Many people want to ensure their workouts are effective but is yoga exercise? Well, that depends on what you want to achieve. If you're looking for something that can improve your mood and flexibility then yoga is a perfect fit. But if you're searching for some heart-pumping aerobic exercise you might need a different activity.
We've combed through the research to find the benefits of yoga – and we've got hands-on with some of the best yoga mats – but we still wanted more answers. So we asked Libby Hinsley, a physical therapist and certified yoga teacher, to weigh in on the topic.
Does yoga count as exercise?
Before we evaluate whether yoga counts as exercise, it's important to actually define exercise.
"Exercise includes any activity that gets the body moving or requires some physical effort, and it's undertaken with the intent of improving health or fitness," informs Hinsley.
Hinsley says yoga qualifies as exercise if it's practiced in a way that fits such a description. And it's important to remember that we all have different ability levels, so what qualifies as 'exercise' will vary from person to person.
She also highlights that yoga, as a whole, isn't solely about improving fitness. "The tools of yoga practice include ethical lifestyle principles, yoga postures, breathing exercises, and meditative practices," she explains. "Ideally, practitioners will reap broader benefits from their yoga practice in addition to fitness."
Hinsley is a doctor of physical therapy and a certified yoga therapist. She's been teaching yoga since 2005, training yoga teachers since 2011 and practicing physical therapy since 2011. She specializes in treating people with hypermobility syndromes, chronic pain, and yoga-related injuries.
Does yoga provide a workout?
If you're practicing a more dynamic form of yoga and flowing rapidly between poses, you'll get a low-intensity cardio workout. Examples of this type of yoga include vinyasa flow, Ashtanga vinyasa, or power styles of yoga.
A meta-analysis published in the International Journal of Cardiology found that yoga could have a positive effect on cardiovascular disease risk factors, suggesting that the activity does have a direct impact on our cardio systems. Regular yoga practice could not only improve systolic and diastolic blood pressure – both of which are linked to heart and cardio disease – it could also positively impact heart rate, breath rate and waist circumference.
Some styles of yoga could also increase muscular strength and endurance. These practices focus on holding poses that involve multiple major muscle groups. A meta-analysis of 12 studies, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, concluded that regular yoga practice could have "moderately positive effects on muscle strength."
There are also more relaxing and restorative styles of yoga that don't really boost your fitness but help to relax the body and calm the nervous system. "This [restorative style] may aid in recovery which could lead to indirect benefits in cardiovascular endurance or strength," Hinley says.
Does yoga count towards your weekly activity?
Despite the findings above, there are some big limitations on yoga as exercise. For example, Hinley says yoga doesn't really provide a lot of resistance, which is an important component of a well-rounded exercise routine. It's also unlikely that a yoga practice would count towards your weekly dose of much-needed cardio exercise.
Guidelines for physical activity issued by the American Heart Association (AHA) state that adults should aim to complete 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise each week or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity.
A study published in BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine examined whether a typical yoga practice with common poses was sufficient to meet these physical activity recommendations. It found that the metabolic costs of yoga were similar to walking on a treadmill at 3.2 kph (2 miles per hour) and did not meet recommendations for levels of physical activity for improving or maintaining health or cardiovascular fitness.
Another study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research also corroborated these results, finding that the intensity of yoga averaged only 2.17 METs over the workout. (A MET is used to indicate how much energy is being expended by a person. According to Harvard sources, one MET is the amount of energy used while sitting quietly, while running is usually 8-9 METs, so 2.17 is very low on the scale.)
In light of these findings, Hinley's advice seems prudent: "While a dynamic or moderately vigorous yoga asana practice can certainly contribute to a person’s overall fitness, I always recommend that people incorporate a variety of different types of movement into their exercise routine."
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Amber Sayer is a fitness, nutrition, and wellness writer and editor, and contributes to several fitness, health, and running websites and publications. She holds two masters degrees—one in exercise science and one in prosthetics and orthotics. As a certified personal trainer and running coach for 12 years, Amber enjoys staying active and helping others do so as well. In her free time, Amber likes running, cycling, cooking, spending time outside, and tackling any type of puzzle.