Exploring Yoga’s Promise for Weight Management

As yoga grows in popularity, new research from the Pitt School of Education examines the potential health impacts of different forms of yoga as a weight management tool for overweight or obese adults.

March 01, 2020

Yoga is a popular form of exercise for people of all ages across the world.

But how effective is it for weight management? And are certain forms of yoga more effective at slimming waist lines than others?

Faculty from the University of Pittsburgh School of Education are seeking to answer these questions through a series of empirical research studies. The first study, completed this past year, was funded with a $702,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health. It looked at yoga as an alternative approach to treating obesity that may have great promise due to its potential to decrease stress, enhance mood, lower pain, and increase energy levels. 

“Our research work is novel because few studies have looked at the role of yoga in weight control, and no studies have compared multiple modes of yoga in their effectiveness,” said John Jakicic, the study’s principal investigator.

Jakicic, a Distinguished Professor and the director of Pitt Education’s Healthy Lifestyle Institute, was joined on the research study by faculty members Renee Rogers, Kelliann Davis, and Sally Sherman. They are in the school’s Department of Health and Human Development and conduct research and teach subjects in health and physical activity. 

Measuring Yoga Across Contexts

The NIH study measured weight loss for 50 overweight and obese adults from the Pittsburgh area who practiced yoga over a six-month period. Results were compared based on the practice of Hatha yoga versus Vinyasa yoga. Hatha yoga is a restorative style that is more stationary. It emphasizes stretching and holding poses. Vinyasa yoga, by contrast, is known as “flow” or active yoga. Participants move from pose to pose in a higher intensity workout. 

For the study, participants’ weight was measured before, during, and after the study was completed. 

It was determined that practicing either form of yoga, when coupled with a reduced calorie diet, helped adult participants with obesity to lose weight. Among the two forms of yoga, the participants reported that Vinyasa yoga provided a more intense form of exercise and the participants also reported a greater likelihood of continuing this form of yoga upon study completion.

“We picked yoga for this study because yoga is more than just exercise. There is a mind-body connection to it, which may be important as adults engage in weight loss efforts. Moreover, yoga might be a great gateway that can lead to better lifestyle behaviors overall,” said Jakicic.

Moving Onto the Next Frontier

The research team is now finalizing their submission for the next yoga study in their series of studies.

The next proposal would expand the project by increasing both the number of participants and the duration of the yoga intervention. This next study will also expand the research to include both the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Kansas Medical Center.

In addition, the researchers plan to use their additional findings to develop and refine yoga interventions for adults with obesity. Those efforts will include further development of yoga videos that will be used by participants to complement clinical sessions within the research study. 

Jakicic, who has devoted his professional life to studying healthy lifestyle behaviors, is looking forward to collaborating with his Pitt Education colleagues Rogers, Davis, and Sherman to add to the body of knowledge on yoga.

“This is a line of research that is really important, and our team of collaborators at the University of Pittsburgh is eager to be leading the efforts in this area” said Jakicic.

About the Faculty

John M. Jakicic

John M. Jakicic

John Jakicic is a Distinguished Professor at the University of Pittsburgh School of Education. He is the director of the school's Healthy Lifestyle Institute and has lead academic programs in the areas of health, physical activity, and exercise across the school. A prolific researcher, he has led numerous research studies that have examined the health impacts of various interventions related to healthy lifestyle choices.
Kelli K. Davis

Kelli K. Davis

Kelliann Davis is an Associate Professor of Practice at the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh. Her teaching and research have focused on exercise science, nutrition and health, and behavioral strategies.
Sally A. Sherman

Sally A. Sherman

Sally Sherman is an assistant professor at the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh. Her research has explored the impact of exercise interventions, particularly the intervention of yoga in its various forms, as it relates to weight management.
Renee J. Rogers

Renee J. Rogers

Renee Rogers is an assistant professor at the School of Education at the University of Pittsburgh. and is the programming director of the school's Healthy Lifestyle Institute. Her teaching and research have examined the effects of physical activity and exercise on a variety of health outcomes, especially as it relates to weight management.

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