With the popularity of yoga showing no sign of slowing—especially among midlife exercisers who are eager to baby their banged-up knees, back and shoulders—researchers have some unexpected good news about heart health.
Until now, most experts have said that the typical yoga workout, while great for stress reduction and flexibility, doesn’t do much to improve cardiovascular health. To do that, the thinking goes, workouts need to get the heart rate considerably higher than the average yoga class.
But when a team from the U.S. and the Netherlands put 37 separate studies (including more than 2,700 people) under the microscope, they found promising data that yoga may confer the same benefits as more rugged activities, like biking or brisk walking. This meta-analysis revealed two important findings: People who do yoga have fewer cardiovascular risks than those who are sedentary; and those who do yoga get as many heart-health perks as those who exercise more vigorously.
Yoga was just as beneficial as aerobic exercises in lowering blood pressure, heart rate and cholesterol, as well as promoting weight loss. (It didn’t have any significant impact on blood glucose levels, though.)
While the age of participants, as well as the frequency, duration and regularity of their yoga practice, ranged widely, “several studies had participants practicing yoga two to three times per week, which to me seems like a reasonable investment of time,” says Paula Chu, the lead author and a Ph.D. student at Harvard University. It isn’t clear exactly how yoga works this magic. “We hypothesize that the relaxation, meditative component of yoga may be part of the reason,” she says.
Looking for health benefits from other so-called “soft” fitness routines? A recent study at a university in Spain introduced midlifers to Pilates, which teaches carefully controlled exercises to strengthen core muscles. Nearly 100 participants, sedentary with a median age of 47.6, took one-hour Pilates classes twice a week for 12 weeks. Participants scored improvements in all physical and emotional levels the researchers studies, especially when it came to healthy ZZZs: Those who did Pilates didn’t just sleep more, they slept better.
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