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A path to weight loss

Yoga may not burn a lot of calories but the practice appears to stave off middle-age spread by reducing stress.

August 08, 2005|Emily Singer | Special to The Times

PEOPLE plagued by middle-age spread may now have a gentle way to halt the scale's uptick. New research shows that regular yoga practice can lessen weight gain in middle age and can help overweight people shed pounds.

The weight loss boost may come more from the mental benefits of yoga than the exercise itself. "When you practice yoga, you become more aware of the sensations in your body," says lead researcher Alan R. Kristal, an epidemiologist at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. "If you feel full, you may recognize that feeling and stop eating."

Many people begin to gain weight when they hit their 40s, often adding a pound per year as their metabolism slows. But Kristal and his colleagues found that practicing yoga regularly diminished the climb.

The researchers surveyed 15,500 healthy middle-aged men and women about their physical activity and weight history from the ages of 45 to 55. They found that regular yoga practice could reduce weight gain by three pounds. People of normal weight gained an average of 12.6 pounds during that 10-year period, while people who practiced yoga at least 30 minutes a week for four or more years gained only 9.5 pounds.

Overweight people showed an even greater benefit. Yoga practitioners who were overweight lost an average of five pounds during those 10 years, while people who did not practice yoga and were overweight gained 13.5 pounds.

The results surprised the researchers. "I really thought that once I controlled for the fact that people who did yoga did more physical activity and ate a better diet, the effect would disappear, but it didn't," says Kristal.

Yoga is often used to ease stress or improve chronic injuries, but little is known about its effect on weight.

"The study promotes the idea that behavioral therapies, including yoga, could help weight loss," says Roger Fielding, an exercise physiologist at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston. He cautions that the current study has some limitations, such as relying on people to remember their weight from several years ago, and says more rigorous tests are needed before recommending yoga for weight control.

Kristal agrees, saying he hopes the study will prompt a large-scale clinical trial to determine if adding yoga to a weight loss program improves results.

The practice may help people control their weight by reducing stress, rather than by increasing the number of calories they burn. Tiffany Reiss, an exercise physiologist at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Wash., says yoga trains the parasympathetic nervous system, which helps calm the body's fight-or-flight response.

Kristal says yoga may be especially effective for people who eat as a reaction to stress. "Yoga is calming," he says. "You become more sensitive to cues to eat that aren't related to hunger, such as depression or anxiety."

Denise Benitez, a yoga teacher in Seattle who collaborated on the study, says people interested in beginning a yoga practice should start with the gentler forms of yoga and try a few different classes to find the one they are most comfortable with. To encourage weight maintenance or loss, she suggests practicing yoga in a room without mirrors and paying more attention to your internal experience than to your outer performance.

The research was published in the July/August issue of Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine.

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