Clinical study finds yoga cuts body fat and adds muscle — gently but effectively.
Many, if not most, young people are relatively strong and muscular.
But few people realize that we start to lose muscle mass at the 30-year mark.
And preserving muscle mass as you age helps greatly to maintain mobility and good health.
Why muscle mass matters as you age
The technical term for loss of muscle mass as we age is “sarcopenia”.
While everyone loses muscle to some extent, inactivity magnifies this impact over time.
In fact, adults who don’t engage in vigorous exercise or other activities lose 3-5% of their muscle mass every 10 years.
Even physically active folks will lose muscle as they age — it’s inevitable. And those losses are likely to accelerate after age 75.
Sarcopenia saps your strength, weakens your bones, raises your risk of falls and fractures, and can restrict mobility.
Almost half of older Americans suffer from sarcopenia — and the risk of disability is between 1.5 and 4.6 times higher for them, compared to those with average amounts of muscle mass.
The causes of sarcopenia aren’t fully known, but research links it to several factors:
- Inactivity and lack of exercise.
- Inadequate protein or calorie intake.
- Impaired ability to turn protein into energy.
- Loss of nerve cells that send movement signals from the brain to the muscles.
- Lower levels of testosterone, insulin-like growth factor (IGF-1), and human growth hormone (HGH).
There’s good evidence that “resistance” exercises help preserve muscle — and potentially build more, depending on how much you challenge your muscles.
Common forms include free weights, weight machines, rubber resistance bands, push-ups, planks, squats, and lunges.
Learn more — and find a link to a great instructional brochure — in 7-Minute Fitness HIIT.
New trial tested yoga’s effect on muscle, protein use, weight, and balance
The results of a novel clinical trial add yoga to the list of workouts that can protect muscle mass.
And the trial showed — for the first time — that yoga can improve our ability to convert dietary protein into muscle.
The six-month study came from the University of Connecticut and was called NAMASTE, for Novel Approaches to Maintaining Muscle and Strength. (Namaste is one word for “hello” in India’s Hindi language, and literally means "I bow to the divine in you".)
The study’s lead author — nutritional physiologist Nancy Rodriguez, Ph.D., R.D. — described the trial’s goals: “Weight-bearing exercise is important as we age. The purpose of this study was to look at yoga as an alternative form of exercise for maintaining muscle mass with aging.”
Professor Rodriguez described the key role that protein turnover plays in maintaining muscle:
“The body turns over protein all the time. Studies show that exercise increases protein synthesis. Therefore, higher protein intake, combined with routine yoga practice, should contribute by offsetting muscle losses while enhancing the body’s ability to build muscle.”
This small “pilot” trial involved 15 healthy women aged 50 to 65 years, divided into two groups:
- Control Group: Eight inactive women who hadn’t exercised regularly for at least a year.
- Yoga Group: Seven women who’d practiced Vinyasa yoga at least twice a week for at least a year
Vinyasa is more vigorous than most styles of yoga, as it includes movements that raise the heart rate and challenge the cardiovascular system.
The UCONN team examined whether protein use, strength, body composition, calorie intake, and protein intake differed between the non-exercising group and the yoga group.
And the researchers monitored the women's weekly diet records for calorie, carbohydrate, fat, and protein intake.
Results yoke yoga to fat-burning and muscle gain
After six months, the two groups displayed these differences:
- Yoga Group had less body fat and more muscle mass.
- No difference was detected in body weight or body mass index.
It’s surprising that the two groups didn’t display even modest differences in body weight or BMI, given the vigor of Vinyasa yoga and the results of prior research: see Can Yoga Aid Weight Control?.
The women’s balance was evaluated by using timed one-legged standing tests, and by having the participants stand three times for three seconds with their hands on their hips.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the women in the yoga group women had better balance, which helps protect against falls as you age.
The advantages seen among the yoga group probably flow from two other findings:
- They burned more fat at rest (higher metabolic rate).
- They had lower rates of protein “turnover,” which helps maintain muscle mass.
Compared to other cardio and strength training workouts, yoga is relatively easy on the joints, safer than weight lifting, and easier for older adults to start and stick with at any age.
Professor Rodriquez made this very good point: “The physical benefits of yoga — strength, flexibility, and reduced body fat, as well as improved health outcomes — are like icing on the cake. The mind/body aspect of yoga contributes to the sustainability of the practice, and that will allow people to maintain it.”
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