Harvard Men's Health Watch

Yoga offers range of health benefits

In yoga, you assume a series of postures that build strength and flexibility.

Images: Thinkstock

This ancient practice may support heart health, general fitness, and mental well-being.

Yoga is an ancient practice that combines physical activity, breathing, and focused mental attention. A growing body of research shows that yoga offers a range of health benefits, including a low-impact cardiovascular workout.

"It packs a powerful punch," says Maren Nyer, an instructor in psychology at Harvard Medical School and director of yoga studies at Harvard-
affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital. "You're getting more than just one thing. You get strength and flexibility training, as well as a form of meditation that prepares you to be more mindful the rest of your day."

What is yoga?

All forms of yoga have some basics in common, but there's a lot of variety. In Hatha yoga, popular with beginners, you assume a series of physical postures (called poses) that take your joints and muscles through a wide range of motion. You also learn to regulate your breathing in synchrony with the movements. Yoga also emphasizes meditation to attain a calming focus.

Yoga practices vary in the number of different poses, how long you hold them, and how you incorporate breathing or mental training.

Yoga and health

Scores of clinical studies have evaluated yoga for its impact on various health conditions. But most findings have been inconclusive, either because of small study size and short duration or flaws in the way the studies were designed. It's also unclear what types of yoga are most effective and how often you need to practice yoga to see benefits. If you have a serious health condition, it's wise to consider yoga as something you can do in addition to—not instead of—standard medical treatments.

But it's hard to dispute that yoga promotes strength and flexibility. That makes it a useful form of exercise to relieve general stiffness and pain in your muscles and joints. Some studies show that yoga improves arthritis symptoms, low back pain, and balance.

Yoga for your heart

A recent review led by researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health summed up the findings of 37 randomized clinical trials involving nearly 2,800 people. Compared with those who did not exercise, yoga practitioners saw improvements in blood pressure, cholesterol, body weight, and other factors that influence the risk of heart disease. The cardiovascular
effects were similar to those a person would get from brisk walking or other aerobic exercise.

This is encouraging, but has limits. Yoga may help to improve cardiovascular risk factors, but is not yet proven to prevent heart attacks and strokes. The researchers conclude only that yoga offers a potential benefit for heart health and could be a fitness option for those with limitations on their ability to engage in more vigorous aerobic exercise.

Is it for you?

The percentage of American adults who do yoga has nearly doubled since 2002, to about 10% of adults. About a third of those are 65 and older.

Many of the converts are women, but Nyer urges men to keep an open mind about yoga. "One thing I hear men say over and over is that they are not flexible enough to do yoga," Nyer says. "A lot of men focus on activities like weights and running, things that don't involve a lot of stretching. But strength and flexibility actually go together."

How to get started

Where: Yoga classes are widely available at health clubs and community or senior centers. Many commercial yoga studios allow you to take a class for free to give yoga a test drive. A typical cost per session is $15 to $20. It helps to have trained guidance, since yoga carries a risk of injuries if you do challenging poses you are not ready for or overstretch muscles and tendons.

What: Among the many styles of yoga, Hatha and Iyengar
are very common. You can also find specialized courses,
such as "gentle yoga" or "chair yoga," for people with arthritis, back pain, or other physical limitations.

How often: Weekly classes are common, but many people practice yoga at home daily. Do what fits into your schedule, and "start low and go slow" to avoid injuries.