No sweat: Is yoga a proper workout?
For some it’s spiritualist mumbo-jumbo. But while other disciplines will get you fitter faster, the psychological upsides of yoga are hard to deny
By Catherine de Lange
Namaste! It’s famous for its downward dogs and sun salutations, and each year more and more of us are doing yoga – over 37 million people practiced it in some form or other in the
US in 2016 (see diagram). But is there any evidence for the benefits claimed for body and mind?
Science is starting to catch up. Much recent research has focused on Bikram yoga, a series of 26 poses with breathing exercises performed in sequence for 90 minutes in a humid room heated to 40°C. Physically, it’s probably not the biggest bang you can get for your buck. While a regular session can improve muscle strength, there is no effect on aerobic fitness, found Brian Tracy at the University of Colorado and his colleagues. With a Bikram class burning around 460 calories for men and 330 for women, on average, and more gentle disciplines even less, if you are looking to get fit fast you would be better off – and perhaps more comfortable – going for a walk or jog.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the true benefits could be psychological. Women with signs of depression, stress and emotional eating problems who did two Bikram classes a week reported a decrease in negative symptoms that was three times greater than that of a control group who did no yoga. They also found an uptick in their positive thoughts and emotions. It remains to be seen whether those benefits require yoga in what is effectively a sauna or whether the normal variety would also work.
Meanwhile, there is broader evidence pointing to health gains from activities like yoga, tai chi and meditation. These mind-body practices can switch off genes involved in inflammation– an immune-system overreaction implicated in numerous diseases – according to a review of studies by Ivana Buric at Coventry University in the UK and her colleagues in 2017.
That could help to explain why yoga reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, and can improve the quality of life for people with diabetes and some forms of cancer. It may even shrink the brain areas responsible for fear and anxiety, found Sarah Lazar at Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.
So if you fancy channelling your inner yogi this year, roll out your mat, say ommm… and relax.
This article appeared in print under the headline “Does yoga do anything?”
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