new study, led by Jessica Noggle, PhD, of Brigham and Women's Hospital, Harvard Medical School, Boston.

Study: yoga instead of PE

Fifty-one 11th- and 12th-grade students registered for physical education (PE) at a Massachusetts high school were randomly assigned to yoga or regular PE classes. (Two-thirds were assigned to yoga.) Based on Kripalu yoga, the classes consisted of physical yoga postures together with breathing exercises, relaxation, and meditation. Students in the comparison group received regular PE classes.

Students completed a battery of psychosocial tests before and after the ten-week yoga program. In addition to tests of mood and tension/anxiety, both groups completed tests assessing the development of self-regulatory skills—such as resilience, control of anger expression, and mindfulness—thought to protect against the development of mental health problems.

Yoga teens feel better

Teens taking yoga classes had better scores on several of the psychological tests. Specifically, while students in regular PE classes tended to have increased scores for mood problems and anxiety, those taking yoga classes stayed the same or showed improvement. Negative emotions also worsened in students taking regular PE, while improving in those taking yoga. (There was no difference in a test of positive emotions.)

However, the tests of self-regulatory skills were not significantly different between groups. Although attendance was only moderate, the students rated yoga fairly high—nearly three-fourths said they would like to continue taking yoga classes.

"The concept of offering yoga as an integrated part of the school curriculum is interesting and has implications for dissemination if found effective," said Elissa Jelalian, PhD, psychologist at the Bradley Hasbro Children’s Research Center. Jelalian, who is currently working on an intervention for teens who struggle with weight issues and depression, found it interesting that the differences between students who participated in yoga versus those who participated in traditional PE were in part due to worsening in mood and affect in the teens who received traditional PE.  "It leads to potential questions regarding what is happening in traditional PE classes and/or as a traditional part of the curriculum that may lead to decreases for this group," she said. "It is a small sample, so results need to be interpreted with caution."

Could yoga for teens help prevent issues?

Adolescence is an important time for the development of mental health, including healthy coping responses to stress. Several types of school-based stress management and wellness programs have been developed with the goal of encouraging healthy coping strategies and resilience among teens.

One promising approach is yoga, which combines strength and flexibility exercise with relaxation and meditation/mindfulness techniques. Studies have shown benefits of yoga in a wide range of mental and physical health problems, including a growing body of evidence showing positive effects in children and teens.

Although limited by its small size, the study suggests some positive psychological effects of Kripalu yoga for high school students. The results are "generally consistent" with the few previous studies of yoga in school settings. Dr Noggle and coauthors call for larger studies including multiple schools and tracking teens for several years into adulthood. These larger studies will be needed to clarify the psychological and other health benefits of yoga for adolescents—including the possible preventive benefit on development of mental health problems.

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