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Yoga May Aid Body Image, Cut Eating Disorders

Mind-Body Workout May Help Women Make Peace With Their Bodies
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WebMD Health News

May 20, 2005 -- Yoga may make women feel better about their bodies, steering them away from eating disorders, a new study shows.

In fact, yoga may have an edge over other forms of exercise in that regard, according to the study in the Psychology of Women Quarterly.

The reason may be yoga's mind-body aspect, say the researchers, who included psychologist Jennifer Daubenmier, PhD, of California's Preventive Medicine Research Institute.

"Through yoga, this study suggests that women may have intuitively discovered a way to buffer themselves against messages that tell them that only a thin and 'beautiful' body will lead to happiness and success," says Daubenmier in a news release.

If backed by further research, yoga may help prevent and treat eating disorders, say researchers.

Yoga Study

Daubenmier worked on the project as a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. She compared women who practiced yoga regularly with those who did other forms of exercise. Women who hadn't done either form of exercise for at least two years were also included.

First, Daubenmier and colleagues studied women who were 37 years old on average. Next, they studied college-aged women.

The women completed surveys about the type of exercise they performed, how often they did it, and their feelings about their bodies. Those who practiced yoga expressed healthier attitudes toward their bodies and had less disordered eating behaviors.

Meanwhile, spending more time on aerobic forms of exercise (such as running or exercise classes) was associated with greater disordered eating attitudes, the study shows.

That's not to say that the women had eating disorders. Instead, the inclination toward disordered eating generally included "dieting behaviors, like restricting food intake," Daubenmier tells WebMD.

The researchers say body mass index didn't explain the findings because they took that into account.

Which Came First: Yoga or Body Image?

Did yoga enhance women's sense of their bodies, or did it attract women who already felt good about themselves? More research is needed to find out. Daubenmier's study didn't assign women to do any particular form of exercise.

Also, "most individuals at risk [for eating disorders] are younger" than many women in the study, says Daubenmier.

Of course, many women who exercise aerobically don't have eating disorders. Health experts encourage men, women, and children to exercise regularly and lead an active lifestyle for optimum health.

Yoga practitioners learn to tune in to the body as it moves through the poses. That could emphasize the body's abilities, instead of its appearance, say the researchers.

Tips for Yoga Novices

Most of the study's yoga fans practiced Iyengar yoga. "That invites participants to develop sensitivity and responsiveness, in contrast to more fast-paced yoga," Daubenmier tells WebMD.

"I would recommend starting with slower Iyengar yoga to develop body awareness and familiarity with the poses," she says. The slower pace should help people avoid injury while developing confidence in listening to their bodies, says Daubenmier.

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