Centuries ago, yoga was an activity practised by gurus in faraway lands. They would twist themselves into impossible shapes, and breathless westerners would write lyrically of their amazing exploits. Now, the descendents of those same westerners are twisting themselves into similar shapes, often several times a week, and extolling the benefits of a good yoga workout to all who will listen. Yoga studios are ubiquitous, as are yoga mats, yoga outfits, and other aspects of the yoga lifestyle. Now, there is one more reason to do those downward dogs. A recent study claims that yoga practice helps manage weight gain during middle age.
There is considerable debate about the origins of yoga. Scholars say that its birthplace may be in the region of Afghanistan, almost 5,000 years ago. The practice is inextricably linked to the Hindu holy texts called the Bhagavad Gita, and the formulation of a set of principles called the Yoga-sutra. A standardized form of the practice dates back two millennia, but the modern yoga we see in today's studios is mostly due to the works of a Himalayan named Swami Sivananda. His five principles of yoga, imported to the west in the '60s and '70s, incorporated relaxation, breathing, exercise, proper eating (vegetarian) and positive thinking – all attributes that the modern day yogi aspires to.
Certainly, the lifestyle of the modern yoga practitioner is healthier overall than that of the typically sedentary North American. A study, published in the July/August edition of Alternative Therapies, presents some solid proof for that assertion. It suggests that yoga helps those between the age of 45 and 57 weigh, an average of 10 pounds less than their non-yoga contemporaries. Although the study was unregulated and performed outside of a clinical setting, it does offer some convincing data. Over 15,000 people between the ages of 53 and 57 were surveyed, reporting their weight at 45 and comparing it to their current weight. Diet and exercise regime was taken into account, as was the relative health of each individual.
Those of normal weight who practiced yoga for four or more years since the age of 45 experienced a 3.1 pound lower weight gain over that period than those who did not do yoga, while overweight practitioners gained five fewer pounds. In all, the study suggests that yoga can help keep the pound per year gain, what many refer to as the middle-aged spread, at bay.
Although the study relied on self-reports, which can be unreliable, it does hint at many of the benefits yoga addicts have long touted. It is a safe and effective way for those who have not exercised in years to get some form of physical activity, and it can be a 'gateway' to other forms of exercise, like walking or cycling. The yogi diet, often higher in fruits and vegetables, is also a boon to weight loss. And although the authors of the study caution that yoga is no magic way to lose weight, they do show that it can help keep an aging body healthy.
Any yogi will tell you – those downward dogs are worth it.
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