Stop Saying Yoga Isn't Exercise

12/16/2014 03:57 pm ET
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Professional athletes of all stripes say that incorporating yoga into their training is a great way to stay limber, flexible and build strength in muscles that might otherwise go ignored.

But a new meta-analysis published Monday in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology suggests that practicing breathing-based (or asana) yoga could also be a way to protect cardiovascular health. That puts yoga, an ancient spiritual practice that incorporates mind and body, in a class of activities that include walking and biking as a way to avoid weight gain, high blood pressure and high cholesterol levels.

The meta-analysis authors are excited about the finding because yoga is a relatively accessible exercise to ease into for the elderly, those with joint or muscle pain or those with weak hearts.

“Yoga has the potential to be a cost-effective treatment and prevention strategy given its low cost, lack of expensive equipment or technology, potential greater adherence and health-related quality of life improvements, and possible accessibility to larger segments of the population,” they wrote in a press release about the study.

The authors analyzed 32 randomized, controlled trials (the gold standard of experimentation because they have control groups) and found that yoga helped participants lose weight (an average of about five pounds), lower their blood pressure, cholesterol levels and their heart rate as compared to control groups that did no exercise at all. The improved levels were particularly noticeable for participants who already happened to be taking statins or lipid-lowering drugs because of pre-existing coronary heart disease.

However, yoga was not shown to improve measures related to diabetes, like fasting blood glucose or glycosylated hemoglobin levels. Also, when compared to control groups who did other forms of exercise, yoga was not associated with any statistically significant health benefits.

The bottom line: research suggests that yoga is comparable to aerobic exercise when it comes to improving cardiovascular health, although researchers aren’t exactly sure why. Nor are they sure exactly how much yoga is enough to stimulate these benefits, or how yoga’s risks and benefits compare to practices like regular exercise and medication.

But the research on yoga and heart health is enough, said senior author prof. Miriam Hunink of Harvard School of Public Health and Erasmus University Medical Center in Rotterdam, to conclude that the ancient practice is “potentially very useful, and in my view worth pursuing as a risk improvement practice.”

In a post for the American Heart Association, M. Mala Cunningham, Ph.D., counseling psychologist and founder of Cardiac Yoga, suggested that the calming psychological aspects of yoga could have a particularly beneficial effect on people who have suffered a heart attack or other heart event in the past.

"The acute emotional stress of such an event certainly has a significant and adverse effect on the heart," Cunningham said to AHA. "That’s where yoga can be a tremendous benefit to manage the stress."

"All these things come into play when you’ve got a potentially chronic disease to manage for the rest of your life,” she concluded.

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