Monday, May 3, 2010

Yoga and Weight Loss By Margaret Furtado, M.S., R.D.

Yoga... it means union of mind and body, and you probably know what sets it apart from stretching or calisthenics: the deep and distinct connection with your breath.

Did you know, though, that even gentle yoga can help with weight loss? Scientists at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center showed that regular yoga practice helped:

-prevent middle-age spread in people of healthy weight

-promote weight loss in those who were overweight

Along with colleagues, Dr. Alan Kristal, a professor of epidemiology at the Hutchinson Cancer Center, developed a study that looked at yoga's effect on people's eating habits (and therefore on their weight). The researchers first developed a questionnaire or feedback form, which determined how mindful and focused each participant was while eating. By filling out the questionnaire, participants could see when they were eating while distracted, eating despite already being full, or using food to mask emotional distress.

All the participants were physically active, following regimens that included walking for at least 90 minutes per week, and one group regularly practiced yoga.

Simply put, what the scientists found was that a consistent yoga practice was strongly associated with mindful eating. In fact, the study found that yoga--regardless of whether it was practiced vigorously or not--was the only physical activity consistently associated with attentive eating.

So what's so great about mindful eating, you ask? The researchers explained that the people who ate mindfully were aware of why they were eating and were thus more apt to stop eating when they were full; that is, focused eaters tended to eat because they were hungry and not because they were trying to mask anxiety or depression. The yoga participants also weighed less, had lower body mass indexes, and were less likely to be obese than were the subjects who were not as mindful while eating. (In fact, the lower a participant's BMI was, the higher was his or her awareness rating on the questionnaire.)

I've mentioned in the past that if you're eating mindfully, chances are you're eating more slowly. And if you're eating slowly and paying attention to what you're doing, you're going to be more apt to notice when you're feeling full--your brain gets the stomach's signal of fullness more promptly when you're paying attention.

This study is one more vote for including yoga in weight-loss programs, over and above its ability to reduce stress and lower blood pressure.

Here are a couple of resources I recommend to clients who ask me how they can get started with the practice of yoga:

* To find a yoga class. Go to to find teachers in most nations of the world. The United States is listed as "USA," in the last column to the right.

* To find yoga poses with specific therapeutic benefits. Go to the Yoga Journal Web site and run your cursor over the "Poses" heading at the top. In the drop-down menu that appears, click on "Therapeutic Focus." There you'll find a list of about 20 ailments or symptoms; click to see illustrated poses that might help alleviate them. (Note: Please also pay attention to any "Contraindications," which are also listed for each pose.)

* Yoga DVDs for beginners. A DVD series with the unfortunate title of "Yoga for Dummies" happens to be a great teaching device. It shows plenty of modifications and alternative poses. Another good one for beginners is "AM/PM Yoga" from Gaiam, with Patricia Walden and Rodney Yee. For a sample of moves, try these Everyday Yoga with Rodney Yee videos on Y! Health.

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