In our little college town, one of the most popular fitness trends over the past few years has been yoga. Friends and acquaintances often suggest we join them in their favorite class, claiming not only that we’ll get stronger and more flexible, but that we’ll feel better about ourselves.
But Greta and I both have fitness routines that work well for us. I like to go for a morning run, I bike, and I play soccer, and Greta not only walks for 30 minutes on the treadmill every day, she also walks to and from work, 1.3 miles each way. Despite our assurances that we enjoy these things, devout yoga fans seem convinced that we’re missing out on something: a chance to improve our self-esteem.
Despite all the hype about yoga and self esteem, there hasn’t been a lot of research demonstrating a connection, especially in comparison to other forms of exercise. But Steriani Elavsky and Edward McAuley have conducted a new study comparing yoga to walking. They recruited 164 women age 42 to 56, with offers of a free fitness program. At the study outset, all the women were paid $20 to undergo both psychological testing for measures such as their body image, physical self-esteem, and global-self esteem, as well as physical measures like weight and body fat percentage. Then they were randomly divided into three groups: yoga, walking, and control (no exercise).
The yoga group participated in a 90-minute Hatha yoga class twice a week for four months, while the walking group met for 60 minutes three times a week on an indoor track or a university quad. The yoga classes focused on meditation, strength, flexibility, and balance, while the walkers focused on building aerobic endurance, walking up to 45 minutes at 75 percent of the heart rate reserve by the end of the study period. The women in the study were rated as sedentary or low-active at the start of the study and had an average Body Mass Index of 29.6 and body fat percentage of 37.6, which put them on the borderline of being clinically obese.
At the end of the study period, the participants who remained (a few dropped out of each group) repeated the psychological measures they had taken at the start. The results: While there was a trend for walking and yoga to increase both types of self-esteem, there was no significant difference between any of the three groups’ gains in physical self-esteem or global self-esteem.
But physical self-esteem is measured by dividing the concept into several different types of esteem, and in several of these areas, there were significant effects:
For physical condition and strength esteem, walking yielded significantly larger gains than either the yoga or the control group. For body attractiveness esteem, both walking and yoga yielded larger gains than the control group.
So while yoga does offer some gains in certain aspects of physical self-esteem, those gains are never significantly greater than the gains experienced by walkers. Interestingly, while the yoga participants’ heart rates were significantly lower than the walkers during their activity, there was no significant difference in participants’ perceived exertion. It’s possible that more physically demanding forms of yoga might offer equivalent benefits to walking. It’s also possible that over a longer period or more intense participation, the physical and global self-esteem measures would also rise to significance.
But this study doesn’t support the notion that yoga is a better form of exercise than Greta’s daily walking routine. Many other exercise forms have also been found to have beneficial self-esteem effects, and yoga hasn’t yet been found to offer a unique advantage over any of them. So if you like yoga, there’s no reason to stop doing it, but if you like some other form of exercise, you shouldn’t feel pressured to add yoga to your regimen.
Elavsky, S., McAuley, E. (2007). Exercise and self-esteem in menopausal women: A randomized controlled trial involving walking and Yoga. American Journal of Health Promotion, 22(2), 83-92.