by Jaime Schehr, N.D., R.D: We each have different health goals—and for some people, achieving optimal health involves losing weight…
Studies show us that a key component of weight loss (at least, sustainable weight loss) is exercise. Combining improved nutrition and movement is the best way to lose weight, period.
Now you may be asking: What kind of movement? What type of exercise? Can any exercise help you lose weight?
These are broad questions for which I could provide hours of answers, but today I’m zeroing in on one, in particular: Can yoga help you lose weight?
The short answer is yes, but there’s far more to it than that.
What needs to happen for weight loss.
Like physical activity in general, yoga is a form of movement, and movement expends energy by burning calories. Despite all the rumors and diets claiming weight loss miracles, there is only one way to lose weight, and that’s caloric deficit. You have to consume fewer calories through food than you burn through physical exertion and bodily processes (metabolism, baby)—which is why a healthy diet and regular exercise routine are a winning weight loss duo.
So can yoga help you lose weight? Again, it’s a tricky question. The fact of the matter is that any movement can help you lose weight, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it will. Whether you run a marathon or go for a 10-minute walk—it doesn’t matter. If you don’t expend more calories than you take in, you won’t lose weight.
How yoga can help you lose weight.
Studies have shown that some forms of exercise are better for weight loss than others—and yoga doesn’t usually top the list. When we think “effective weight loss workouts,” we tend to look for ones that are intense or long-lasting in duration or aftereffects.
HIIT and strength training, in particular, garner a lot of praise for their calorie-torching abilities, namely because of two factors: efficiency and afterburn. Both allow you to exercise for less time and still reap the physical benefits but for different reasons. HIIT requires you to increase the intensity of your workout, meaning you can work harder for less time and get similar caloric expenditure as longer, lower-intensity workouts. Strength training, on the other hand, is an effective way to build lean muscle mass, which can raise your basal metabolic rate (how many calories your body burns at rest). HIIT and strength training also both have an “afterburn” effect—your body continues to burn calories hours after you’re done exercising. You can see why people love it.
Yoga, on the other hand, has an endless list of benefits but isn’t always seen as “intense.” What many folks don’t realize is that each position and practice can be modified for each individual to be more or less intense. Intensity also varies by type of yoga and duration of the practice. We’ll get into what types tend to be most efficient for weight loss, but as mentioned before, any type of yoga can yield weight loss if practiced in combination with a healthy diet that creates a calorie deficit. Isn’t it a comfort to know?
The best types of yoga for weight loss.
Similar to cheeses, some types of yoga are harder than others. Typically, the more physically demanding the practice is (difficult positions, longer or more frequent movement), the more calories your body will use up, and the more likely it is to aid your weight loss efforts.
That said, it’s worth mentioning that the benefits of yoga, particularly for stress management and reducing cortisol, do make it a preferred form of exercise for someone who may be under excessive stress and also trying to lose weight. So consider this as you read on.
Of the many, many types of yoga out there, the three that most often result in weight loss are ashtanga, Bikram (or a similar style of hot yoga), and vinyasa. All three require strength and flexibility to get into and hold various poses, and all three can be done at different levels. If you’re looking for a disciplined, full-body practice, ashtanga is for you. If you prefer a heated practice (say, 95 to 108°F) and thrive on seeing yourself progress, Bikram yoga, where you do the same 26 poses each time, or another challenging hot yoga class, could be the right fit. Vinyasa is more flow-based, requiring core strength, stamina, and lots of chaturanga (yoga pushups).
To be clear: These are not the only types of yoga that can help you lose weight, and you shouldn’t force yourself to do them (or change your current practice) if it’s going to unravel your routine. If you love restorative yoga and practice six times a week, keep doing that. Consistency is the most important factor in a workout (and weight loss) plan. Do whatever you’re going to do the most.
The bottom line.
Any form of exercise can help you lose weight if paired with a healthy diet and calorie deficit—yoga included. Is it going to help you lose weight at the same rate as other forms of exercise? It depends on the intensity and duration. You’ll expend more energy in a 45-minute HIIT workout than a 45-minute yin yoga class, but if you compare a 60-minute vinyasa class to a 20-minute power walk, yoga would reign supreme.
Bottom line: If yoga is the activity you enjoy the most and will do on a consistent basis, by no means should you overhaul your workout routine for the sake of losing weight. Try every form, see what works for you, and focus your energy on eating a healthy diet. That will help you lose weight more than any form of yoga.