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Chair yoga found to ease arthritis pain, study finds

Yoga instructor Diane Zantop, of Boca Raton, Fla.,

Yoga instructor Diane Zantop, of Boca Raton, Fla., was involved in a recent study by Florida Atlantic University that showed chair yoga helped reduce pain among arthritic seniors. Credit: TNS / Diane Zantop

Just how effective is chair yoga?

Well, a recently published study by Florida Atlantic University professors found seniors don’t necessarily have to be able to pump iron or do aerobics in order to improve their health.

Juyoung Park, an FAU social work associate professor who was the co-principal investigator, said elders with chronic arthritis reported having less pain and fatigue after regularly attending a yoga class where they used chairs for support.

Park hopes the results encourage frail seniors and their doctors to look beyond pain medication for relief, as the number of elders facing opiate addiction continues to rise.

“A lot of seniors don’t know how to handle the pain except to take medication. And their doctors don’t have time to explain other options to them,” said Park, who works in FAU’s College for Design and Social Inquiry.

Hospitalizations for opioid misuse among people age 85 and older went up fivefold between 1993 and 2012, according to federal statistics. Yet despite osteoarthritis affecting 12 million Americans age 65 and older and being the most common cause of long-term disability among seniors, there are few treatments beyond pain drugs to help them, according to the study.

Funded by the federal National Institutes of Health and National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, the study followed for three months 131 seniors age 65 and older who have osteoarthritis and moderate chronic joint pain. The results were published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society. Four additional professors from FAU’s College of Medicine and the College of Nursing were co-authors or co-principal investigators.

Using chairs allows seniors who can’t stand unassisted to be able to do yoga, a popular holistic treatment recommended by the Arthritis Foundation because it improves flexibility and balance. The foundation said yoga’s mind-body focus could also ease stress and tension.

Yoga and other exercise classes using chairs are taught at numerous South Florida senior centers, retirement homes and care facilities. Yet sometimes these programs are incorrectly viewed as not being real exercise, said yoga instructor Diane Zantop.

“Working with the body as it is, is much better than not doing anything,” said Zantop, who taught study participants at the Northeast Focal Point Senior Center in Deerfield Beach. “The power of these yoga postures done in a chair was profound.”

Zantop said she was amazed by her group’s progress during the research. Some students had knee replacements, used walkers or canes, or had trouble breathing. One woman had an artificial limb.

“I could see them looking happier, calmer, brighter. The change in their facial expressions was lovely. Their confidence level increased each week,” said Zantop, who is certified to teach the Sit N Fit chair yoga method that the study used.

One woman, who fell at home, credited the class with giving her enough strength to get back up on her own, according to Zantop. “She was able to get herself out of a potentially bad situation,” Zantop said.

Along with charting the yoga students’ progress, FAU researchers also followed a control group of residents at the Douglas Gardens Senior Housing complex in Pembroke Pines, Florida. Instead of yoga instruction, these participants attended wellness education sessions.

Both the yoga and the lecture sessions ran twice weekly for eight weeks, with the researchers measuring participants’ pain levels and pain’s impact on their lives, balance, walking speed, fatigue and functional ability. Follow-ups were done with both groups.

Park said the yoga participants showed a greater reduction in pain and its interference with their daily activities than the wellness education participants, although both groups benefited. And the yoga seniors continued to show pain improvement during their final three-month follow-up.

The yoga group also initially showed greater improvement in walking speed and fatigue, although that was not sustained, Park said.

Encouraged by the results, Park said FAU is trying to get funding to test chair yoga’s effects on another group of seniors struggling with a medical condition that has few treatment options — those with dementia conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease.

“We’ll be looking at behavioral and emotional issues, like whether chair yoga will help with anxiety, depression and sleep,” she said.

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