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sportswomen standing in yoga position

I realized that I have mentioned yoga and pilates many times before, but I never really took the time to discuss whether it’s helpful for those that are strength training. I’ve always said that both are great for beginners, the young and not-so-young, and of course for flexibility. It’s about time I discussed the actual health benefits of yoga and pilates, especially for those that are already active. I’ll start with yoga first.


Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 450 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.


Benefits of Yoga

This practice has been around for thousands of years, but only within the last 20 or 30 has it really gained momentum. There are so many forms of yoga now, too:

  • hatha
  • vinyasa
  • power
  • ashtanga
  • bikram
  • iyengar

Then, there are sub-types of each of these. Some instructors incorporate versions of each one in their practice. The variations are seemingly endless.

What they all have in common are proper breathing and holding poses.

It is believed that by practicing certain poses and controlling one’s breathing, health benefits can be achieved. But is this really true? What does the research actually say about the benefits of yoga?

A study conducted at Arizona State University using healthy adults found that after following a 6-week yoga program, all of their participants saw decreases in blood pressure, and increases in upper body & trunk dynamic muscular strength and endurance & flexibility. They also reported having less stress. This study was small and only followed people for 6 weeks, so it would be good to see if these results lasted months later.

A separate study using 27 college students found that after following a 12-week yoga program, participants improved their grip strength, reaction times, and respiratory endurance (how strong your lungs are).

You may be thinking, “Ok, but were these folks athletes? What if they weren’t really active to begin with? Wouldn’t following any program help them?”

Those would all be valid points. Let’s look at the data on athletes…

Benefits of Yoga for Athletes

Sure enough, we find that yoga is beneficial for athletes as well.

One of the main benefits is injury prevention. A nice side effect of practicing yoga is improved flexibility, which can help prevent all sorts of injuries. There a number of studies that have shown yoga’s effect on flexibility.

The other benefit of yoga is that it tends to work your core. When you think about the poses that yoga requires you to perform, you’ll quickly notice that so many of those poses require you to engage the muscles from your chest and upper back down to your thighs and hamstrings–basically your entire core! Core strength and stability is so important for most athletes, especially if strength training is a large component of their routines.

Furthermore, the controlled breathing that yoga requires can reduce the lactic acid build-up that occurs when you work out at a high intensity! Imagine you’re running sprints and you notice your legs start to burn from all of that hard work. This burning sensation is telling you that your muscles are exhausted. Some researchers have found that with yogic breathing, you can actually decrease this lactic acid buildup or shorten how long that burning sensation lasts. This means you’ll be able to jump back in and run some more sprints sooner rather than later!

The same mechanism applies to weight lifting. When your arms (or shoulders or chest) start to burn when you’re working out, that’s lactic acid building up. With yogic breathing, some of that may be minimized.

Benefits of Pilates

What about Pilates? This method of training hasn’t been around quite as long as yoga, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Pilates method was created by Joseph Hubertus Pilates back in the 1920s. Usually, Pilates involves 25-50 repetitive, low-impact flexibility and muscular endurance exercises with an emphasis on muscular exertion in the core: abs, lower back, hips, thighs, and glutes.

There is some overlap between the foundation of pilates and yoga. Pilates also focuses on building strength through the use of various poses and focusing on one’s breathing. The research on this is not as abundant, but it appears that pilates can help improve abdominal endurance, hamstring flexibility, and upper-body muscular endurance.

Conclusion

Both yoga and Pilates appear to be safe and beneficial for most adults, even athletes. But what I particularly like about both of these modes of training is that they provide variety. We often get stuck performing the same workouts at the gym and doing the same moves. But by incorporating something new, like yoga or Pilates, you’re changing things up. Plus, you’re changing things up using relatively safe, low-impact moves. And a potential side effect of practicing yoga and Pilates is you may actually feel less stressed and more focused in other areas of your life.

That sounds like a pretty good deal to me!

Listen to Dr. Neal address this topic on Episode 450 of the podcast Optimal Health Daily.