Yoga burns fewer calories than aerobic exercise so it’s usually not the go-to workout for people who want to lose weight. But what if the mind-body connection fostered by yoga could help them maintain that weight loss for the long term?
It’s an idea researchers set out to test in an intriguing study, published last month in PLOS One, with some promising preliminary results.
Lead author Jessica Unick, an exercise physiologist at The Miriam Hospital’s Weight Control and Diabetes Research Center in Providence, Rhode Island, started looking into yoga’s potential after taking up the practice herself.
“I enjoy playing tennis and so I started taking yoga classes just to increase strength and flexibility. But what was so interesting to me is that I’d always leave the classes feeling more relaxed and less stressed,” Unick, who is also an associate professor at the Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University, told TODAY.
“I feel like yoga has been overlooked in the weight management field… people just assume because you don’t burn a lot of calories, that it’s not going to be effective for weight. But I was more interested in the psychological benefits.”
Specifically, Unick and her colleagues wanted to see if yoga could help people maintain weight loss by improving their:
Mindfulness, or becoming more aware of their behaviors or habits. “It’s so easy to mindlessly eat food,” she noted.
Distress tolerance, or being able to deal with uncomfortable feelings and sensations. People often regain weight due to emotional or stress eating, “so if you’re better able to tolerate these uncomfortable sensations, the thought would be that it would maybe help prevent some of these dietary lapses,” Unick said.
Self-compassion, which could help end the vicious cycle of having a dietary lapse, feeling guilty about it and then eating more because of that guilt.
Surprisingly very little research had been done on combining both a weight-loss and a yoga program, Unick said.
‘People are just generally feeling better’
The study involved 60 women who were overweight or obese. They first took part in a three-month weight-loss program that prescribed eating 1,200 to 1,800 calories a day and regular aerobic exercise. It also included weekly group sessions with a psychologist and nutritionist.
After losing weight over that period, the women were then randomly assigned to either take two yoga classes per week or two nutrition/cooking classes per week for the next three months.
Researchers tracked their weight and used questionnaires to gauge their psychological states.
It turned out the women who did particularly well in the initial weight-loss program and were then assigned to do yoga classes lost 3.5% more weight than their counterparts who attended the nutrition/cooking classes.
“(If you) lost a significant amount of weight in the first three months and you were in the yoga group, you continued to lose weight from three to six months,” Unick said.
She didn’t have a scientific answer why — the effects likely weren’t due to burning many more calories since the study used a low-intensity type of yoga on purpose — but pointed out that those participants also had greater improvements in mindfulness, self-compassion and the ability to tolerate uncomfortable feelings and sensations.
“I would suspect people are just generally feeling better so therefore, they may be less likely to stress eat,” she said.
At the same time, the findings suggest yoga may not be particularly helpful as long-term weight-loss maintenance strategy for people who don’t initially lose a lot of weight.
Unick cautioned these were preliminary results from a small pilot study that involved women only. She’s planning a follow-up study that includes men as well.
Yoga is for all sizes
To see if yoga can help you maintain your weight loss, the researchers encouraged just trying it. The vast majority of the participants in this study had never practiced yoga before but ended up rating it very highly — whether taking in-person or online classes.
“There’s this misconception is that yoga is for predominantly thin women. But these were all women with a BMI between 25 and 40, so they are classified with overweight or obesity, and they can do yoga. Yoga is for all sizes,” Unick said.
This study involved Iyengar yoga classes twice per week for 60 minutes, but there are many types of yoga to try — less and more intense.
The participants did yoga in addition to their regular aerobic exercise routine, not instead of it, which Unick recommended because research shows aerobic exercise is important for long-term weight-loss maintenance.
“Many people would surprise themselves in terms of how yoga makes them feel,” she said. “Yoga is one of those exercises that people may not always be open minded about… (but) even if you’re not sure you’re going to like it, just give it a try and see what you think.”