For decades, aerobic exercise—the type that raises your heart and breathing rates, such as running or cycling—has been touted by scientists as the gold standard in terms of the number of health benefits it brings. More energy, improved mood, lower risk of heart disease and certain cancers, better sleep, better thinking, better sex, and on and on. (Which is why Rodale.com recommends it at every opportunity.) But as it turns out, there may be another form of exercise that does even more for you: yoga. And weight control may be at the top of its long list of yoga benefits.
In 2010, researchers at the University of Maryland School of Nursing published a comparative analysis of 81 studies that examined yoga's health benefits and the health benefits of aerobic exercise. The researchers found yoga to be especially effective at reducing stress. This may not be news to those who practice yoga, but even die-hard enthusiasts will be surprised at the number of other health benefits yoga can confer—often to a larger degree than aerobic exercise. The researchers found that yoga outperformed aerobic exercise at improving balance, flexibility, strength, pain levels among seniors, menopausal symptoms, daily energy level, and social and occupation functioning, among other health parameters.
Yoga does more than calm you down and make you flexible. "We were a little surprised by the results," admits lead researcher Alyson Ross, MSN, RN. "We played around with the studies, making tables grouping the studies in a variety of ways (disease condition, health outcomes, and so forth). When we sorted them by exercise and yoga side-by-side, it became apparent we were on to something."
What to keep in mind
It's Not Either Or You don't have to choose yoga or aerobic exercise—by no means does this research suggest that you toss out your walking or running shoes for a yoga mat. Aerobic exercise remains a fun, simple, inexpensive, highly effective form of exercise that confers all sorts of important benefits. And it's important that we all be active every day if we can, taking breaks to move around so we don't spend all our time sitting.
Yoga Is Exercise What is clear from this analysis is that yoga should no longer be seen as something even remotely "fringey," or even as something that’s only good for improving flexibility. Rather, this research makes it clear that yoga deserves a permanent place at the health and fitness table, alongside other forms of exercise that may be more familiar to most people. To put it another way, if you like yoga, don't feel like you're missing out if you're not also putting in time on the treadmill or exercise bike. “Yoga seems to be able to provide many of the physical benefits of exercise—and then some,” says Ross. "It behaves as both exercise and meditation."
Yoga May Help With Weight Loss Ross and her colleagues see an especially intriguing role for yoga in the area of weight control, with the key mechanism being yoga’s stress-reducing power. “Evidence suggests that chronic stress leads to changes in food-seeking behavior, including increased consumption of foods high in sugar and fat, which may eventually lead to obesity,” says Ross. "As yoga provides many of the benefits typically associated with exercise, and is also so effective at reducing stress,” she continues, “it’s possible that yoga might be a particularly useful weapon in the arsenal against obesity.”
Beginners Should Find A Teacher If you’re considering giving yoga a try, rest assured that you don’t have to be a contortionist to do it. But it’s best to find a class with a teacher, as starting on your own with a video can be tough. It’s important to learn how to do the poses correctly, at which point you can supplement your class time by doing yoga at home. On the topic of frequency, Ross says, “the scientific literature has shown that the health benefits of yoga can be obtained with a single weekly class, but most studies have used a bigger ‘dose.’ So it is logical to assume that the more you put in, the more you’ll likely get out.”