Is doing yoga for a flat belly an exercise in futility? Actually, no. Although yoga doesn't pack the calorie-burning punch of some intense cardio workouts, it can still contribute to establishing a calorie deficit — and it has other less tangible benefits that may help you lose weight too.
Stepping into yoga class won't automatically flatten your belly. But if you practice yoga regularly, it can be a meaningful — and effective — part of a fitness program to lose weight and slim your stomach.
Calories Burned Doing Yoga
The generally accepted gauge for how well an activity contributes to weight loss is how many calories it burns. But it's challenging to find calorie burn estimates for specific types of yoga — especially when yoga is lumped into a general "stretching" category.
For example, the otherwise excellent calorie-burn estimates from Harvard Health Publishing only evaluate Hatha yoga, a relatively gentle style. It reportedly burns between 240 and 356 calories per hour, depending on your body weight. That's about the same as walking at a 3.5 mph pace.
A slightly different comparison comes from a study in August 2017 issue of the Journal of Physical Activity and Health, in which researchers recruited a small pool of 38 participants to compare their energy expenditure during relatively strenuous Vinyasa yoga sessions, treadmill walking at a self-selected "brisk" pace and treadmill walking at a pace that matched the heart rate they'd achieved during the yoga session.
The scientists noted that although Vinyasa yoga does meet the criteria for moderate-intensity physical activity, the energy expenditure — which is exactly what "calories burned" measures — was lower during the yoga class than during the walking workout.
Meet Your Calorie Deficit
There are a couple of key takeaways from this information. The first is a reminder that unless you're hooked up to sophisticated clinical equipment, calorie burn estimates are just that — estimates — and are affected by a number of factors, including your body weight, percentage of body fat, hormone levels and how hard you work out.
The second is that even though yoga isn't necessarily the biggest calorie burner out there — for example, placing it roughly equal to walking means it's easily eclipsed by activities such as running, fast dancing, pedaling an elliptical trainer, downhill skiing and playing tennis — it can_,_ just like walking, be a foundational part of your weight loss efforts.
That's because the real foundation of weight loss is creating a calorie deficit, or burning more calories than you consume. This forces your body to use stored energy — usually in the form of fat — to get rid of that deficit.
And even though activities like running or zipping down the ski slope might burn more calories in the short term, choosing a fitness activity you really love benefits you more in the long term. That's because if you enjoy the exercise for its own sake, you're more likely to keep it up and burn more cumulative calories than you'd have torched with those few grudging runs, or whatever other type of exercise you don't like.
Read more: 10 Best Yoga Poses for Beginners
Yoga for a Flat Belly
It's tempting to boil weight gain and loss to a simple game of calories in and calories out — and to a certain degree, that's true. But there's a lot more than that going on inside your body as it gains or loses weight, and scientists are still working to understand all the different factors that affect this complex mechanism.
One of the best-known factors that can influence weight gain is stress, with the so-called "stress hormone" cortisol as the standard bearer. As exercise physiologists at the University of New Mexico explain, "cortisol directly affects fat storage and weight gain in stressed individuals."
As an unfortunate bonus, cortisol can even relocate fat cells deep into the abdomen as visceral fat, which is associated with more health risks than subcutaneous (just under the skin) abdominal fat. That visceral fat can also create the look of a rounder belly, even on otherwise slender individuals.
But there is hope, and it comes in the form of yoga, Tai Chi and other mind-body practices, which the UNM staff notes are often recommended for stress management. Yoga also encourages the mindfulness that supports other self-care practices, such as meditation, eating well and getting enough sleep — all of which can help reduce your stress and inhibit your body's stress-induced rush to store fat around your belly.
An Instant Tummy Tuck?
No matter how core-centric your yoga classes may be, they can't spot reduce fat off your belly — the whole idea of spot reduction is a myth. But if the circumstances are just right, even a few yoga classes might make your belly look slimmer in the mirror.
Aside from the just-discussed stress response, which can take time to abate, what gives?
A couple of things might be at play here. The first is that yoga's emphasis on core development and full-body, integrated movement can leave you walking out of class with better posture than you had when you walked in — and that change in posture is one of the best ways to instantly "slim" inches off your waist. Finding a "yoga for side fat" or "yoga for belly fat" class, at least at first, could be as simple as finding a class you like that'll give you that postural boost.
Finally, as Harvard Health Publishing points out, yoga can have a profound effect on how you view your own body. "Surveys have found that those who practiced yoga were more aware of their bodies than people who didn't practice yoga. They were also more satisfied with and less critical of their bodies," they write, adding that yoga can be an integral part of programs designed to boost self-esteem.
So, there you have it. Not only can yoga help you work toward the figure you're looking for, it can also help you feel better about the stomach you have right now — even if it's not as flat as a washboard — and maybe even give you a postural lift to see some speedy results.
Not a fan of yoga? Don't be shy about trying out different styles and teachers until you find one you like. And if you ultimately conclude that yoga just isn't for you, don't despair. You might get similar stress-soothing and posture-boosting benefits from other mind-body oriented practices such as Tai Chi, meditation or even trying Pilates for a flat tummy.
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Yoga - Benefits Beyond the Mat"
- University of New Mexico: "Cortisol Connection: Tips on Managing Stress and Weight"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Abdominal Fat and What to Do About It"
- Journal of Physical Activity and Health: "Energy Expenditure in Vinyasa Yoga Versus Walking"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Calories Burned in 30 Minutes for People of Three Different Weights"