Common sense suggests that exercise should shed pounds.
But do we have enough evidence to confirm or refute that intuitive idea?
Surprisingly, there's not as much evidence on that question as you'd think.
Before we address the matter at hand – whether yoga can help avoid weight gain – let's take a quick look at the weight control effects of exercise in general.
Clinical evidence on exercise for weight control: Surprisingly scarce
There's a fair amount of research on the effects of exercise on weight control in kids.
But when Mayo Clinic scientists recently looked for clinical trials involving adults, they found only nine fairly small studies (Kuhle CL et al. 2014).
Together, the nine trials included only 1,166 participants, all over age 60, all overweight or obese, and the trials lasted just three to 9 months.
Each clinical trial compared inactive people to people who routinely did aerobic exercise (such as running) and/or resistance exercise (such as weight training).
The effects of exercise were positive – "Exercise in overweight and obese older individuals improves … body mass index (BMI) and waist circumference” – but much smaller than you'd expect.
Population studies yield modestly positive results
Non-clinical studies aren't nearly as reliable as controlled trials, but suggest that exercise yields modest weight benefits.
For example, researchers from Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center surveyed 15,550 people aged 53 to 57 about their exercise habits and changes in their weight over a 10-year period (Littman AJ et al. 2005).
The results, published in 2005, showed that obese women and men who walked quickly for 75-100 minutes per week gained less weight than non-walkers … 9 and 5 pounds less, respectively.
Normal-weight and overweight women and men who fast-walked routinely also gained less weight versus non-walkers … but the benefit was smaller than the one seen in obese people.
As you might expect, jogging, aerobic exercise routines, and fast cycling were linked to slower weight gain over time ... but slow walking, swimming, and weight lifting weren't.
What about yoga for controlling weight?
If you've ever taken a yoga class, you know that it can leave you feeling strong, limber and relaxed.
It provides a wonderful mix of strengthening, stretching, and mindfulness that's unique among workouts.
And a quick tour of the research shows that yoga can improves a number of health factors, including:
So there's no question that a regular yoga practice is good for you.
But what I've been wondering is this: Can you lose weight from practicing yoga?
If you ever wear a heart-rate monitor when you exercise, you'll see that your heart rate stays relatively low during much of a yoga session.
(We're talking about regular, gentle, "hatha" yoga, versus newly popular styles like "hot" yoga
or ashtanga yoga
, which can raise heart rate considerably ... albeit intermittently.)
This sets a limit on the calorie-burning you can achieve, compared with strenuously aerobic activities like running, cycling, or swimming.
For example, an adult weighing 150 lb. will burn about 150 calories per hour with regular yoga, compared to over 300 calories during a moderate one-hour walk (at a rate of about three miles an hour).
Yoga, then, doesn't at first glance seem like the ideal exercise for weight loss. However, because it has so many other mind/body benefits, I figured it was worth a look at the research.
And the results of my research were surprising!
Avoid the dreaded middle-age spread
The Fred Hutchinson Research Center exercise/weight study described above also provided insights into the effects of yoga on weight control.
When the authors looked at the survey responses, they they found some meaningful relationships between yoga and weight control.
They found that regular, sustained yoga practice appeared to reduce weight gain in middle-aged people of normal weight ... and suggested that yoga may also produce weight loss among those who are overweight (Kristal AR et al. 2005).
Most of the 15,550 study participants reported gaining about one pound a year … probably because the body's energy demands drop as we age, but calorie intake usually doesn't.
In contrast with other normal-weight participants, those who reported practicing yoga at least once a week for 4 years gained about three pounds less weight over the 10-year study period (9.5 lbs versus 12.6 lbs).
The greatest benefit, however, was seen in overweight men and women who reported practicing yoga regularly.
The overweight yoga practitioners reported losing an average of 5 pounds, while their peers reported gaining almost 14 pounds.
Why did the yoga practitioners enjoy weight control benefits, despite their gentle regimen's relatively low rate of calorie-burning?
The Hutchinson Center researchers suspected that yoga practice makes people more aware of their body and health, and less likely to overeat.
Yoga leads to mindful eating
Encouraged by their initial findings, the Hutchinson Center team conducted a follow-up study (Framson C et al. 2009).
According to team leader Dr. Alan Kristal, "We hypothesized that mindfulness – a skill learned either directly or indirectly through yoga – could affect eating behavior.”
Kristal – who's practiced yoga since 1994 – suggests that yoga cultivates mindfulness in a number of ways, such as being able to hold a challenging physical pose with an accepting, calm mind and focus on the breath.
As he said, "This ability to be calm and observant during physical discomfort teaches how to maintain calm in other challenging situations, such as not eating more even when the food tastes good and not eating when you're not hungry.”
To test this idea, the research team developed a Mindful Eating questionnaire that asked the participants about five factors related to eating and awareness:
- Eating even when full
- Distractions while eating
- Eating when sad or stressed
- Awareness of the look, taste and smell of food
- Response to external cues, including advertising
This questionnaire was given to 303 people (average age 42, 80% women) at yoga studios, fitness centers and weight-loss programs.
Of this group, over 40% practiced yoga, over 40% walked for exercise, and more than half worked out at least 90 minutes a week.
The research team found that those who were most aware of why they were eating, more likely quit eating when full, and less likely to eat when stressed or feeling down had lower weight.
They also found a significant link between participants who had high "mindful eating” scores and who also practiced yoga regularly.
This high mindfulness score was not found among the participants who engaged in other kinds of regular physical activity.
As Dr. Kristal said, "These findings fit with our hypothesis that yoga increases mindfulness in eating and leads to less weight gain over time.”
Evidence review lends weight to yoga's potential
Three years ago, researchers from the University of Arizona reviewed the available evidence on yoga's potential as a weight loss tool.
Jennifer Rioux and Cheryl Ritenbaugh analyzed the results of more than 50 studies on yoga and its effects on prevention and treatment of obesity (Rioux JG, Ritenbaugh C 2013).
They concluded that yoga "appears to be an appropriate and potentially successful intervention for weight maintenance, prevention of obesity, and risk reduction for diseases in which obesity plays a significant causal role.”
Therapeutic yoga programs were found frequently effective for producing weight loss and positive changes in body composition.
The more effective programs had a number of factors in common, including greater frequency, longer duration, diet counseling, and a home-based component.
Overall, the results were heartening and impressive.
I've been worried that my regular practice might not be heading me in the right direction for healthy weight loss, but now I'm convinced.
I'm wondering – have you had success with yoga for weight loss?
I'd love to hear what type of yoga you were practicing, how often, and how long it took to see positive results.
- Framson C, Kristal AR, Schenk JM, Littman AJ, Zeliadt S, Benitez D. Development and validation of the mindful eating questionnaire. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009 Aug;109(8):1439-44.
- Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Regular yoga practice is associated with mindful eating. Aug. 3, 2009. Accessed at http://www.fredhutch.org/en/news/releases/2009/08/yoga.html
- Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Video with Dr. Alan Kristal - yoga promotes mindful eating. Accessed at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E6RjZDF1tjM
- Kristal AR, Littman AJ, Benitez D, White E. Yoga practice is associated with attenuated weight gain in healthy, middle-aged men and women. Altern Ther Health Med. 2005 Jul-Aug; 11(4): 28-33.
- Kuhle CL, Steffen MW, Anderson PJ, Murad MH. Effect of exercise on anthropometric measures and serum lipids in older individuals: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMJ Open. 2014 Jun 13;4(6):e005283. doi: 10.1136/bmjopen-2014-005283.
- Lee JA, Kim JW, Kim DY. Effects of yoga exercise on serum adiponectin and metabolic syndrome factors in obese postmenopausal women. Menopause. 2012 Mar;19(3):296-301.
- Littman AJ, Kristal AR, White E. Effects of physical activity intensity, frequency, and activity type on 10-y weight change in middle-aged men and women. Int J Obes (Lond). 2005 May;29(5):524-33.
- Moliver N, Mika E, Chartrand M, Burrus S, Haussmann R, Khalsa S. Increased Hatha yoga experience predicts lower body mass index and reduced medication use in women over 45 years. Int J Yoga. 2011 Jul;4(2):77-86. doi: 10.4103/0973-6131.85490.
- Rioux JG, Ritenbaugh C. Narrative review of yoga intervention clinical trials including weight-related outcomes. Altern Ther Health Med. 2013 May-Jun; 19(3): 32-46.