When it comes to an intense calorie burn, very few forms of yoga would likely qualify on the same level as, say, a spinning class or bootcamp session.
In a physically demanding yoga class that moves quickly and may involve hand weights, you might burn up to 400 calories an hour. But the more typical class clocks in between 175–250 calories an hour. By contrast, Zumba has been estimated to burn about 650 calories per hour.
Of course, calorie burn depends a great deal on an individual factors like age, muscle mass, body weight, basal metabolic rate, general amount of daily activity and even gender — men tend to burn more calories than women.
That means you might burn 300 calories in a yoga class while your friend burns only half that. But even with those caveats in mind, yoga can still be effective as part of a weight-loss effort, since it has numerous benefits that can indirectly contribute to losing weight, even if you’re not cranking a calorie furnace up during class. Here’s why yoga should be in your weight-loss routine:
Many yoga classes include at least some form of strength building through bodyweight exercise.
For example, you might do a sequence called “chaturanga,” which is basically a half pushup that strengthens your triceps, shoulder muscles and pectoral muscles. Other poses might work your core, quads, hamstrings and glutes.
As you work against gravity, that turns those yoga sequences into resistance training. And that builds muscle mass — which, in turn, creates a longer-term calorie burn.
When it comes to a belly-fat-builder, stress is super effective at packing on the pounds. That’s because chronic stress keeps your cortisol levels elevated, and your body responds by depleting feel-good brain chemicals like serotonin, according to Dr. Sara Gottfried, author of “The Hormone Cure.”
This combo not only causes you to begin storing more belly fat — which the body tucks away in order to have a ready source of energy in a fight-or-flight situation — but also negatively affects your sleep and increases your sugar cravings, making it all worse.
Once there is a chronic level of cortisol secreted, no amount of exercise or calorie restriction will budge someone’s weight, says Eliza Kingsford, psychotherapist and author of “Brain-Powered Weight Loss.” “Imagine eating well, exercising and doing everything you can to stay healthy, only to find you’re gaining weight. This, in turn, leads to feelings of distress and the cycle continues. That’s what stress is doing.”
Yoga is a powerful anti-stressor, and one study found it works throughout the body to create a more relaxed state. When that happens, the other healthy habits you’re employing for weight loss simply work better.
Streaming an online yoga class is great for busy schedules, but it’s also helpful to consider joining an in-person class as well. That can give you the opportunity to connect with others, even if you don’t have a deep discussion with anyone.
One study found yoga, specifically, is a useful tool for weight loss because of the non-competitive, social support provided by the yoga community. Many of the participants in that study felt like being in a yoga studio felt different, and more positive, than the culture they’d encountered in gyms and health clubs.
Those in the study also commented on feeling like the other students and the yoga teacher acted as role models in terms of healthy eating but also for a healthier world view that was useful for reducing stress and adopting better behaviors.
As you integrate a practice like yoga into your routine, and experience lower stress levels and better sleep, it’s likely you’ll also start to pay more attention to what you eat, believes Kingsford.
That’s backed up by a recent study that suggests people who are feeling overworked and burned out have a much higher risk of emotional eating and overeating. Researchers also found the higher the levels of fatigue and overwhelmedness, the more people tend to reach for fast food and convenient options, resulting in a higher caloric intake.
Yoga’s focus on mindfulness and being present isn’t useful just when you’re transitioning to your next pose — it also cultivates a mindset that is helpful when you’re standing in the grocery store aisle or looking at a restaurant menu.
“Cultivating more self awareness in general can help you begin to see why you make the choices you do about food and activity,” says Kingsford. “You can start to see patterns that aren’t serving you and work on changing them.”
As everyone who’s trying to lose weight knows, shedding pounds takes more than a calories-in, calories-out approach.
While that is an effective starting point for many, skimping on self-care can make weight-loss efforts more difficult, or worse, completely ineffective. Also, putting everyone else first can lead to letting healthy eating and exercise get pushed down on the to-do list, adding to the weight-loss sabotage.
Adding yoga into a routine may not be a calorie burner, but it can have powerful results anyway, by helping you establish good habits that create consistent, sustainable weight loss that sticks.
Originally published August 2019, updated September 2022
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