If you have high cholesterol, one of the lifestyle changes you might consider as you work to bring your levels down is to start a workout program. While many doctors suggest brisk walks or resistance training, regular yoga can also improve your cholesterol. You can practice in a class online, in a studio with a group, or at home for free.
Yoga’s Effect on Cholesterol
On a biological level, exercise improves the things that affect cholesterol. “The idea here is that yoga can be sort of like aerobics and resistance exercise. Those types of exercises have a very established benefit to cholesterol,” says Bethany Barone Gibbs, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh, who studies the effects of healthy lifestyle behaviors on cardiometabolic disease.
“We know that there are anti-inflammatory effects. Exercise can reduce the low-density lipoproteins and it has probably the biggest effect on triglycerides. And then it also has the great benefit of increasing high-density lipoproteins. The overall changes in the cholesterol profile are all good.”
There’s currently limited research on the link between yoga and lipid levels specifically. But there is more data on how it affects other things that impact high cholesterol.
“Yoga isn't this magic pill that you take, and then you get all these benefits,” says Sally Sherman, PhD, an assistant professor at the University of Pittsburgh, who researches the effects of yoga on health. But she notes that it leads indirectly to desirable effects. For example, “We know that yoga improves sleep. And (that) can really act as a pathway for so many other health benefits.” Many of these benefits, she says, actually show up as things like lowered cholesterol.
In a study, Sherman found that the energy expenditure for Vinyasa yoga reflected that of a moderate to intense workout, like brisk walking. Physical activity done at this level has plenty of health benefits that could affect your cholesterol levels:
What Kind of Yoga Is Best?
But to get the most from yoga, it’s important to practice a certain style. Vinyasa is one of the many forms of the discipline that combines deep breathing and movement. “We know that for optimal health, as adults, we need moderate to vigorous physical activity for at least 150 minutes a week,” Sherman says. “Even done slowly in a slow flow … Vinyasa yoga meets (those) requirements.”
How to Add Yoga to Your Routine
Experts suggest that adults aged 19 to 64 get some type of physical activity every day. They recommend that the average adult get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity activity each week. Vinyasa yoga can help you reach those weekly goals.
If you want to begin yoga as physical activity to improve your cholesterol levels, it’s important that you still follow your regular treatment schedule. Don’t stop taking your cholesterol medications unless otherwise noted by your doctor.
It’s also important to keep your care team in the loop when you begin yoga classes. “And that's for two different reasons,” Colleen Tewksbury, PhD, a subject matter expert for the Commission on Dietetic Registration's training programs in obesity intervention and weight management for adults. “One is to make sure that it's safe for you to engage in activity, generally. But also, to talk about what activity options are available, and what might be the best for you. And that could be yoga.”
If you’re new to yoga, it’s a good idea to find a certified instructor either online or in person to help lead your classes. “When it comes to any sort of activity, especially a new activity, we get concerned about any sort of improper form, or pushing yourself further than what your body is really ready for,” Tewksbury says. “Having a professional there to help guide you into this, even if it's just starting off, can be really beneficial.”
The Yoga Lifestyle and Cholesterol
After doing yoga as a means of exercise for some time, many people may want to adapt other elements of the practice as part of their lifestyle.
“People start to make other changes in their lives,” Sherman says. “And one of the things that yoga teaches is a plant-based diet. That's because that is the diet that creates less harm. It’s healthier for the body and we have the data to back that up now. Plant-based diets are prescribed for lots of things, from Alzheimer's to cholesterol.”
When people adopt a plant-based diet, they often take in fewer calories throughout the day. Combined with the exercise from yoga, this can lead to slight weight loss. “Although 5, 10, or 15 pounds might not seem like a large amount of weight or a significant change, for someone’s cholesterol levels, it makes a huge impact,” Tewksbury says.
When you begin to rely on a plant-based diet, you also cut out certain components of meat and dairy that might be bad for your cholesterol. Tewksbury points out that saturated fat plays a role in cholesterol levels, and it’s primarily found in animal-based products. When people cut out or cut down on some of those food products, they “tend to start to bring down their saturated fat intake amounts, which can lead to lower cholesterol levels,” she says.
Tewksbury also notes that eating more soluble fiber, like oats or plant sterols, also helps to improve cholesterol. “That is because those soluble fibers help bind to cholesterol to help remove them from the body,” she says.
Whether you’re looking to adapt yoga as a lifestyle or simply adding it to spice up your workout routine, the practice carries many benefits. “There's mindfulness that is taught on the yoga mat,” Sherman says. “That permeates life off of the mat.”