Mention yoga and many people picture a quiet room sitting, standing, or squatting on yoga mats and stretching. Mention aerobics and the picture is different. People moving, usually to fast-paced music, and burning calories. Aerobic exercise seems to lead to weight loss, but what about yoga, and can it help you lose weight?
Yoga for weight loss is more sustainable than just doing aerobic exercise. Mindfulness and body awareness components of yoga are major enablers for changing eating habits. Aerobic exercise is best for shredding calories. You can lose up to 267 calories in 30 minutes for high-impact aerobic dancing.
Although aerobic exercise can help a person lose weight, most people experience a plateau. This is where they can’t lose additional weight, even though they would like to. Also, many people who do only aerobic exercise find themselves gaining weight again. Yoga can prevent both the plateau and help a person regain the weight they worked so hard to lose.
What Are the Limitations of Aerobic Exercise?
The Surgeon General has cited three factors related to an increase in weight gain. A lack of physical activity, poor eating choices, and stress. Although some aerobic or cardiovascular programs talk about the importance of weight loss, few make it a central focus. Some programs pay lip service to it, while others want you to pay for their expensive meal plans.
Unfortunately, much research, as well as people’s experience, shows that taking the pounds off is easier than keeping them off. There are several reasons for this, but exercise alone won’t keep them off for most people. Aerobic exercise eliminates one factor, but not the other two. Actually, it might even increase them.
Why Are Some People Not Successful at Weight Loss?
Diet usually affects weight loss or gain more than physical activity. The Surgeon General lists a lack of exercise as one reason for weight gain. People often overestimate how many calories they burned after a session and compensate for their hard work. For example, let’s say after an aerobic session, you think you burned 600 calories, and you eat a 300-calorie protein bar. Then you only burned 300 calories, you took in as many calories as you burned.
How Many Calories Do You Burn With Aerobic Exercise?
How many calories do aerobic dancing or riding a bike burn? We can use a tool such as the VerywellFit.com Calorie Used Calculator to find this out. These calculations are based on 30 minutes of exercise for a person weighing 160 pounds:
- High-impact aerobic dancing burns 267 calories.
- Vigorous effort bodyweight exercises burn 305 calories.
- Moderate cycling also burns 305 calories.
- Cleaning for 30 minutes burns 114 calories.
Keep in mind that these are estimates. Your heart rate and the amount of oxygen your body takes in can affect these numbers. Other factors that affect how many calories you burn include:
- Sleep. People who do not get enough sleep burn fewer calories. Fatigue affects how well a person exercises, and it can reduce the body’s metabolism. If your metabolism falls too low, your body will respond by burning fewer calories.
- Diet. The food you eat and your calorie intake affect your metabolism. Cutting calorie intake too much or skipping meals also lowers your metabolism.
- Age. Unfortunately, as we age, more work is required to burn calories.
You should use any calorie counter tool as an estimate, not a precise number. If you are keeping track of your calories, consider rounding the numbers.
Aerobic Exercise Can Work for Weight Loss
Millions of people swear by losing weight through aerobic workouts, and science supports those claims—up to a point. Here’s what top health organisations say about this topic:
- Cleveland Clinic says that aerobic exercise “assists in weight management.”
- Mayo Clinic indicates that aerobic exercise “combined with a healthy diet” can help a person lose weight.
- “An important adjunct to a weight-loss program.” This is how an article in the National Library of Medicine describes aerobic exercise in relation to weight loss.
In other words, many reputable sites suggest that by itself, aerobic exercise alone is not an effective strategy to lose weight and keep it off. Research supports these observations. If you have lost weight through exercise but have not been able to keep it off, you are not alone.
Traci Mann is a psychology professor at the University of Minnesota. She has studied the psychological and physical reasons we have difficulties keeping lost weight off. Based on her analysis of numerous weight loss studies, she concluded that regaining much of the weight is the norm, not the exception.
If an aerobic exercise can take the pounds off but not help keep them off, why would yoga have a different effect?
How Can Yoga Help Someone Lose Weight?
Aerobic exercise focuses on the exercise aspect of losing weight. It leaves the responsibility for doing the other things to the dieter. Practising yoga will burn calories, and it will help with the different aspects of losing weight and keeping it off. To see how that works, it is essential to understand what yoga consists of.
The poses or postures in yoga are also called asanas. Many sources list 84 as the total number of asanas, but that number is misleading. You might read there are 8,400,000 asanas, but that is also not true. In the Indian numbering system, a lakh stands for 100,000, so 8,400,000 is 84.
But why 84? In parts of southern Asia, that number stands for infinity. So really, there could be an infinite number of asanas if you include the variations. The Indian database lists over 1,000 asanas in its Traditional Knowledge Digital Library.
So why focus on how many asanas there are? It’s because yoga poses are often more precise than aerobic exercises. For example, the base pose for standing asanas is the Mountain Pose. You might think the instructor will ask you to stand straight with your arms by your side. You would be wrong. These are the instructions for the Mountain Pose asana:
- Stand with your feet together.
- Spread your toes open and press down.
- Lift your kneecaps and tighten your inner thigh.
- Lift your chest by lifting your abdominal muscles.
- Press your shoulders down while opening your chest (and keeping your palms against your thighs.)
This pose is typically held for 5 to 8 breaths.
Is it a difficult asana? For most people, it is not after they have practised it a few times. Is it precise? Obviously, the instructor is not just asking you to stand straight. Not all asanas are this precise, but many are.
This built-in precision is one element of yoga that can help a person lose weight because it builds body awareness. Another aspect is yoga’s focus on breathing.
Yoga and Breathing
Along with having to keep track of the specifics of the asanas, a student of yoga also actively focuses on their breathing. Different yoga branches have breathing techniques specific to their practices. However there are five basic breathing techniques. Ujjayi, Deergha Swasam, Kapalabhati, Nadi Suddhi, and Viloma.
There are many benefits of yogic breathing, the following reputable claims can be found in many sources:
- Improved concentration. The brain needs oxygen, and these techniques bring in more.
- Reduced tension. Deeper breathing stretches the lungs and core, relaxing the body.
- Increased endurance. The increased oxygen and focus on breathing help the practitioner hold poses longer.
These benefits are also extremely helpful in improving and maintaining weight loss.
Yoga and Mindfulness
Yoga and mindfulness are not the same things. Yoga focuses on asanas and breathing, but practising yoga leads to it. Mindfulness has three characteristics:
- Being aware of your thoughts, feelings, and sensations as they happen.
- Having a non-judgemental attitude.
- Creating a habit of self-awareness.
Mindfulness is built into the practice of yoga in several ways:
- The precision required in many asanas leads to an awareness of the sensations of your body.
- Yoga instructors repeatedly tell students not to judge themselves.
- The repetition of the first two internalises these habits.
Certain yoga practices emphasise mindfulness more than others. One, Mindfulness Yoga, focuses on these ideas over precise poses. However, most yoga classes have mindfulness built into the routines.
The physical practice of yoga can help burn calories for weight loss. The mental habits it instils can carry over to eating habits, making a practitioner more mindful about what, when, and how much they eat.
Is There Any Scientific Proof That Yoga Can Help People Lose Weight?
All that sounds great, but where is the scientific proof that yoga helps with weight loss? The good news is that researchers are finding that weight loss with regular practice is equal to or better than aerobic exercise.
The article “Different Weight Loss Experiment,” was published by the US National Library of Medicine. It found that regular practice of yoga showed reductions in weight, body mass index (BMI), body fat, and waist circumference. The authors concluded that yoga could lead to improved eating habits. They also noticed significant physical and psychological changes (mindfulness).
A review of over 30 studies published in the “European Journal of Preventive Cardiology” found similar results. Researchers discovered that yoga might improve cardiovascular disease and help stabilise metabolism.
Another study was conducted by the “Journal of Diabetes and Metabolism.” The findings that participants found that yoga participants lost weight and improved their BMI.
Women in “Quality Health Research” reported that yoga decreased their binge eating.
What Type of Yoga Is Best for Weight Loss?
If you check how many calories yoga burns on the calorie counter mentioned earlier, it says 95 calories for 30 minutes. That is fewer calories than cleaning. So how does an activity that burns so few calories help with weight loss?
That number is extremely low, most likely because the calculator only considered the gentlest yoga type. This style of yoga is sometimes simply called beginner yoga or Hatha. If Hatha yoga was the only type available, it might not be as effective in helping you lose weight.
There are over a dozen other yoga styles, and some will burn more calories than others. The following styles provide higher intensity poses:
This more vigorous style of yoga includes more challenging poses, called sun salutations. Also, the movement between asanas is continuous, leading to more aerobic benefits.
Another high-intensity style, Ashtanga, also requires constant movement from one pose to the next day. In most yoga classes, the instructor can vary asanas, but Ashtanga classes always perform the same poses in the same order.
Hot yoga is done in rooms with temperatures between 95 and 104 degrees. Some practitioners believe the sweating cleanses out impurities. Bikram Yoga is named after the founder of this style, but not all Hot Yoga instructors use Bikram’s poses.
This is a rapidly expanding chain of hot yoga studios. You can expect consistent instruction at each studio, and membership allows you to use any studio in the United States.
This yoga style is similar to Ashtanga, except there is a greater focus on meditation and spiritual teachings.
This style of yoga has the intensity of Ashtanga classes, but instructors can be flexible with the asanas and their order.
There are at least half a dozen other styles, but if you want a more intense yoga experience, look for one of these.
Tip: Hatha is sometimes used as a term to describe any yoga style, and vinyasa is sometimes used to describe one of several styles.
Most websites will indicate if a class is for beginners, but it never hurts to ask.
How Often Should I Do Yoga To Lose Weight?
The Department of Health and Human Services recommends that adults get a minimum of 150 minutes of aerobic activity a week. So three classes a week would get you over the minimum right there. And four classes a week would be even better.
However, since yoga classes usually are not free, you will need to consider your finances. If your gym does not offer yoga classes and you can’t both, then you might want to take yoga classes. You can aerobic exercises at home or do other cardio exercises like running or cycling. Once you have learned the basic yoga poses and flows, you can also practice yoga at home.
Although yoga videos are easy to find, they do not come with an instructor who will make sure you perform the asanas correctly. After all, if you hurt yourself, you will not be exercising until you heal.
It is recommend that you take several vinyasa-type classes each week and several gentle Hatha classes, taking at least one day off. Again, your finances and time commitments will determine how often you can take lessons.
Is Yoga Better Than Aerobic Exercise for Weight Loss?
It depends on the style of yoga you practice. Vinyasa, Hot Yoga, and Power Yoga are vigorous enough that you will feel you had an aerobic workout.
Also, a strenuous aerobic workout can cause you to feel like you need to “reward” yourself with a snack. This really defeats the purpose of burning calories. Additionally, the body awareness and mindfulness of yoga can help with the central part of weight loss.
Without Changes to Your Diet, It Will Be Difficult To Keep the Weight Off
Often when people think about losing weight, they believe that they need to start exercising. Although exercise can help you lose weight, it does not have a significant role in weight loss.
This is because exercise is only one part of how many calories our bodies burn.
- Our bodies use 60 to 80% of our energy on our metabolic rate, which we cannot control.
- Digesting food takes up around 10%.
- So somewhere between 10 to 30% of the calories, we take in are burned by physical activity. This figure includes all physical activity, leaving exercise as a small percentage of the calories we burn.
In other words, 100% of the energy our bodies receive comes from the food we eat, while exercise burns off somewhere between 10 and 30%.
But do not give up on the exercise—it has other benefits. Exercise has been proven to help people lower their blood pressure, increase a person’s mood, and make it easier to fall asleep.
You do need to do aerobic exercise to lose weight. Yoga, especially more active types, can also help you shed weight. A few people saying it helped them is not the same as research that reaches the same conclusion, and such research exists.
The mindfulness and body awareness that are part of yoga help practitioners become more aware of what and when they eat. It is important to remember exercise is only one part of weight loss. So using a program that builds in habits leading to healthier food choices is bound to help a person lose weight and keep it off.