Can Yoga Help You Lose Weight? – Everyday Health

It’s not just about the calories you burn on the mat. Experts say the stress-busting benefits of a regular yoga practice can help with weight control, too.
Yoga comes with many health benefits, from strengthening muscles to improving sleep to reducing stress. Can it help with weight loss, too?
There are a few different ways yoga can help with weight loss, and it’s not just a matter of the calories you burn on your yoga mat, says Judi Bar, the yoga program manager at Cleveland Clinic Center for Integrative Medicine in Ohio, who is certified by the International Association of Yoga Therapists and Yoga Alliance.
“Yoga, if done right, becomes a lifestyle change,” she says, which in turn can help increase physical activity and decrease emotional eating. And it can help you manage stress, which can also help with weight maintenance, she says.
Bar says she’s seen yoga help with weight loss in people she works with in her practice. And her research says so, too.
Bar is coauthor of a review published in July 2013 in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, in which she and her team reviewed dozens of studies evaluating the effects of yoga on weight loss.
The data showed that yoga is tied to weight loss and weight maintenance because of a handful of factors, including: energy expenditure during yoga sessions, encouraging more exercise by reducing back pain and joint pain, heightening mindfulness, improving mood and reducing stress, and by helping yogis feel more connected to their bodies, their satiety, and eating habits.
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Another study, published in 2016 in a special issue of Yoga in Prevention and Therapy, analyzed data collected from interviews with 20 adults who reported losing weight through a yoga practice. The participants’ answers pointed to five factors the researchers concluded helped with weight loss: a shift to healthier eating, impact of the yoga community and culture, physical changes, psychological changes, and the belief that the yoga weight loss experience was different than past weight loss experiences.
If you’re trying to lose or maintain weight, here are three big ways that yoga may help, according to Bar and others:
You’re strengthening more than just your muscles on your yoga mat, says Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, PhD, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston and director of research at Yoga Alliance.
When you’re holding a posture for an extended period of time, you’re connecting with how your body feels, Dr. Khalsa says. Your instructor may be asking you to monitor your breath and pay attention to what your mind and body are telling you, which is a way of learning and practicing mindfulness.
And practicing mindfulness on your yoga mat can help when it comes to practicing mindful eating habits, too. Mindful eating is recognizing hunger cues and limiting binge eating. Over time (and with practice) you may even zero in on which foods make you feel fueled and energized, and which ones have more negative effects (like making you feel lethargic or bloated), Khalsa says. And it’s all of these behaviors that can help you stick with a diet or weight loss eating plan — or in making healthier food choices overall.
Khalsa points to a review published in July 2015 in the International Journal of Yoga that found that yoga has been linked to changes in eating behavior, specifically cutting back on dietary fat and adding more fresh vegetables, whole grains, and soy-based products.
A study published in 2015 in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology analyzed survey data from 159 women who either regularly practiced yoga or cardio-based exercise. The yogis were significantly less likely to have disordered eating patterns than the cardio-based exercisers.
“This is where yoga shines,” Khalsa says. It’s not just about the physical activity you’re doing. “It’s about listening to your body’s cues.”
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There are many ways stress can contribute to weight gain — and particularly unmanaged, chronic stress. Yoga can help lower chronic stress levels.
Breathwork and meditation are the cornerstones to yoga practice. And both contribute to boosting energy, improving mood, and lowering stress levels, says Sundar Balasubramanian, PhD, assistant professor at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, whose research focuses on how yogic breathing can promote well-being in people with chronic and other disease. (Dr. Balasubramanian is also founder of the PranaScience Institute, which offers course in yogic breathing and an International Association of Yoga Therapists–certified yoga therapist.)
“Stress can make weight loss very difficult because it can cause cortisol to rise, stress-eating, and trouble sleeping,” Balasubramanian explains. Deep breathing helps undo stress and reverse some of these negative effects that can make weight loss more difficult (or contribute to weight gain).
There are physiological changes that happen in the body in response to breathing exercises, Balasubramanian says. “Studies have shown how mindfulness exercises reduce the amount of cortisol in our bodies.”
A review published in December 2017 in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology that analyzed data from 42 studies suggested that yoga was associated with lower levels of evening cortisol, waking cortisol, resting heart rate, and cholesterol levels.
RELATED: Top Heart-Health Benefits of Yoga
Building muscle mass is another way yoga helps with weight loss and weight maintenance.
“When we think of strengthening muscles, we think we have to go to the weight room and pump iron. In yoga, we’re using our own body weight as a form of resistance. Your whole body is working to keep you in balance so everything gets a workout,” says Carol Krucoff, an instructor certified by the International Association of Yoga Therapists and Yoga Alliance and a yoga therapist at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, North Carolina.
Think of holding your body in place in a plank pose. You’re using the muscles of the shoulders, core, hips, and legs to hold your body up, she says. After coming out of a plank, you may flow into a Downward-Facing Dog pose, activating another set of muscles in your forearms, shoulders, and back. This muscle building burns calories, Krucoff says.
A review published in June 2016 in the journal Preventive Medicine that looked at 30 trials with more than 2,000 participants concluded that yoga can reduce waist-hip ratio in healthy adults, as well as body mass index (BMI) in people who are overweight or obese.
Other research has found that even slower, restorative yoga classes improved fasting glucose levels in people who were overweight or obese — a sign of improved metabolic health.
If you’re considering adding yoga into your weight loss plans, the experts shared the following tips to get you started:
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