Ask the Yogi: Can yoga help me lose weight?

weight scale with measuring tape

Q: I have gained a few pounds in the last year. I know that exercise can help me lose weight. Is yoga a type of exercise that helps with weight loss?

A: The short answer is yes, yoga can definitely help you lose weight. Any movement, no matter how small is an expenditure of calories and even sitting expends more calories than lying down.

Of course what you are probably really wanting to know is whether yoga will help you lose weight quickly. In order to answer this I would need to know just what type of yoga you practice. Some forms of yoga are very physically challenging while others are very focused on mindful meditation. I will presume a middle of the road answer from you in that you do a style of yoga that is a mild to moderate physical challenge. In other words the style of yoga we are talking about might have some flowing sun salutes, some poses that you hold while standing and some seated or lying poses. The class would last about an hour to an hour and a half.

If we are talking about this type of class, the calorie expenditure could be comparable to a light walk for about the same amount of time. It would not be the same cardiovascular experience as the walk, but as far as calories burned it would be about the same. One study said this would equate to about 150 to 200 calories burned.

Now if you are wanting to use your yoga to help you more quickly lose weight you might want to focus on getting a greater cardiovascular workout in your yoga routine. In an article from the Journal of Applied Physiology in Dec. 2012 a study reported that in a comparison of resistance training to aerobic training to a combination of resistance and aerobic training, the most weight loss was created in aerobic training. However, the best increase in lean body mass was found in resistance training. In other words, you will lose more fat if you do aerobic exercise but you will gain more muscle if you do resistance training.

The thing about a study like that is it leads us to believe that what we really want (lower number on the scale) is the most important thing about exercise. The reality is that unless we create a body that has lean muscle mass, keeping those pounds off will be very difficult. Unless we focus on making our muscles stronger, we are likely to be at greater risk for muscle and joint injury and suffer more from arthritic symptoms.

Moderate to intense forms of yoga can be a combination of aerobic and resistance training. If we compare a gentle yoga class calorie loss (about 150 calories per hour) to a vigorous yoga class (about 400 calories per hour) we can see the potential for weight loss. Some forms of yoga are very vigorous such as Ashtanga yoga. This type of yoga is a very intense form of yoga that includes jumping forms and links between each stationary pose. It is not a style for beginners and for a person who is overweight, it might increase risk of injury to already overburdened joints. The good news is that you don’t have to do an intense form of yoga to get a weight loss effect.

An easy guide to yoga for weight loss:

  • Warm up first – make sure to start off by gently warming up your muscles with a gently active and lengthening sequence.
  • Do two or three rounds of basic sun salute.
  • After the sun salutes, focus on poses that you can control but are challenging. Good examples are lunge, warrior, side angle and plank.
  • Move slowly into and out of these poses. Only hold the poses for as long as you can keep your alignment perfect.
  • Between each pose, do another round or two of sun salute.
  • Finish with gentle stretches and recline on your back in relaxation.

This sequence should last for 30 minutes to one hour. Afterward, be sure to have a meal that has plenty of protein but not a lot of carbs. Protein powders can be a great way to bring in the protein without a lot of extra calories. Plan on doing this sequence twice a week or at most every other day to give your muscles a rest. On the in between days, walk for 30 minutes to 1 hour.

If you follow this as a guide you will find that you will begin to lose weight more easily and best of all, your body will begin to gain more lean muscle mass. Not only will the scale show the difference, but your muscle tone will increase. In about 4 weeks you will see the difference. In about 8 weeks your close friends and family will see your change. In about 12 weeks everyone you meet will see the change in you.

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