Move over kettlebells and row machines. These days, it seems like nearly everyone is doing downward dog or pigeon pose. And though yoga improves toe-touching flexibility, and has the ability to reduce anxiety, stress, and improve sleep quality—is it enough of a workout to burn fat? Can sun salutations really replace logging miles on the treadmill or time spent at the weight rack?
Let's get one thing straight: There are tons of awesome benefits of a regular yoga practice. Besides the mental perks we've already mentioned, yoga's emphasis on flexibility might help reduce the risk of injury; while sun salutations, planks, and chair poses can increase overall strength. A pragmatic randomised trial of stretching before and after physical activity to prevent injury and soreness. Jamtvedt G, Herbert RD, Flottorp S. British journal of sports medicine, 2009, Jun.;44(14):1473-0480. Yoga also joins the ranks of strawberries and red wine, acting as a natural antioxidant booster, and has been shown to potentially alleviate chronic and acute pain.
But back to the original question: Does that make it exercise? To measure the intensity of yoga compared to other activities, researchers turn to maximum oxygen uptake, or VO2 max. That's the highest amount of oxygen a person is able to consume, even when exercise intensity is increased, thus determining the upper threshold of the cardiovascular system. Maximal oxygen uptake as a parametric measure of cardiorespiratory capacity. Hawkins MN, Raven PB, Snell PG. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 2007, Mar.;39(1):0195-9131. And as you can probably guess, as you become better at cardio activities (think: running, swimming, etc.), your body gets better at consuming oxygen and using it more efficiently. Your VO2 max increases. What's surprising, is that one study found the VO2 rate of 10 young adults increased by 7 percent when hitting the yoga mat for eight weeks, while another put the elderly to the test, finding a VO2 boost of 11 percent in just six weeks. Effects of Hatha Yoga Practice on the Health-Related Aspects of Physical Fitness. Tran MD, Holly RG, Lashbrook J. Preventive cardiology, 2001, undefined.;4(4):1751-7141. Effects of aerobic exercise training and yoga on the baroreflex in healthy elderly persons. Bowman AJ, Clayton RH, Murray A. European journal of clinical investigation, 1997, Jul.;27(5):0014-2972. Compared to aerobic training, participants in the last study saw a 24 percent increase in oxygen uptake during the same time period.
Translation: While yoga may not give you equal cardio benefits to hitting the treadmill, you are improving a little. To make up for that gap, the solution might simply be to mix up the mat with HIIT or cardio workouts.
Your Action Plan
Yoga definitely counts as exercise. It's been shown to increase strength, flexibility, and VO2 consumption. But more than that, it's got mental and spiritual benefits you may not be able to get from other workouts.
Plus, there are several types of yoga worth trying. Bikram yoga keeps the room heated to 105 F, power or vinyasa yoga amp up the intensity, and restorative or hatha yoga classes may focus more on breathing and meditation. All of these styles can be challenging—helping you to break a sweat in no time.
Still, that doesn't mean you should throw in the towel on every other form of exercise and start rolling out your mat 24/7. The body adapts to exercise—and the same routine can get boring—so try incorporating yoga once or twice a week to start. And there's another bonus: Varying workouts can be the best way to whip your body into shape. The effectiveness of yoga for the improvement of well-being and resilience to stress in the workplace. Hartfiel N, Havenhand J, Khalsa SB. Scandinavian journal of work, environment & health, 2010, Apr.;37(1):1795-990X.