There is a popular meme circulating social media that says, “Yoga is my favorite way to pretend to workout.” When I first encountered the viral posting, I thoroughly disagreed. But according to new research, yoga may not be considered a true workout.
Leaders in national health and exercise guidelines such as The American College of Sports Medicine recommend a minimum of 30 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise most days of the week. The intensity of exercise is measured in METs (metabolic equivalent of task). For instance, one MET is equivalent to sitting, and five METs is five times as much energy expenditure as sitting. Activities between three and six METs are considered moderate-intensity. To put this in perspective, leisurely walking is approximately two METs, while running a 12-minute mile is eight METs.
The American College of Sports Medicine reviewed a conglomerate of research pertaining to yoga’s health benefits and reports that most yoga practices rank at less than three METs. However, it is crucial to note the study reviewed practices that are atypical in American yoga. In much of the study, researchers removed sun salutations and evaluated only individual standing postures and pranayama. Some researchers did look at sun salutations and measured them at moderate to high-intensity. Potentially, the disconnect between the study and standard American practice could skew the reliability of the report.
Despite the study’s findings, most yogis would agree that yoga varies in intensity. For instance, gentle stretching, forward bending, and many seated postures are low-impact and light-intensity. On the other hand, many vinyasa classes, sun salutations, and inversions are moderate to high-intensity.
Does this study suggest that we should stop doing or limit yoga? Absolutely not. Just because it doesn’t always qualify as exercise, most people can benefit from a regular practice. However, to maintain optimal health, yoga alone may not be enough.
The study supports seasoned yogis’ knowledge that yoga isn’t just for burning calories and shedding pounds. There are, indeed, other important benefits to a regular practice. For instance, yoga builds muscular strength, increases flexibility, helps with balance, and reduces stress. With that in mind, the study suggests that even without the cardiovascular benefits, yoga is an important part of a regular exercise regimen. However, practitioners should make special efforts to include more intense movement.
If you want to amp up your practice, here are a few ideas:
- Add in more repetitions of Sun Salutation A and Sun Salutation B. While moving through sun salutes, do so at one breath per movement.
- Practice more dynamic movement, such as Shakti kicks or low lunge jump switches.
- Include more core strengthening exercises throughout your practice rather than just doing them in the beginning.
- Finding movement in standing postures creates a more full-body workout. For example, wave back and forth from Warrior II to Reverse Warrior for seven breaths. Be creative, and get moving between postures.
Depending on your practice, yoga might not be enough to meet the recommended guidelines for physical activity. Though there are endless ways to get moving, there are a few forms of exercise that complement yoga:
- Weight training can rev up your heart rate and build more strength. Not only will this help advance your yoga practice, building more muscle can strengthen and protect the joints, leading to fewer injuries common in yoga.
- Running is a surefire way to burn calories and practice breathing—one of yoga’s most important components. Like yogis, runners practice breath control and develop a deeper breath capacity.
- If you started yoga for low-impact exercise, cycling is a great cardio option. Grab your bicycle and go for a moderate-paced ride, or add in a few hills to get your heart racing.
How do you workout in your yoga practice? What other forms of exercise have you found that complement yoga? Share your thoughts below.