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Yoga: Research Finds Natural Way to Control Weight, Beat Middle-Age Spread

Wednesday, August 19, 2009 by: Sherry Baker, Health Sciences Editor
Tags: yoga, health news, Natural News

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(NewsTarget) The origin of the word "yoga" is the Sanskrit word yuj, meaning "yoke or union." And practitioners of this ancient discipline, which combines physical postures, meditation, breathing exercises and a philosophy of mindfulness, aim for a union between the mind and the body. Now western science is backing up this basic tenet of yoga. It appears yoga does help link the mind to the body. What's more it can link appetite control to weight loss.

According to a new study headed by researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, people who practice yoga regularly are less likely to be obese. The reason isn't necessarily the exercise part of yoga but the mindfulness part that promotes a slim body. Simply put, practicing yoga makes people mindful of what and how they eat --- and that, the scientists say, can help prevent the dread phenomenon of middle-age spread in normal-weight people. In addition, it may promote weight loss in those who are overweight.

The new research, just published in the August issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association, was inspired by a previous study by the same team of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center scientists. Four years ago, Dr. Alan Kristal and his colleagues first found that regular yoga practice seemed to promote weight loss. The researchers theorized that the weight-loss effect might have more to do with increased body awareness than the actual increased physical activity of yoga practice.

Specifically, the scientists suspected that people who practice yoga and mindfulness become more sensitive to feelings of real hunger and also real satiety. Bottom line: yoga practice makes you less likely to eat except when you are actually hungry and more likely to stop eating when you are full. The result? A slimmer body, controlled appetite and a healthy BMI.

In a statement to the media, Dr. Kristal explained the new study confirms his research team's initial ideas about yoga's connection to weight control and weight loss. "In our earlier study, we found that middle-age people who practice yoga gained less weight over a ten year period than those who did not. This was independent of physical activity and dietary patterns. We hypothesized that mindfulness -- a skill learned either directly or indirectly through yoga -- could affect eating behavior," said Dr. Kristal, who heads the Cancer Prevention Program in the Public Health Sciences Division at the Hutchinson Center.

The researchers discovered that people who ate mindfully, meaning they were aware of why they were eating and did not engage in binge eating or munching even though they weren't truly hungry, weighed less than those who ate mindlessly and in response to anxiety or depression. The scientists did not find a similar association between other types of physical activity, such as walking or running, and mindful eating.

"These findings fit with our hypothesis that yoga increases mindfulness in eating and leads to less weight gain over time, independent of the physical activity aspect of yoga practice," said Kristal, who is also a professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington School of Public Health. "Mindful eating is a skill that augments the usual approaches to weight loss, such as dieting, counting calories and limiting portion sizes. Adding yoga practice to a standard weight-loss program may make it more effective."

Dr. Kristal, who has practiced yoga himself for 15 years, explained in the press statement that yoga leads to mindfulness in a variety of ways, such as being able to hold a challenging physical pose by observing the discomfort in a non-judgmental way while accepting these feelings with a calm mind and by focusing on breathing. "This ability to be calm and observant during physical discomfort teaches how to maintain calm in other challenging situations, such as not eating more even when the food tastes good and not eating when you're not hungry," he said.

Other yoga research is being actively pursued by the National Institutes of Health's National Center for Complimentary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), too. According to the NCCAM's web site, studies are underway to see how yoga might help a variety of medical conditions including high blood pressure, chronic low-back pain, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, HIV and multiple sclerosis.

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About the author

Sherry Baker is a widely published writer whose work has appeared in Newsweek, Health, the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, Yoga Journal, Optometry, Atlanta, Arthritis Today, Natural Healing Newsletter, OMNI, UCLA's "Healthy Years" newsletter, Mount Sinai School of Medicine's "Focus on Health Aging" newsletter, the Cleveland Clinic's "Men's Health Advisor" newsletter and many others.

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