Yoga isn't an efficient calorie burner like running, lifting kettlebells and the like. But if you enjoy this activity, it offers meaningful mind/body and stress-reducing benefits that you won't necessarily get from more strenuous workouts. And ultimately, the key to reaching a healthy weight isn't so much doing a specific exercise as balancing your diet, physical activity and mind/body relationship to develop lifelong healthy habits.
As long as you don't begin to feel the effects of overtraining, you can do yoga six or seven days a week as part of a weight loss program — and it brings some unusual aspects to your weight loss efforts that other types of exercise might not provide.
Meet the Calorie Deficit
On its surface, the mechanism for losing extra body weight is actually pretty simple: If you burn more calories than you consume, your body will be forced to burn stored energy — fat — as fuel. You can establish that calorie deficit by adjusting what you eat or doing more physical activity, but according to survey results from the National Weight Control Registry, the vast majority of people who lose weight and keep it off use both methods together.
With that in mind, it might be tempting to just cut your calorie intake to starvation levels and declare that as your calorie deficit. But that never works out well and ultimately, it isn't sustainable. When you go back to eating normal amounts of food, any weight you lost will come back — with a vengeance.
Instead, it's best to focus on making lifestyle changes that you can keep up over the long term. Not only will you enjoy the weight loss you're looking for, but you'll also see notable health benefits much sooner than you might expect.
According to the Obesity Action Coalition, losing even 5 to 10 percent of your body weight can greatly reduce your risk of many chronic conditions. High blood pressure, type II diabetes, high cholesterol and general inflammation are just a few to mention.
Feel the (Yoga) Burn
The more calories you burn, the faster you'll lose excess weight — but with so many diverse styles of yoga available to practice, it's surprisingly difficult to quantify exactly how many calories you'll burn during your yoga practice. For example, Harvard Health Publishing estimates that a 185-pound person would burn just over 350 calories during an hour of relatively gentle Hatha yoga. But more strenuous styles will make you work harder and burn more calories.
The one thing that's definite about weight loss is that the more you move, the more calories you'll burn. So if you love yoga, keep doing it, and be secure in the knowledge that it's making a definite contribution to your weight loss efforts — not only by burning calories, but also by helping unite your mind and body in pursuit of health. More on that in a moment.
Kick in the Afterburners
Dealing strictly with the idea of calories in and out, if you'd like to lose weight faster, incorporate regular cardio exercise into your ongoing training routine. You'll burn more calories and increase that calorie deficit. Doing regular cardiovascular exercise gives you some serious health benefits too, including an improved mood, a stronger immune system, better stamina, lower risk of chronic diseases and better quality of life.
To get the benefits of regular exercise, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommends doing at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity cardio per week. Just a few of the types of cardiovascular exercise you can do to improve your health and boost your calorie burn include:
- Walking, jogging or running
- Cycling or inline skating
- Using gym cardio machines (treadmill, elliptical, etc.)
- Boxing, kickboxing and martial arts
- Group fitness classes
Yoga, Weight Loss and Food
Not every type of yoga is a fabulous calorie burner. If this activity is going to form the core of your weight loss efforts, you need to be particularly attentive to your eating habits so that you don't consume so many calories that you go from a calorie deficit to a calorie surplus. Happily, eating a vegetable-rich diet is not only one of the key components of a healthy diet and a common way for many yogis to express their ongoing practice.
Other things you can do to establish healthy eating patterns that encourage both good health and weight loss include:
- Eat plenty of colorful fruits, whole grains and high-quality sources of protein in addition to vegetables.
- Limit your intake of sodium, added sugar, and unhealthy saturated and trans fats.
- Avoid highly processed foods, which are high in calories and low in nutrients.
If you're diligent about choosing nutrient-rich foods, you might not need to count calories at all. But if you want a goal to aim for, the HHS offers a chart of estimated calorie needs per day that will help you maintain your weight. If you start from there and then slightly decrease your calorie intake or increase your physical activity — which can mean more yoga, more cardio or both — then you'll be well on your way to a calorie deficit and the weight loss it brings.
Why Yoga Matters: Steady On
Okay, so yoga burns some calories and it can encourage a healthy approach to eating. Is that all there is to a weight loss plan? Not necessarily.
First, over the long term, having the relatively gradual, but ongoing calorie burn from a consistent yoga practice is better for your weight loss efforts than a sporadic relationship with exercises that burn more calories. Once you reach a healthy weight, having a steady yoga practice can help you maintain it.
Case in point, a study published in the December 2017 issue of Journal of Physical Activity and Health found that young adults who practiced yoga regularly actually had small decreases in their body mass index (BMI) over a five-year period, whereas young adults who did not practice yoga gained weight.
Why Yoga Matters: Mind/Body
Second, mind-body exercises such as yoga are excellent for stress relief — and if you're struggling to lose weight, that may be exactly what you need. Scientists are still working to understand the mechanisms behind the clear relationship between prolonged stress and obesity, and an April 2018 review published in Current Obesity Reports theorizes that genetic variables, among other factors, may lead to increased susceptibility to physical and mental stressors.
Stress relief was a benefit of yoga that came up repeatedly in a study published in an August 2016 issue of Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine. Although this study was very small, with only 20 participants, it highlights some of the unique benefits that yoga can bring to the weight-loss picture, including community support, a shift toward more mindful eating and the natural inclusion of more physical activity in life — with some participants saying it was the most effortless weight loss experience of their lives.
- National Weight Control Registry: "NWCR Facts"
- Obesity Action Coalition: "Benefits of 5 to 10 Percent Weight Loss"
- Health.gov: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans"
- Health.gov: "Key Elements of Healthy Eating Patterns"
- Health.gov: "Estimated Calorie Needs per Day, by Age, Sex, and Physical Activity Level"
- Current Obesity Reports: "Stress and Obesity: Are There More Susceptible Individuals?"
- Journal of Physical Activity and Health: "How Is the Practice of Yoga Related to Weight Status? Population-Based Findings From Project EAT-IV"
- Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine: "A Different Weight Loss Experience: A Qualitative Study Exploring the Behavioral, Physical, and Psychosocial Changes Associated with Yoga That Promote Weight Loss"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Calories Burned in 30 Minutes for Exercisers of Three Different Weights"