A peaceful "om" isn't the only thing you can get from practicing yoga — this mind-body practice can also help you get in shape. But the time it takes that yoga-induced fitness to start showing depends on where you're starting from, your personal goals and the details of your yoga practice.
How quickly can yoga help you get in shape? Your yoga sessions should start feeling easier within a couple weeks of diligent practice, but depending on how you define "get in shape," it might take a few more weeks beyond that for the long-term benefits to show.
Yoga for a Strong Body
In its physical activity guidelines for Americans, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recommends strength-training all your major muscle groups twice a week for optimal health. The gentler, restorative forms of yoga won't necessarily count toward that quota. But if your definition of fitness involves the sleek, lean muscles of a "yoga body," the more strenuous versions of yoga that emphasize strength-building poses can get you there.
You may notice that challenging yoga poses get easier within a few weeks — but as Len Kravitz, PhD, at the University of New Mexico points out, short-term adaptations in strength within the first few weeks are actually a result of neural adaptations in your body. Or to put it another way, your body is learning to work smarter as you push it harder.
Kravitz explains that it usually takes about 16 workouts for the real strength adaptations to kick in. This coincides with the eight-week period that's a typical minimum length of time for studies that examine gains in muscular size, strength or endurance.
If you prefer the gentler, restorative forms of yoga, you should consider supplementing your practice with other exercises, so that you can enjoy the full benefits of strength training. Consider doing weight training circuits in the gym; challenge yourself with a boot camp class; explore how suspension training can turn your own body weight into a great strength-training aid — not unlike its function in the more strenuous yoga classes.
It's worth going to the extra effort to get the strength-training in — the many benefits you get from strength training include not just stronger muscles but stronger bones, reduced symptoms of many chronic conditions, improved quality of life and even better cognition.
Doing Heart-Healthy Yoga
Getting in shape can also mean building up your cardiovascular health. The Department of Health and Human Services recommends doing a minimum of 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week or 75 minutes of vigorous activity. They also note that the more active forms of yoga, such as Vinyasa yoga, can count toward the time quota for moderate-intensity activity.
Consider the case of a small study published in the July 2018 issue of the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. The study followed 13 physically inactive subjects who were split between high-intensity interval training and continuous intensity exercise training. Both groups showed better cardiac auto-regulation after just two weeks, although it's worth noting that the HIIT group showed significantly more benefits. But ultimately, anything that gets you moving is beneficial.
With that said, it's much more common for studies measuring cardiovascular health to run for 12 weeks (three months) or more. However, if you're diligent in your yoga practice, you'll probably notice the workouts getting easier in less than that time — often as little as a few short weeks.
As with strength training, if you prefer the gentler, restorative forms of yoga, they certainly can contribute to good health — but you should supplement your yoga practice with other types of exercise to make sure you meet the HHS guidelines for good health. Walking, swimming, cycling and doing group dance classes are just a few examples of how you can improve your fitness when you're not in the yoga studio.
Yoga Results for Weight Loss
What if you're doing yoga for weight loss? Because of the wide variety of yoga styles and their varying intensities, accurate calorie burn estimates are hard to come by. For example, Harvard Health only offers an estimate for Hatha yoga, a relatively gentle style that reportedly burns between 240 and 356 calories per hour, depending on your body weight. That's about the same rate of calorie burn as walking at 3.5 mph.
But while creating a calorie deficit by burning more calories than you take in is central to weight loss success, the weight loss journey is a complex process — and doing yoga can help encourage some of the most important healthy behaviors. For example, a study published in a 2018 issue of the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity found that young adults who practiced yoga ate more fruits and vegetables and were generally more physically active, while also consuming less fast food and sugary beverages.
Another study, published in a 2016 issue of Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, examined the weight loss journey of 20 women who had lost weight, intentionally or otherwise, by doing yoga. Although the study size is very small, it identified five key themes on the impact of yoga for weight loss, including a shift toward healthy eating and the benefit of support within the yoga community.
But what about the nitty-gritty of how long it takes before yoga starts slimming away excess body fat? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention notes that if you lose weight at a steady pace of 1 to 2 pounds per week, you're more likely to keep it off over the long term. No matter how much yoga you're doing, that's a healthy goal.
If there's some variability in your weight loss journey, lean into that yoga Om instead of stress. Some exercisers will see faster results in the initial weeks of their weight loss program, while others might need a few weeks to dial in the combination of physical activity, nutrition and self-care that are the hallmarks of a successful effort to not only lose weight, but keep it off in the long term.
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Calories Burned in 30 Minutes for People of Three Different Weights"
- International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity: "Yoga's Potential for Promoting Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Behaviors Among Young Adults: A Mixed-Methods Study"
- 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"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Losing Weight"
- International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health: "The Effects of High-Intensity Interval Training vs. Moderate-Intensity Continuous Training on Heart Rate Variability in Physically Inactive Adults"
- University of New Mexico: "Resistance Training: Adaptations and Health Implications"
- Health.gov: "Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, 2nd Edition"
- Mayo Clinic: "Strength Training: Get Stronger, Leaner, Healthier"