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Health Benefits of Yoga

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Updated July 12, 2013

You may already know that yoga can reduce stress and, in turn, help keep stress-related health problems like insomnia and fatigue in check. Now a growing body of evidence shows that yoga -- a mind-body practice that originated in India more than 4,000 years ago -- may help prevent (or help you manage) chronic conditions ranging from back pain to heart disease.

Here's a look at how yoga's combination of poses, deep breathing, and meditation might enhance your health.

1) Heart Disease Prevention

Stress is a probable risk factor for heart disease, the leading cause of death in the United States today. For a report released in 2005, scientists sized up 70 studies (published from 1970 to 2004) that examined yoga's effects on cardiovascular disease risk. Results revealed that yoga may decrease many cardiovascular disease risk factors (including high blood pressure and oxidative stress, a process involved in hardening of the arteries) and might aid in the management of cardiovascular disease.

2) Maintaining a Healthy Weight

A regular yoga practice could help ward off the weight gain that often accompanies aging, suggests a 2005 study. In surveying 15,500 healthy, middle-aged men and women, researchers found that most participants gained about a pound a year between ages 45 and 55. However, study members who were of normal weight at age 45 and practiced yoga on a regular basis (at least 30 minutes once a week for four or more years) gained about three fewer pounds during that 10-year period than their non-yoga-practicing counterparts.

For help in cultivating a yoga practice that promotes weight loss or weight maintenance, the study's authors recommend working at an intensity where you feel challenged but not overwhelmed.

3) Easing Anxiety and Depression

People with anxiety and depression tend to have low levels of the brain chemical gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). But practicing yoga could help boost GABA levels, according to a 2007 study. Researchers measured GABA levels of eight volunteers before and after an hour of yoga, then compared them to the GABA levels of 11 people who read for an hour instead of doing yoga. While study members showed no change in GABA levels after their reading session, the yoga-practicing participants had a 27% increase in this mood-regulating amino acid.

4) Building Balance

Among people ages 65 and older, falls are the leading cause of nonfatal injuries. In a 2008 study, 24 elderly women showed significant improvements in balance and stability after completing a nine-week yoga program created specifically for their age group. Those gains in physical functioning -- which also included increases in walking speed and flexibility in the lower extremities -- could help to prevent falls, according to the study's authors.

5) Back Pain Relief

Yoga might be more effective than conventional exercise in relieving low back pain, finds a 2005 study of 101 adults. After 12 weeks, study members who took part in weekly yoga sessions had an easier time completing back-related daily activities than those who performed weekly aerobic, strengthening, and stretching exercises. After 26 weeks, the yoga-practicing study members also had better back-related function and less pain than other participants.

Sources

Innes KE, Bourguignon C, Taylor AG. "Risk indices associated with the insulin resistance syndrome, cardiovascular disease, and possible protection with yoga: a systematic review." The Journal of the American Board of Family Practice 2005 18(6):491-519.

Kristal AR, Littman AJ, Benitez D, White E. "Yoga practice is associated with attenuated weight gain in healthy, middle-aged men and women." Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine 2005 11(4):28-33.

Sherman KJ, Cherkin DC, Erro J, Miglioretti DL, Deyo RA. "Comparing yoga, exercise, and a self-care book for chronic low back pain: a randomized, controlled trial." Annals of Internal Medicine 2005 20;143(12):849-56.

Streeter CC, Jensen JE, Perlmutter RM, Cabral HJ, Tian H, Terhune DB, Ciraulo DA, Renshaw PF. "Yoga Asana sessions increase brain GABA levels: a pilot study." Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 2007 13(4):419-26.

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