Taking Ownership of Your Health
Dr. Forrest Smith and her staff blog about the latest in health and wellness and anti-aging. There are several categories of blogs: Wellness, Metabolic Weight Management Program and Med Spa.
by Alicia Potee
We all know that exercise is some of the best medicine around. But the type of exercise you choose matters. And when it comes to healing your body and your mind, you cannot do much better than yoga.
The fact is yoga is more than just a series of poses and deep breaths. When practiced properly, it absolutely can fight disease—in just about every conceivable way, too.
But you don't have to take my word for it. A closer look at the published research reveals tons of reasons to sign up for a yoga class today. For the sake of this article, though, let's focus on a few of the most compelling ones.
Reason #1: Yoga Boosts Heart Health
Yoga can work wonders for your heart health. Enough that even the American Heart Association (AHA) has spoken out in support of it.
According to the AHA, regular yoga practice can help to boost lung capacity, circulation and respiratory function—not to mention lower cholesterol and blood pressure—in as little as 12 weeks. And it might be particularly beneficial on the heels of a heart attack or other serious cardiac event.1
Recent research backs up these claims. One 2009 study, for example, showed that yoga practitioners have higher heart rate variability—an indicator of strong cardiovascular health—than people who don't practice yoga.2
This isn't surprising when you consider the insidious role that inflammation plays in heart disease. (And just about every other disease, for that matter.) Inflammatory markers—and more specifically, C-reactive protein—are well known warning signs that trouble is brewing in your circulatory system.
But a regular yoga routine combats this inflammation. Recent research revealed that women who practice yoga have lower levels of inflammatory interleukin-6 (IL-6) compounds in their blood. (Roughly 41 percent lower, in fact.) Not to mention a dramatically lower risk of any detectable C-reactive protein levels.3
Studies also show that yoga practice can ward off arrhythmia—the most common cause of sudden cardiac death—cutting incidence of atrial fibrillation nearly in half.4
Heart-Healthy Pose: Forward Bend
- Sit with your legs outstretched in front of you, feet flexed and spine straight. (Your shoulders should be directly in line with your hips.)
- Inhale deeply, and as you exhale, begin to bend forward at the hips.
- Continue to extend your spine as you inhale, bending further into the fold with each exhale until you can reach your shins or ankles.
- Be sure to keep your neck in its natural position, and do not round your back or force the pose.
- Hold for one to three minutes.
Reason #2: Yoga Fights Diabetes and Obesity
Obesity and diabetes are like two evil twins—and where there's one, the other isn't usually far behind. So keeping your weight and your blood sugar in check is key.
Yoga may not burn as many calories as other forms of exercise, but whether you have a lot of pounds to shed, or just a few, it can definitely help.
A 2005 study of more than 15,000 middle-aged men and women showed that subjects who practiced yoga for several years or more were much more likely to maintain their weight over the long term. In fact, overweight yoga practitioners lost five pounds over the same 10-year period that non-practitioners gained 14 pounds.5
A big part of this might be the influence that yoga practice has on eating habits. According to another study, fit subjects who practiced yoga scored lower on the body mass index scale and higher on mindful eating questionnaires.6
This isn't surprising, when you consider that yoga trains you to be more aware of your body and its signals. It seems that positive relationship extends to your mealtimes, too.
All of these benefits make yoga a natural ally to diabetics. One recent small study showed that three months of gentle yoga practice helped subjects with type 2 diabetes to lose weight, balance blood sugar and manage oxidative stress.7
Diabetes-Busting Pose: Sitting Half Spinal Twist
- Sit with your legs outstretched in front of you, feet flexed and spine straight. (Again, your shoulders should be directly in line with your hips.)
- Bend your left knee, and position your left foot on the outside of your right thigh, sole to the floor.
- Bend your right knee, bringing your right foot just beneath your left buttock.
- Inhale, raising your right hand up toward your right ear.
- As you exhale, twist to your left, positioning your elbow on the outside of your left knee.
- Keep your left arm straight, palm to floor, just behind your bum. Look over your left shoulder—but not too far, as the twist should be focused on your torso.
- With each inhale, stretch your spine. With each exhale, twist deeper. Hold pose for 30 seconds to one minute.
- Repeat on the opposite side.
Reason #3: Yoga Builds Stronger Bones
The research on this benefit is still preliminary. But it's significant nevertheless—especially since hip fractures can be deadly over the age of 55.
Obviously, weight-bearing and impact exercise can go a long way to strengthening bones. But these types of workouts can also be hard on your joints—presenting a catch-22 for anyone struggling with arthritis.
That's where yoga comes into play. This form of exercise can offer many of the benefits of resistance training in a gentle, safe way.
In fact, a recent two-year pilot study of subjects with an average age of 68 showed that just 10 minutes of daily yoga could make a difference. Over this time period, the study participants with both osteoporosis and osteopenia (low bone density, or pre-osteoporosis) made significant gains in bone density scores—in some cases, enough to be reclassified in the normal range.8
But most importantly? None of the study's subjects suffered a single injury.
Best Bone Pose: Bridge
- Lie on your back and bend your knees, keeping your feet parallel and close to your buttocks, and your soles on the ground.
- Lift your hips toward the ceiling as you join your hands behind your back and straighten your arms.
- Roll both shoulders under as you lift higher. Don't tuck your chin—allow your chest to naturally move toward it.
- Hold pose for 30 seconds to one minute.
Reason #4: Yoga Boosts Mood and Brain Power
What's good for the body is good for the brain—and obviously yoga is no exception. Among its more well-known benefits, this form of exercise can ward off depression and anxiety—and not surprisingly, it can sharpen your memory and focus, too.
Clinical trials show that practicing yoga for one hour, three times a week can raise low levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA)—a neurotransmitter responsible for brain relaxation—as well as corresponding improvements in mood. And it can do this more effectively than other forms of exercise, like walking.9
A new review published earlier this year reinforced this message. Researchers from Duke University looked at 16 different studies examining the effects of yoga on mental health. And they discovered that weekly yoga sessions can slash mild depression by as much as 40 percent.10
What's more, yoga can help you get a better night's sleep, with studies showing that it curbs insomnia and lowers sleep medication use—in as little as seven weeks. Researchers found that yoga can even help in cases of schizophrenia and ADHD.
So it's no surprise that regular yoga practice may help with memory and cognitive function, too.
In fact, one 2008 study of over 100 perimenopausal women showed that doing an hour of yoga, five days a week for eight weeks, improved subjects' remote memory, attention and concentration, recall—both delayed and immediate—and verbal retention.11
Mood-Lifting Pose: Downward-Facing Dog
- Get on your hands and knees, wrists in line with your shoulders and knees in line with your hips.
- Raise your hips, toes under, and push your legs out.
- Spread fingers and straighten your arms, rotating them outward enough to open your collarbone.
- Keep your head between your upper arms, moving your shoulder blades toward your hips.
- Exhale, pushing your tailbone high and heels toward the floor, shifting your thighs inward.
- Straighten your knees, but don't lock them. Hold the position for one to three minutes.
Reason #5: Yoga Delivers Drug-Free Arthritis Relief
I mentioned before that yoga is an effective inflammation fighter. So this last benefit is a no-brainer: Yoga packs a serious punch against joint pain.
Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) appears to be especially responsive to yoga therapy. One recent study showed that RA patients who completed 12 sessions of gentle yoga scored significantly higher in activity and health assessments.12
Yet another showed that yoga practice delivered meaningful improvements in pain disability, general health, mood, fatigue and quality of life to roughly half of all patients enrolled.13
But osteoarthritis sufferers can benefit from regular yoga practice, too—whether they're struggling with knee pain or lower back pain. A number of studies have concluded that yoga can improve pain, disability, quality of life and even arthritis-related insomnia.14-17
And unlike popular pain medications, gentle forms of yoga are both affordable and risk-free.
Pain-Relieving Pose: Cobra
- Lie prone on the floor. (Your chest should be positioned right between your hands, elbows hugging your sides.)
- While the tops of your feet, thighs and pubic bone remain on the floor, begin to lift your chest off the floor and straighten your arms.
- Keep your neck natural—don't force it back.
- Continue lifting your chest, stopping before your pubic bone loses contact with the floor. The backbend should be distributed evenly along your entire spine.
- Hold the pose for 15 to 30 seconds.
Start a Practice Today
Whether you are looking to improve your overall health, start an exercise routine or would like some relief in one (or more!) of these five areas, yoga is your go-to program. In addition to the five poses detailed above, you may also want to consider taking a class at a yoga studio or local health club. Additionally, you can find great yoga DVDs and other resources online.
- American Heart Association. "Yoga and heart health." 2 February 2012. http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/GettingHealthy/PhysicalActivity/Yoga-and-Heart-Health_UCM_434966_Article.jsp.
- Sunkaria R, et al. Int. J. Medical Engineering and Informatics. 2010:2(1):1-14
- Kiecolt-Glaser JK, et al. Psychosom Med. 2010 Feb;72(2):113-21.
- Lakkireddy D, et al. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2013;61(11):1177-82.
- Kristal, AR, et al. Altern Ther Health Med. 2005 Jul-Aug;11(4):28-33.
- Framson C, et al. J Am Diet Assoc. 2009;109(8):1439.
- Hegde SV, et al. Diabetes Care. 2011 Oct;34(10):2208-10.
- Fishman, Loren MD. " Pilot Study And New Book Prove Yoga's Benefits In Treating Osteoporosis." Huffington Post. 08 December 2009.
- Boston University Medical Center. "New study finds new connection between yoga and mood." ScienceDaily, 23 Aug. 2010. Web. 31 May 2013.
- Balasubramaniam M, et al. Front Psychiatry. 2012;3:117. [Epub 2013 Jan 25.]
- Chattha R, et al. BJOG. 2008 Jul;115(8):991-1000.
- European League Against Rheumatism. "Significant benefits of yoga in people with rheumatoid arthritis, study shows." ScienceDaily, 28 May 2011.
- Evans S, et al. Clin J Pain. 2013 Jan 30. [Epub ahead of print.]
- Bukowski EL, et al. Int Q Community Health Educ. 2006-2007;26(3):287-305.
- Haaz S and Bartlett SJ. Rheum Dis Clin North Am. 2011 Feb;37(1):33-46.
- Bussing A, et al. J Pain. 2012 Jan;13(1):1-9.
- Taibi DM and Vitiello MV. Sleep Med. 2011 May;12(5):512-7.