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Dr Safeeya Mohammed and her son, Musa. Dr Mohammed is shown here in Circle Pose.

Dr Chika Vera Anekwe

During this pandemic, our lives have been disrupted at various spheres. Many in coping with the increased anxiety have added unnecessary pounds and as the year comes to a close, you realise those pounds are not only adding up, but they are also compromising your health and wellbeing.

If you have trouble losing weight despite your best efforts, this is because obesity is a complex disease with many causes. A family history of weight issues can make it more likely that you’ll have the same issues managing your weight. A diet high in ultra-processed foods, sugar, and fat and being sedentary also contribute to weight gain. Stress and struggles with mental health, including medications to treat certain health conditions, poor sleep, and hormonal changes, are all factors that further contribute to weight gain.

Combatting excess weight

There are many ways to combat excess weight, but there is no single solution. If you are trying to lose or maintain your weight, you may want to try yoga. There is good research that yoga may help you manage stress, improve your mood, curb emotional eating, and create a community of support, all of which can help with weight loss and maintenance.

Yoga can also help you burn calories, as well as increase your muscle mass and tone. Yoga may reduce joint pain, which in turn allows you to exercise more and increase your daily activities. These are only some of the many benefits of yoga.

Stress and the impact on weight gain

Some people may experience stress as physical pain or sleep deprivation, or it may be psychological and cause feelings of anxiety and agitation. Stress leads to an increase in the hormone cortisol. Cortisol increases abdominal fat, decreases muscle mass, causes cravings for fat and sugar-rich food, and thus can lead to obesity.

Yoga can decrease stress and cortisol levels, enhance mood, decrease anxiety and depression, improve sleep, and improve chronic conditions such as hypertension and diabetes, reducing the need for medications that can cause weight gain. Yoga is not a band-aid for excess weight, but it may work on the underlying causes. Its benefits extend beyond the calories-in-versus-calories-out equation.

Yoga can improve mindfulness related to eating behaviours

A study published in 2015 showed that practicing yoga led to healthier eating, including lower fat intake and an increase in vegetables and whole grains.

Most of us who crave ice cream after 9pm or can’t stop eating potato chips know that these behaviours hurt our chances of losing weight. We all know that eating vegetables, whole grains, lean protein, etcetera is good for our health and weight. While this knowledge is necessary, it seems insufficient to help us stick to our healthy eating plans.

One of yoga’s benefits is that it improves mindfulness of the body and awareness of body sensations. This is why yoga is called “moving meditation”. Research shows that you don’t have to do any formal sitting meditation to get the mindfulness benefits of yoga.

By improving mindfulness, yoga decreases emotional eating, stress eating, and binge eating. These habits sabotage our weight loss efforts and can cause a negative spiral of guilt and shame, which often leads to giving up.

The bottom line: the best diet plan is the one that you can stick with over the long term, and by improving mindfulness, yoga can help you make healthier food choices.

A yoga community provides acceptance and support

Practitioners should look for a safe, comfortable environment especially as we continue to navigate this COVID-19 pandemic. A welcoming yoga group may help you improve your self-esteem and confidence. Find a local studio that feels nurturing and not overwhelming, with other practitioners at your level. Don’t give up after the first one!

Yoga teachers and advanced practitioners can serve as role models and inspire newer students to live a healthier lifestyle. Research shows that social networks influence behaviours that affect weight. The yoga network encourages positive health behaviours, and being a part of such a community can make a meaningful difference for weight loss.

If you can’t find a local studio, there are always online options on YouTube and Instagram, with classes at all levels. There are instructors who understand what it is like to be a larger size, and having an inclusive, body-affirming attitude shows that yoga is not just for “skinny people”. Some share inspirational stories of how yoga helped them overcome their own weight struggles, depression, and binge eating. If you are a beginner, consider signing up for a short challenge to get committed to the practice.

Universal benefits of yoga

The benefits of yoga are universal — no matter what your shape or size. It can take weeks or months to establish a yoga practice, and frequent practice is key for long-lasting benefits.

About the Author:

Dr Chika Vera Anekwe is an obesity medicine physician and an instructor in medicine at Harvard Medical School (HMS). Dr Anekwe is certified by the National Board of Physician Nutrition Specialists, and her professional interests are in the areas of clinical nutrition, obesity, nonsurgical weight management, pre- and post-operative bariatric weight management, health policy, and community health outreach.