I’d like to propose another experiment this month. I suggest that you exercise as if exercise will never ever help you shed another pound again, ever. This may seem like a bold statement for a person who makes a living off of teaching yoga, since yoga is exercise after all…right? Yoga is many things, for millions throughout the history of the world it is and has been a religion, or philosophy, or path to union with God. This practice of postures, at least the way we perform them in the West is pretty recent. Yoga has a very rich history of theory and philosophy on how to lead your best life, indeed, how to become enlightened. I’ve been introducing these ideas over the past few months and if you are a regular reader you are familiar with the concept of Svadhyaya, or self-study, that is the cornerstone of the Yoga Diet. But can yoga asana or poses help you lose weight?
I guess the real question is: is exercise a good way to lose weight? Unfortunately, the benefits of exercise in general for those trying to lose weight have been vastly overstated. It has only been since the 1970s or so that exercise has been touted as the method to shed pounds. Americans have been getting heavier and heavier since this time as well. In fact nearly %70 of Americans are overweight or obese (about %34 / %34). The recent trend in public policy for preventing obesity and overweight is actually to downplay exercise and emphasize nutrition. There are several reasons that exercise is an ineffective catalyst for weight loss and I’d like to explore these from a yogic perspective.
Reason #1: There are lots of reasons to exercise but working out to burn calories is not one of them. Here is a simple math problem for you; since one pound of body fat equals about 3,500 calories you must burn about 3,500 calories to lose one pound. Just as an example, running a marathon burns about 2,600 calories…. Looks like you’ve still got about 900 calories to go! But what about the more “moderate” approach say of working off 500 calories a day. That equals a pound a week right? Well yeah but what about the sports drink you chugged to replenish all of the fluids and electrolytes you lost kicking your ass in that work out? Looks like you’d better get back on that tread mill you’ve got 310 more calories to burn off.
Reason #2: Exercise makes you hungry. Or you could even say that exercise makes you feel entitled to eat more or treat yourself. This is probably the most compelling reason to give up on exercise as a weight loss strategy. We’ve all done it. Finish a hard workout and treat your self to a protein shake, or an order of french fries, or a couple of beers. While you may or may not be entitled to these things, one thing is for sure; you’ve just consumed more than you’ve burned. It’s natural for the body to replenish what it has used up. Indeed, our cravings for those high calorie items after a hard workout may just be the body’s way of balancing it all out. We’d like to think that we can abstain from this kind of behavior and indeed we do try but… read on.
Reason #3: Call it what you like; will power, self-control, discipline but recent research shows that it behaves like a muscle. What I mean is, it gets fatigued and needs rest. Just like any other muscle it also gets stronger over time but will break down without a healthy cycle of work and rest. So if you think that you are going to rely on your self-discipline to get you to the gym every day for that 500 calorie workout and then resist nachos and brownies too you might be headed for some disappointment. Moderation and self-compassion are key here. Understanding the ebb and flow of will power might just be life changing.
Reason #4: Studies show that people who participate in unusually high levels of activity for short bursts of time, say 30 minutes on the elliptical machine move less during the rest of the day. Does this sound familiar; get to the gym after work for a hard sweaty work out of say an hour, stop at the drive through for dinner, veg on the couch till bedtime?
So lets say you burned 500 calories at the gym (which is a lofty goal after a day at work). You then stop and pick up a sandwich at one of those sub places, you know the “fresh” one for a relatively healthy combo meal and consume about 600 calories. You go home and chill because you are tired and stiff from your workout. Option number 2 is this: You head home after work and take the dog for a stroll with your significant other, or do some yard work. After your activity you make a simple meal from nutritious ingredients, who cares how many calories. After dinner you clean up, maybe do a little laundry or play with the kids, then sit down for an hour or two of TV before bed and perhaps participate in some adult recreation once in bed. Chances are good that in the routine of your evening you burned enough calories to balance your evening meal and you did it in a joyful way that reaffirms the people and things you value. The Yoga Diet emphasizes nutrition and listening to the body’s cues not exercise, or calorie counting. Remember that the path to a healthy weight is a pace you can sustain… joyfully.
How does yoga asana fit in? More and more researchers are saying that those ass kicking workouts 3 times a week are not the way that our human bodies are supposed to work or workout. We are better suited to lower impact exercise or activity throughout the day. Gardening, laundry, playing with the kids, walking the dog, taking the stairs and yoga asana are all great examples of this. This is not to say that those hard-core gym workouts are not valuable. Lots of us like to beat the crap out of ourselves for stress relief, to build muscle, tone the body or accomplish goals like running a marathon or benching twice our body weight. Not to mention that more focused forms of exercise can improve cognitive function and cardiovascular health. I for one prefer a vigorous asana practice and feel a little disappointed if I’m not sweating, breathing hard and a little sore after. I’m not doing it to lose weight though. I’m doing it because I adore this movement and crave it. Yoga has the added benefit too of balancing the body and quieting the mind. Transferring the observance of self-study off of the mat and into life helps us make healthier choices and cues us to move when our bodies need activity and sit still when we need rest. Yoga also helps us to reconnect with our God-given range of motion and helps us to develop strength in a balanced way. What sitting at a desk all day taketh away yoga putteth back.
My final word in this subject is that the best exercise is the exercise you love and can’t wait to do. We know that will power can only go so far but that we have an unlimited capacity to pursue the things that fill us up and make us happy. So, our experiment. You know that saying “Dance as if no-one is looking”? I suggest we exercise as if we are already perfect! Give it a try and let me know what you think.