In an age where effective weight loss strategies are highly coveted, one might not immediately resort to the gentle, mindful exercises of yoga. Our first instinct tends to point to more aggressive or intense workouts that will burn more calories at a faster rate, but studies have shown that there may be valuable weight loss strategies where we are less likely to expect them.
Dr. Alan Kristal, in a recent study at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, showed a correlation between yoga practices and mindful eating. Out of 15,000 adults in their 50’s who were classified as overweight, those who practiced at least once per week for four years lost five pounds. This was in comparison to their counterparts who did not practice, and gained on average 13.5 pounds. That is a difference of nearly 20 pounds! The same study indicated that those who began at a healthy weight and followed the practice regimen were able to maintain their weight as desired over the five years.
A study performed by the National Institutes of Health demonstrated that individuals who exercised using restorative poses, or poses held for a longer period of time, burned 2% more body fat than individuals who exercised using only stretching. Similarly, the Journal of Alternative Medicine published a study showing that overweight men who practiced daily were able to lose on average four pounds in only 10 days.
So how does it work? What effect does slow and mindful exercise have on weight loss and maintenance? Various theories have been suggested, but ultimately they boil down to the relationship between mind and body, and how this affects a person’s mental and emotional relationship with food.
When Consumer Reports asked over a thousand psychologists what strategies they recommend for losing weight and keeping it off, they indicated that what is essential is the “understanding and managing of behaviors and emotions,” particularly as it pertained to “emotional eating.” It is no secret that stress eating can be a large contributor to weight gain, as stress itself tends to lead to a poor diet.
Gentle exercise that encourages mindfulness and meditation lowers the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the body and increases insulin sensitivity. This signals the body to burn food rather than storing it as fat. In addition to lowering cortisol levels, mindful exercise changes the way the brain reacts to stress. For example, not beating oneself up after diet slip-ups helps makes it more likely that an individual will return to healthy eating at the next meal, rather than resorting to stress eating.
Mindful exercise fosters an appreciation for the body, and the body no longer feels like the enemy. Changes in the body change the mind, and vice versa. This leads to changes in behavior, with then reinforce changes in both the mind and body. When done properly, this cycle can lead to an overall healthier lifestyle.
If you are looking to use gentle and mindful exercise as a strategy toward weight loss, there are a few suggestions that may be helpful in your journey.
1. Size Doesn’t Matter
You can start at any size – don’t be self conscious, and try not to compare yourself to others. Beginning this new practice is about you achieving a healthier relationship between mind and body and ultimately achieving your goals. Don’t let perception or fear stand between you and your journey to weight loss.
2. Find a Good Teacher
It is important to have a supportive teacher and mentor. Find someone who makes you feel welcome, who understands where you are and where you are trying to go, and who will take the time to work with you and challenge you toward success.
3. Find What Works for You
Or as those in the field would say, find your “flow.” Everyone is different, and not all exercises are created equal. As you experiment with different practices, you may find some more helpful than others. Find your groove and be consistent. And finally,
4. Show Up
Sometimes this can be easier said than done. It is simple to begin something and make that initial commitment, but it is important to remember that commitment in the moments when other things come up and when you just can’t get in the mood to exercise. Resolve to show up no matter what and always keep the end goal in mind. As soon as you unroll the mat and commit to your workout, the hardest part is already over.
So no matter where you are, it is possible to get to where you want to be. Gentle, mindful exercise takes a new approach to fostering mental, emotional, and physical health and well-being, and in the end, the healthier you are in one of those areas, the healthier you will be overall.