If you are looking for a new fitness program, consider yoga
By Eva Briggs, M.D.
Recently I visited my daughter who teaches yoga. I attended one of her classes. I can attest that it is a major strength and flexibility workout. Not to mention this class was hot yoga in Denver where it was already 100 degrees outside — definitely a great way to work up a sweat.
What is yoga, anyway? Wikipedia defines it as is a group of physical, mental and spiritual practices or disciplines that originated in ancient India. There are many types of yoga, and I don’t pretend to be able to describe them. But there are a variety of health benefits to yoga.
1. Flexibility. To learn and perform various poses requires stretching in ways I didn’t even realize existed. But you don’t need to be flexible to start yoga; some styles require less contortion than others. And you can work up to the stretches gradually.
2. Balance. It takes practice to be able to balance in some of the yoga poses. The improved balance from yoga translates into fewer falls. That’s important because falls are a leading cause of injury as people age.
3. Strength. You don’t need barbells or weight machines to strengthen with yoga. Using your body’s own weight, various yoga poses build your muscles. For example, the plank in all its variations is a great way to strengthen your core.
In addition to the above obvious exercise benefits, there appear to be some other health pluses.
4. Alleviate stress. It happens through controlled breathing and meditation or relaxation.
5. Reduce anxiety and fight depression. One recent study showed significant decreases in anxiety and depression scores after 12 sessions of Hatha yoga.
6. Reduce inflammation. Several studies demonstrate decreased inflammation and lower levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) after initiating a regular yoga program.
7. Promote heart health. According to the American Heart Association, some benefits of yoga include lower blood pressure, lower heart rate and better circulation. Yoga helps not only people with existing cardiac problems, but also reduces the risk of developing heart disease.
8. Improve quality of life. Preliminary studies of cancer patients show decreased stress and anxiety leading to a better sense of well-being.
9. Reduce chronic pain. At least one researcher asserts that long-term yoga builds gray matter in certain brain structures. This increases the threshold at which a sensation is perceived as pain and increases pain tolerance. Also, the anticipation of pain in non-yoga trained individuals triggers the “fight-or-flight” sympathetic nervous system. This ratchets up stress hormones and pain. Yogis have learned instead to activate the “rest-and-digest” parasympathetic nervous system when expecting pain. This actually reduces perceived pain.
10. Promote sleep quality. The National Sleep Foundation states that people who practice yoga sleep longer, fall asleep faster and return to sleep more quickly if they wake up in the middle of the night. This includes older adults, people with cancer, and pregnant women.
11. Improve breathing. The breathing exercises and relaxation techniques of yoga appear to actually improve lung function in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
12. Relieve migraines. One study showed that adding yoga to conventional migraine care improved outcomes: less pain and less disability.
13. Promote healthy eating habits. Apparently the mindfulness aspect of yoga encourages healthy dietary habits. Young adults who practice yoga tend to eat more servings of fruits and vegetables, consume fewer servings of sugar-sweetened beverages and snack foods, and eat less fast food.