By Dr. Mercola
Exercise is one of the most important factors for optimal health, and there are countless ways to get your exercise each day. Even if you struggle with conditions such as arthritis, osteoporosis, multiple sclerosis (MS), or chronic back pain that limits your mobility, there are exercises that can help.
In cases where pain tends to inhibit your activity, it’s important to remember that inactivity can cause your muscles to become weaker and can actually increase pain and stiffness. So staying in motion is typically a better course of action.
Lower impact exercises such as yoga can not only give you the physical benefits of exercise, but may also help to alleviate pain or stiffness in such cases. Many yoga teachers offer routines specifically designed for certain conditions, such as arthritis or back pain, so you can look for a program that fits your specific needs.
But the benefits of yoga are by no means limited to those who may not be able to participate in more strenuous or high intensity types of activity. While I do believe you need to incorporate anaerobic exercise (high intensity interval training) for optimal health, there’s no doubt that yoga can be an important part of a comprehensive exercise program.
And research over the past few years, including several brand new studies, reveal potent mental and physical benefits from yoga—regardless of your current state of health or fitness.
Yoga Integrates Body, Mind, and Spirit
Yoga has been around for about 5,000 years, and while many regard it as just another form of exercise—some even see it as a “fad”—it’s really a comprehensive practice that integrates mental, physical, and spiritual elements.
With regards to the latter, yoga can be viewed as a form of meditation that demands your full attention as you move from one asana (yoga position) to another. As you learn new ways of moving and responding to your body and mind, other areas of your life tend to shift and change as well.
In a sense, you not only become more physically flexible, but your mind and approach to life may gain some needed flexibility as well. Your body and your health will indeed change as you start implementing the correct lifestyle changes, and yoga has received increased attention lately.
As reported by Fox News,1 Huffington Post,2 and Scientific American,3 several recent studies highlight a variety of health benefits from regular yoga practice. This includes but is not limited to:
- Improved immune function4
- Reduced risk for migraines5
- Improved sexual performance and satisfaction in both sexes6, 7
- Better sleep8, 9
- Reduced food cravings10
Improved Heart Health Through Yoga
A number of studies suggest that regular yoga classes can promote heart health. One such study11 showed it helps improve atrial fibrillation12 (irregular heartbeat)—a condition in which the upper chambers of your heart quiver chaotically.
For the first three months of the study, the participants’ heart symptoms, blood pressure, heart rate, anxiety and depression levels, and general quality of life were assessed and tracked. During the second phase, the participants took yoga classes at least twice a week for three months, while still tracking their symptoms.
At the end of the study, the number of times participants reported heart quivering (confirmed by heart monitor), dropped by half. Their average heart rate also fell from an average of 67 beats per minute during the first three months, to 61-62 beats per minute post-yoga. The participants also reported feeling less anxiety and depression—beneficial mental/emotional side effects that I’ll get into below.
Another study,13 published in the April issue of the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, investigated the effects of Hatha Yoga on blood pressure among seventh-graders, some of whom were pre-hypertensive (had clinical signs of early-stage high blood pressure). Half of the kids took Hatha Yoga classes for three months, while the other half enrolled in either art or music classes. At the end of the three months, those who took yoga had lower resting blood pressure compared to those who participated in art or music. According to the authors:
“A school-based Hatha yoga program demonstrated potential to decrease resting BP, particularly among prehypertensive youth. Reduced SNS drive may be an underlying neurohormonal pathway beneficially affected by the program. A large-scale efficacy/effectiveness randomized clinical trial is warranted.”
How Yoga Affects Fat Metabolism and Weight Loss
Interestingly, research14 published in 2012 discovered that yoga has a beneficial impact on leptin, a hormone that plays a key role in regulating energy intake and energy expenditure. According to the authors, expert yoga practitioners had 36 percent higher leptin levels compared to novices, leading them to theorize that regular yoga practice may benefit your health by altering leptin and adiponectin production.
Both insulin and leptin resistance are associated with obesity, and impairment of their ability to transfer the information to receptors is the true foundational core of most all chronic degenerative diseases. Diet and exercise are your top allies when it comes to improving insulin/leptin sensitivity, and yoga, it seems, can do that just as well as other forms of exercise.
More recently, a study15, 16 investigating the mysterious ability of Tibetan yogis to generate high amounts of body heat through the yogic practice of Tumo, found that these expert yogis were able to activate brown fat to keep them warm. This allows them to meditate near-naked in sub-zero temperatures without shivering or succumbing to hypothermia.
As I’ve discussed in previous articles, brown fat is a heat-generating type of fat that that burns energy instead of storing it. Not only does this have implications for surviving extremely low temperatures while meditating in the Himalayas, but it also plays a role in weight loss, which is a more common conundrum for people in the West. Human newborns have a supply of brown fat that helps them keep warm, but by adulthood you’ve lost most of your stores of it. Brown fat has been located in the neck area, around blood vessels (helping to warm your blood), and "marbled" in with white fat in visceral fat tissue.
Interestingly, yet another study,17 published in 2012, showed that you can activate brown fat by exposing yourself to—you guessed it—cold temperatures. This is the logic behind weight loss strategies such as ice therapy. In his book, The Four-Hour Body, Tim Ferriss advocates the concept of boosting fat burning by exposing yourself to frigid temperatures. He claims you can increase your fat burning potential by as much as 300 percent simply by adding ice therapy to your dieting strategy. NASA research also appears to support this theory.18
Yoga’s Impact on Your Mental Health
Yoga has also been shown to help with a variety of common psychiatric disorders.19, 20 A meta-analysis21 of more than 100 studies looking at the effect of yoga on mental health found the practice to have a positive effect on:
- Mild depression
- Sleep problems
- Schizophrenia (among patients using medication)
- ADHD (among patients using medication)
Some of the studies suggest yoga can have a similar effect to antidepressants and psychotherapy, by influencing neurotransmitters and boosting serotonin. More recent research has also found that yoga reduces anxiety and aggression among prison inmates. After doing yoga once a week for 10 weeks, participants reported feeling less stressed, and also scored better on tests of executive control, indicating a higher degree of thoughtfulness and attention to their surroundings. As noted by Scientific American:22
“Several studies have shown that yoga helps to improve symptoms of anxiety and depression in prisoners, and now a study at the University of Oxford has found that it also increases focus and, crucially, decreases impulsivity—a known factor in much prison violence...‘Attention and impulsivity are very important for this population, which has problems dealing with aggressive impulses,’ says Oxford psychologist Miguel Farias, one of the study's authors. With less anxiety and aggression, he notes, prisoners should be better able to reintegrate into society when they are released.”
Do Yoga Outdoors for Additional Benefits
Have you noticed how much better you feel when you walk barefoot on the ground, whether it’s dirt or sand or grass? For most of our evolutionary history, humans have had continuous contact with the earth, but this is certainly not the case today. We are separated from it by a barrier of asphalt, wood, rugs, plastics, and especially shoes.
The reason it feels so good walking barefoot is because living in direct contact with the earth grounds your body, producing beneficial electrophysiological changes that help protect you from potentially disruptive electromagnetic fields. Some of the EMFs closest to our bodies are those generated by the electronic devices that have practically become a modern appendage – like smart phones and iPads.
Your immune system functions optimally when your body has an adequate supply of electrons, which are easily and naturally obtained by barefoot/bare skin contact with the Earth. Research indicates Earth’s electrons are the ultimate antioxidants, acting as powerful anti-inflammatories. So, if you want to significantly bump up your yoga benefits, take your poses outside so that you are grounding yourself at the same time. Make sure your feet or hands are in direct contact with the Earth, rather than separated from it by a rubber mat. Grass or even sand makes suitable yoga substrates on which to take your poses.
The Mind-Body Connection
A report23 by the Institute of Science in Society (ISIS) discusses how meditative practices such as yoga, qigong, and many others can alter your genetic expression, through its beneficial effects on your mind. Indeed, thousands of genes have been identified that appear to be directly influenced by your subjective mental state.
This shouldn’t come as a major surprise to those well-versed in natural health. You cannot separate your health from your emotional well-being. As just one example, one recent study24 came to the conclusion that happiness, optimism, life satisfaction, and other positive psychological attributes are associated with a lower risk of heart disease. As reported by ISIS:
“Yogic meditative practices were shown to have positive effects on the heart rate, blood pressure, and low density lipoprotein cholesterol, and decrease the levels of salivary cortisol, the stress hormone. These findings are consistent with a down regulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and the sympathetic nervous system, both of which are known to be over-activated by the stressful western lifestyle. Now, a series of new studies on gene expression profiles in immune cells circulating in the blood are showing that yogic/meditative practices have profound effects at the molecular level.”
Examples of genetic effects obtained through yogic and other meditative practices include the down-regulation of genes associated with the pathway responsible for the breaking down of proteins, and cellular stress response genes. Expression of certain heat shock proteins is increased, and immune function is amped up through a variety of genetic changes. One study investigating genetic changes triggered by the relaxation response (RR) determined that meditative or mindfulness practices affect no less than 2,209 different genes. As noted by ISIS:
“The type of genes differentially expressed suggested to the authors that gene expression changes in the M [RR practitioners with several years practice] and N2 [healthy controls who took eight weeks of guided relaxation training] groups might indicate a greater capacity to respond to oxidative stress and associated detrimental effects. And it matters little which RR technique is practiced.”
Aim for a Comprehensive Fitness Program
As you can see, there’s no shortage of health benefits to be had from regular yoga sessions. Still, for optimal health results, I believe it’s important to incorporate a variety of exercises into your routine. Ideally, you’ll want a comprehensive fitness program that includes aerobic, anaerobic, and resistance training as well, in addition to flexibility and core-building exercises like yoga.