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Is Yoga enough for all around fitness?

Today, I listened to a podcast on whether yoga is enough to provide us with all around (physical) fitness, something I have been pondering for a while. Anecdotally I have heard many times over that "all you need is yoga" to stay fit into your golden years. The podcast relativised this a little bit with a resounding "it depends", and of course, it depends. It depends on your age, lifestyle, whether you have been athletic all your life or started late in life. I myself did not do any sports at all until I was in my late 30s, I was not interested, did not have time, did not like sweating, was slightly asthmatic, etc you know the spiel. At 38 and two pregnancies later, I thought, I'd better do SOMEthing - and yoga seemed a great start. And how it changed my life! But I digress. Or not. As yoga is the only kind of physical exercise I ever do, I have wondered whether now, in my mid 40s, it is enough. Does running after the kids count? And as that is getting less of an issue as they get older, what is next? Will I have to combine yoga with running or weight lifting to stay fit?

What is fitness?

Let's start by having a look at what fitness is. In sports science, physical fitness is defined as having five components:

  • cardiorespiratory endurance

  • muscular endurance

  • muscular strength

  • body composition (ratio of fat mass to fat-free mass)

  • flexibility

In real life terms this means:"Can we live our life day to day without feeling fatigued? Can we perform everyday activities and still have a reserve of all components left?". A reduction in any of the components means a higher risk of illness or injury. If our cardiorespiratory fitness is low, our stamina is low and our risk for diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer rises. If our muscular fitness is low, we lose muscle mass as we age, which can eventually result in weakness and loss of balance and coordination. Muscle is also an active tissue and plays a role in regulating our metabolism by burning calories. A body composition with an (individually different) unhealthy ratio of fat to fat-free mass can mean an increased risk for disease through less efficient movement. Reduced flexibility means that our range of motion decreases, optimal joint movement, knees, shoulders, elbows, spine, and other joints, decreases. A loss of flexibility can also pose an increased risk of pain and injury.

Physiologists and health care providers suggest to ensure that all components of physical fitness are regular exercised to stay fit and decrease our risk of illness and injury. The fact that yoga can fulfil the requirements for increasing flexibility is widely accepted, but what about the other aspects of fitness? One study showed that study participants' muscular strength had increased by as much as 31 percent, muscular endurance by 57 percent, flexibility by up to 188 percent, and maximal oxygen uptake by 7 percent - after just 8 weeks of yoga (85 minutes, 4 times a week). Another study showed that 12 weeks of as little as 30 minutes twice a week had significant impact on participant's physical fitness.

How does yoga make us fit?

Yoga with its combination of strengthening, stretching, deep breathing and meditating has a profound effect on our overall physical fitness as it exercises all components of it, and more - the mentally calming and de-stressing effects of yoga and meditation are known and well researched. But of course it all depends on how we yoga - how often, how long and what style of yoga. Flow style yoga increases the heart rate, making it aerobically challenging and exercising our cardiorespiratory fitness. Many yoga poses, particularly standing, balancing poses, and inversions, build strength because they require sustained isometric contractions of many large and small muscles, and holding the poses longer increases this training effect on muscular strength, endurance and flexibility.

So, is yoga enough for physical fitness?

The answer is, it can be. As with everything, consistency and balance are key. A newbie to exercising may not have the muscular strength and endurance needed for a physically challenging practice that will also give great fitness benefits. When we are at the beginning of our yoga journey, it is advisable to do some other form of moderately intense exercise like walking in addition to the relatively gentle beginners yoga to stay fit. But quite soon we will be able to graduate to the gentle flows for more standing, balancing and aerobic poses and then the more vigorous vinyasa classes. Add in a yin class for range of motion and flexibility training and a restorative class to boost mental fitness, because beyond physical fitness, yoga offers many other gifts: reduced stress, improved sleep, a boost to our overall outlook on life.

How often is ideal?

A good answer to this question would involve a lengthy questionnaire with you to go through your eating, sleeping, exercise, wellbeing habits and also your fitness goals. In short, an answer could be this: If you can manage two classes a week, do one that's more "flow", and one that's more "yin or restorative". If you can do just one class a week, try a Zen or Hatha class, which include elements of both. For deep relaxation try meditation or Yoga Nidra.

We have designed our schedule for many scenarios: whether you are new to exercising or an athlete, or looking to balance or expand your current routine, and especially if you are in need of restoring your mental wellbeing, your calm and inner peace - you will find a number of classes to suit. The vision for the studio has always been to not just teach yoga, but make you fall in love with it!

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