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August 2, 2005 NEW YORK TIMES

Yoga May Help Minimize Weight Gain in Middle Age


Practicing yoga may be one way to prevent middle-aged spread, according to the findings of a new study.

Although the connection appears to be indirect, yoga practitioners are apparently able to avoid - or at least minimize - the one-pound-a-year of gained weight that most people endure between the ages of 45 and 55.

The researchers used data from more than 15,000 men and women ages 53 to 57, who reported their weight at age 45 and their current weight.

The subjects were also asked to report whether they engaged regularly in three specific recreational activities - walking, weight lifting, and yoga - and whether they participated in two broader categories of activity, moderate and strenuous exercise. The researchers assessed the diet of the study participants using a detailed food questionnaire.

Practicing yoga for 4 or more years, for at least 30 minutes once a week, was associated with a 3.1-pound lower weight gain among people who were normal weight at age 45. The yoga practitioners who were overweight at 45 lost an average of 5 pounds, as opposed to an average gain of 13 pounds in overweight nonpractitioners. Being overweight was defined as having a body mass index of 25 or greater.

Dr. Alan R. Kristal, the lead author on the study and associate director of the cancer prevention program at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, emphasized that yoga was not a magic weight control technique. "There are many weight control strategies," he said. "But none allows you to escape the laws of thermodynamics. If you consume more energy than you expend, then it will be stored as fat."

But, he added, yoga offers "a safe and comfortable way for people who have never been physically active to begin regular physical activity."

Unsurprisingly, the study found significant differences in lifestyle between those who practiced the discipline and those who did not. Yoga practitioners engaged in more physical activity apart from yoga than did nonpractitioners. Longtime participants had an 11 percent lower energy intake from fat and a 45 percent higher energy intake from fruits and vegetables.

Participants who practiced yoga also ate more, consistent with their higher exercise levels. But even after statistical adjustments were made to account for this, the difference in weight gain between practitioners and nonpractitioners persisted.

The authors conceded that their study, published in the July/August issue of Alternative Therapies, has many limitations. Although there were more than 1,000 people in the study who did some yoga, almost half did less than 30 minutes at a session, while normal yoga sessions usually last 60 to 90 minutes. Only 132 of these people maintained the practice longer than four years.

In addition, the study depended on self-reports, which are not always reliable. And the researchers pointed out that the yoga practitioners in their survey were in better overall health than nonpractitioners

Observational studies like theirs, they said, are difficult to interpret, and well-designed clinical trials are the best way to determine yoga's effect on weight control.

Nevertheless, the researchers offered several possible mechanisms for an indirect connection between yoga and weight maintenance. Even though yoga by itself would not meet minimum requirements for daily exercise, they pointed out, it does improve exercise capacity.

Moreover, for a sedentary person, yoga can be the beginning of more strenuous physical activity. Yoga practitioners consistently report that they feel "more connected" to their bodies, which may reduce food intake by helping enhance awareness of satiety and increase sensitivity to being too full.

Finally, yoga promotes a sense of well being, and encourages commitment and discipline, qualities helpful in making lifestyle changes and sticking to them, the researchers said. "In that context," Dr. Kristal said, "some of the benefits of yoga practice may help people with some of the more difficult aspects of weight loss."

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