Thanks to the wide variety of styles, yoga appeals to new and experienced exercisers alike. But does your Bikram, hatha or ashtanga class actually qualify as a workout?
Well, that may depend on your definition of ‘workout,’ says Alison Heilig, a personal trainer and registered yoga teacher.
In general, she notes, a workout will check one or more of the following boxes:
- Cardiovascular fitness
A well-rounded workout routine will check all these boxes.
IS YOGA ENOUGH?
If you’re new to exercise, yoga may be enough to give you all these elements. There are certainly rigorous styles of yoga that challenge your strength and endurance (Think: ashtanga, vinyasa, Bikram and anything with ‘power’ in the name). Eventually, however, you’ll probably need to incorporate other activities to continue seeing increases in fitness and strength.
“I think yoga is a great complement to the things you’re already doing, but if you’re using it as a sole form of fitness, it’s not really hitting all the boxes that we know are necessary for the functional health of the body,” Heilig says.
For Heilig, one of the main downsides of yoga is it doesn’t include any upper-body pulling movements (e.g., bent-over rows, pullups). Upper-body pulls are considered a functional movement pattern, as strengthening your muscles in this pattern is necessary to help you maintain an upright posture — especially as you age.
RESEARCH ON YOGA AND CARDIO
So far, research shows yoga is ineffective for improving cardiovascular fitness. One 2016 study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine shows practicing high-intensity hatha yoga for one hour per week for six weeks did not improve cardiovascular fitness in adults who were new to yoga.
Similarly, a study published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine reveals that a hatha yoga session offers the metabolic equivalent of walking on a treadmill at a pace of roughly 2 miles per hour, and does not meet the physical activity recommendations for improving or maintaining cardiovascular fitness. (The American College of Sports Medicine recommends you achieve an intensity of roughly 55–90% of your maximum heart rate.)
However, authors note that a yoga practice that incorporates more than 10 minutes of sun salutations may offer enough intensity to improve fitness in sedentary adults.
In addition, yoga did have an anti-inflammatory effect on the study participants in the first study. As chronic inflammation may play a major role in a variety of age-related diseases, reducing inflammation via yoga may lower your risk of diabetes, heart disease and certain cancers.
So, although yoga in general likely won’t improve your fitness, it does offer other benefits.
The sun salutation series — a cycle of postures synchronized with a specific breathing pattern — in particular may offer strength benefits. In one study, men and women who performed 24 cycles of sun salutations six days per week for 24 weeks experienced significant improvements in upper-body strength and endurance, while female subjects in particular saw a decrease in body fat percentage.
Yoga may also offer balance, mobility and flexibility benefits. For example, a 2013 study published in The Journals of Gerontology reveals that a 12-week alignment-focused yoga practice (also known as Iyengar yoga) improved balance and mobility in older adults. As authors note, any form of exercise that challenges balance is an effective means of preventing falls in older adults.
THE BOTTOM LINE
Ultimately, yoga can be a good workout — just don’t rely on it for developing fitness and strength.
That said, there’s no form of exercise that checks all the necessary boxes, Heilig says. Your best bet will be to seek variety in your exercise routine. “I think finding a yoga that complements your life as opposed to just being an extension of the things you’re already doing is a helpful way to look at it,” Heilig notes.