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You might have heard that yoga can be good for losing weight. Well, before you don your stretchy pants and start doing sun salutations, it’s important to set realistic expectations. Yoga is chock full of benefits for the mind and body, but how effective is it for promoting weight loss? Let’s take a look.
A short history of yoga as exercise
What we think of today as yoga was first codified in the Yoga Sutras, a collection of aphorisms, sometime between 500 B.C. and 400 A.D. in India. It’s in these collections where yoga is first defined as a spiritual practice. Yoga’s goal was to free oneself from active thought and distractions, to become conscious of nothing but the divine and one’s consciousness (Telles, 2016).
How did we get from there to doing downward dogs at a suburban strip mall wellness center? It’s a long route. We won’t get into all of it.
The asanas (poses) started in earnest with a style called Hatha yoga. This style fell in and out of favor over the centuries. In the late 1800s, physical fitness movements were sweeping Europe and spread to India. Nationalist fitness regimens developed, incorporating Hatha yoga asanas with strength training and other physical activities (Newcombe, 2017).
The modern Western yoga studio is directly traceable to Shri Yogendra, founder of The Yoga Institute. His first yoga center was popular with the middle-class Bombay bourgeoisie. In 1919 he opened a branch in the United States. He was arguably the first yogi to offer a secularized yoga practice (Newcombe, 2017). Some refer to this type of yoga exercise as “modern postural yoga” to separate it from classical yoga’s religious tradition.
Yoga for weight loss
There is only one reliable way to lose weight and reduce body mass index (BMI) for most people: burn more calories than you consume. The two ends of that formula, burning and consuming, can take several different forms.
Is yoga an effective calorie burner? The short answer: it depends. There are many types of yoga, some better for exercise than others. They run from mild restorative yoga to vigorous workouts.
Some styles of yoga focus on meditation and breathing exercises. Others, such as vinyasa yoga, focus not just on the asanas but specific transitions between them. These forms keep the body in motion and provide more aerobic exercise than merely doing poses. A 2017 study found that while vinyasa yoga met the criteria for moderate-intensity activity, it fell slightly short of brisk walking for total calorie burning (Sherman, 2017).
11 benefits of yoga for physical and mental health
A more recent study on adults with obesity found tempo made a significant difference. Participants worked their way from six to three seconds per pose over three sessions. While even the fastest pace was shy of the metabolic equivalent of walking, researchers found all rates qualified as moderate level exercise and good options for exercisers with obesity (Pryor, 2019).
Then there’s Bikram Yoga. Bikram consists of 26 asanas performed over 90 minutes in a room heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit with 40% humidity. You may have heard tales that Bikram experts can burn 1,000 calories per session. There is no scientific basis for this claim. Only a select few intense cardiovascular exercises, such as running, fast swimming, or high-intensity interval training (HIIT), have been shown in studies to burn calories at that rate. Yet many yoga instructors and personal trainers repeat it, unquestioned.
While Bikram yoga (also known as hot yoga) doesn’t come close to the claimed level of calorie burn, it’s not bad as moderate exercise goes. A 2014 study of novice and experienced Bikram practitioners found they burned from 179 to 478 calories over a standard 90-minute session (Pate, 2014). That’s a pretty wide range, accountable to several factors. The participant’s experience level was a factor that led to higher results, with more experienced practitioners burning a higher average number of calories.
How does this compare to walking? That depends. When calculating calories burned by walking, we can use the formula of 0.75 calories per kilometer per kilogram body weight. That’s a little more than half a calorie per mile per pound in U.S. measurements (Brooks, 2005). The average American man at 197 pounds, walking at 3.2 miles per hour, would burn equal calories as the top-level Bikram exercisers. A 120-pound person would need to move at 5.3 mph for the same effect, more of a jogging pace.
None of this is to say that a Bikram session isn’t a good exercise. It is! But a brisk walk at a steady pace can be just as potent, if admittedly less sociable.
Other types of yoga
Some yoga styles may burn more calories than Bikram. The hot room and humidity don’t appear to make a significant difference in total calorie expenditure. More vigorous styles of yoga, such as Ashtanga vinyasa yoga or its many spin-offs (often marketed as “power yoga”), can have a more robust cardiovascular effect.
Even if yoga by itself isn’t burning as many calories as high-intensity exercise, regular yoga practice can increase flexibility and reduce joint pain. This may encourage a person to do further training or lead a more active lifestyle in general (Bernstein, 2013).
The benefits of yoga go beyond simple calorie use. Some may tie into weight management. Let’s look at some of the other ways yoga might help in achieving weight loss goals.
Yoga and sleep
It may seem counterintuitive, but a critical step in losing weight is not doing anything at all. That’s not to say the belly fat will melt away if you sit on the couch all day. But getting a good night’s sleep is an integral part of any healthy lifestyle.
A small study of people with overweight and obesity placed on controlled diets found that reducing time in bed by 90 minutes a day for five days a week affected weight loss. The sleep-deprived group lost a slightly lower percentage of their starting weight. More notable was where they lost it. For the group sleeping in their usual way, 80% of the lost weight came from body fat, on average. For the sleep-deprived group, over 86% of the lost weight came from lean mass and only about 17% from fat (Wang, 2018).
Trouble sleeping: causes and what you can do
What does this have to do with yoga? Most studies have suggested that while it isn’t a cure for insomnia, practicing yoga promotes better sleep quality (Wang, 2019). It’s not just from tiring you out, either. Research has found that even mild forms of Hatha yoga increase melatonin levels (Harinath, 2004).
Yoga and stress
Stress and obesity are often linked. Stress affects our behavior, notably our ability to plan and control our impulses. It can trigger overeating, especially unhealthy foods high in sugar or fat. Stress can make one more sedentary and disturb sleep. This can create a feedback loop, as obesity itself can lead to stress (Tomiyama, 2019). Could yoga help interrupt this cycle?
Researchers aren’t totally convinced that yoga by itself reduces stress and anxiety. Studies are inconsistent regarding whether physiological markers of stress, such as standing blood pressure and heart rate, are affected by yoga (Li, 2012).
Sometimes it’s not the exercise but the broader practices that can have a positive impact on stress. One study of college students compared integrated yoga (incorporating spiritual practice) to only doing yoga for exercise. While both groups experienced better perceived mental health, only the integrated yoga group had consistently lower stress hormone (cortisol) levels (Smith, 2011). Another study suggested that it was the structured breathing and meditation rather than yoga poses that seemed to have the most potent effect on managing high blood pressure. Though, even then, it only worked as an adjunct to medication (Cramer, 2015).
The jury is still out on yoga and stress. But one thing is generally agreed on: it certainly can’t hurt.
Yoga and mindfulness
Yoga appears to promote mindfulness in other areas of life, such as food choices. Doing yoga may not turn you into a vegan, but the greater awareness of one’s body may correlate with a greater awareness of what one puts into it. A large study of young adults in their early 30s found those who practiced yoga ate more fruits and vegetables and were less likely to eat fast food (Watts, 2018).
It might seem that the same type of person drawn to yoga would be the type to eat healthier anyway. But in follow-up interviews, 90% of the responders stated that yoga practice led them to more mindful eating habits. This may happen for many reasons. In addition to increased mindfulness and self-awareness, a large factor may be the yoga community itself. When you’re making friends or exercising with people who have healthier eating habits, it may inspire one to do the same (Watts, 2018).
Mindfulness: what it is, types, benefits
What’s the verdict on yoga and weight loss?
So, will signing up for a yoga class lead to weight loss? Well, signing up won’t, but going to the class might. Any weight loss you do experience will likely be more modest than what might be achieved with intense cardio, but yoga is a great addition to any workout regimen. In addition to the physical health benefits, it may also promote a better sense of well-being.
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Dr. Steve Silvestro is a board-certified pediatrician and Manager, Medical Content & Education at Ro.