Yoga and Weight Loss: How Much of a Calorie Blaster Is Bikram Yoga Really?
Bikram yoga, also known as hot yoga, has soared in popularity in recent years, thanks in large part to its reputation as a “calorie blaster.” Some studios claim their Bikram classes will help you burn as many as 1,000 calories in a single session, which sounds like a dieter’s dream.
But for every Bikram enthusiast, there’s a Bikram skeptic. Many have claimed that there’s no hard evidence suggesting hot yoga burns a significant amount of calories, and, until recently, that’s been true. But now a new study from San Diego State University casts new light on that question.
Results? Well, there’s good news and bad news. The study concludes that, while Bikram yoga can be a useful part of a general weight maintenance or weight loss plan, it’s not the intense aerobic calorie burning activity some have claimed it to be.
The signature characteristic of Bikram yoga, of course, is to make you sweat, so it is no wonder that Bikram classes have been associated with more intense, calorie burning activities. The classes are performed in a room that is heated to 104 degrees Fahrenheit with 40% humidity, and the postures used are far more standardized than most types of yoga classes. All Bikram yoga sessions run for 90 minutes and use the same 26 yoga postures. Because it's so intense, dehydration, dizziness, and nausea are common, but many people love the feeling of exertion that Bikram gives them. The high heat of the studio not only makes you sweat more, but it also helps you stretch your muscles and joints further, adding to that post-yoga feeling of lightness and focus. And because you leave the studio as sweaty as you leave a treadmill session or Spinning class, Bikram devotees naturally assume they’re burning a comparable amount of calories.
But are they? That’s the question researchers at San Diego State U wanted to answer. The researchers recruited 26 healthy men and women from local yoga studios and had them complete a 90-minute Bikram session. The scientists measured their heart rate and oxygen intake throughout the class and used the data to measure the aerobic intensity of the different poses, and of the class as a whole.
What does the “aerobic intensity” of a workout mean? Typically, exercise scientists classify exercise intensity as light, moderate, or vigorous. Light exercise means working out at less than 50 percent of your maximum heart rate. In general, when performing light exercise, you won’t break a sweat and your breathing won’t become deep and rapid. The next level up, moderate exercise, means using 50-70 percent of your maximum heart rate. If you are exercising moderately, your heart rate will be elevated and your breathing will be affected to the point where you can speak, but would struggle to sing the words to the song. Finally, vigorous exercise is 70-85 percent of your maximum heart rate. When performing vigorous exercise, your heart will pound and you will struggle to even speak a few words. In general, healthy adults should try exercise at the moderate level for thirty minutes, five times a week.
Interestingly, the San Diego researchers found that Bikram yoga can best be classified as light to moderate exercise. Of the 26 poses, 19 were light and 7 were moderate. The 7 that could be classified as moderate (more intense) were Standing Head to Knee, Standing Bow, Balancing Stick, Sitting Leg Stretch, Triangle Pose, and Sitting Head to Knee. In general, standing poses were more aerobically effective than other types of poses.
Even more interesting, however, the researchers also found that the more experienced yogis tended to burn more calories. They attributed this to the fact that more experienced yogis were able to hold the postures deeper and with fewer positioning mistakes, which helped them work their muscles harder. This means sticking with yoga and developing the ability to hold postures longer may translate into enhanced cardiovascular and weight loss effects over time.
Finally, the researchers concluded that the average calories burned per Bikram yoga session ranged from 179 to 478. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but it does prove that the popular claim of Bikram practitioners burning 1,000 or more calories in a session is exaggerated and untrue. In fact, in their conclusion, the researchers emphasized that, in terms of calories burned and aerobic intensity, Bikram is relatively light.
But that doesn’t mean that yoga can’t be part of a weight loss program. Yoga is about more than calories burned, it’s about body/mind holistic wellness. For example, yoga can be a great supplement to counteract the effects of intense aerobic activity (we all know running is hard on the body!), and yoga has also been shown to improve heart health and reduce the risk of heart disease. And, while going to yoga won’t help you work off the burger and fries you had for lunch, its emotional effects can help you reduce “stress eating” and make healthier decisions in general. If all you care about is shedding pounds, then this study might disappoint you, but, if you’re interested in getting healthy, well, the study offers some great insights into the benefits of yoga as part of an overall healthy lifestyle program and well-rounded weight maintenance routine.