The health benefits of yoga are well known and widespread, but not much has been studied regarding fat loss in obese individuals practicing yoga. Maria G. Araneta, Ph.D., MPH, at the University of California, San Diego, aimed to change that with a study that would measure fat loss from less intense exercise (restorative yoga) than aerobic activity (say, treadmill or elliptical exercises).
Dr. Araneta chose restorative yoga, which is different from many other popular forms of yoga, such as Bikram or Ashtanga. Participants focus on relaxing postures, like child’s pose, while supported by props like blocks and blankets. And, unlike vinyasa-type classes, where students flow quickly from one pose to the next, restorative postures are held for much longer, sometimes five to 10 minutes. The yoga reduces stress, helps injured people recover by using passive poses, and increases flexibility.
Eighty-eight women — each had metabolic syndrome — participated in Dr. Araneta’s study. They were split into two groups and performed 48 weeks of either restorative yoga or stretching exercises. The result? While both groups experienced weight loss, restorative yoga practitioners lost twice as much weight as those who performed stretching alone. Yoga also helped that group shed 2.5 times more subcutaneous fat, which is found directly underneath the skin and can be measured using calipers — in this case, fat was measured using an abdominal scanner. Notably, the yoga group maintained the weight loss during the span of the 48 weeks, while the stretching group actually put weight back on toward the end.
The team’s theory is that restorative yoga reduces cortisol levels, which rise during increased stress and is known to increase abdominal fat. All yoga aims to do this, but restorative yoga is particularly helpful for those overweight and obese individuals who need a gentler practice.