If you have high cholesterol, one lifestyle change you might consider as you work to lower your levels is to start an exercise program. While many doctors suggest brisk walking or resistance training, regular yoga may also improve your cholesterol. You can practice in an online class, in a studio with a group, or at home for free.
On a biological level, exercise improves things that affect cholesterol. “The idea here is that yoga can be kind of like aerobics and resistance training. These types of exercise have a benefit,” says Bethany Baron-Gibbs, PhD, associate professor at the University of Pittsburgh, who studies the effects of healthy lifestyle behaviors on heart disease. Very stable for cholesterol.
We know there are anti-inflammatory effects. Exercise can reduce low-density lipoproteins, and may have the greatest effect on triglycerides. Hence it also has the great benefit of increasing HDL lipoproteins. The general changes in the cholesterol profile are all good.”
There is limited research on the link between yoga and lipid levels specifically. But there is more data on how it affects other things that affect high cholesterol.
“Yoga is not a 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 indirectly leads to desirable effects. For example, “We know that yoga improves sleep. And[that]could really be a path to many other health benefits.” She says that many of these benefits actually manifest as things like lowering cholesterol.
In one study, Sherman found that energy expenditure on Vinyasa yoga reflects moderate to intense training, such as brisk walking. Physical activity done at this level has many health benefits that can affect your cholesterol levels:
To get the most out of yoga, it’s important to practice a specific technique. Vinyasa is one of many forms of discipline that combine deep breathing with 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. “So that it is done slowly in a slow flow… Vinyasa Yoga meets (those) requirements.”
Experts suggest that adults ages 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 activity each week. Vinyasa yoga can help you reach those weekly goals.
If you want to start yoga as a physical activity to improve your cholesterol levels, it is important that you continue to follow your regular treatment schedule. Do not stop taking cholesterol medications unless your doctor tells you otherwise.
It is also important to keep your care team informed when starting yoga classes. There are two reasons for that, says Colleen Tewkesbury, PhD, an expert who specializes in training programs for the Dietetic Registry’s Committee on Obesity Intervention and Adult Weight Management. “The first is to make sure it is safe for you to participate in the activity in general. But also, to talk about the activity options available and what works 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 kind of activity, especially a new one, we worry about any kind of improper form, or pushing yourself beyond what your body is really ready for,” Tewksbury says. “Having a professional there to help walk you through this, even if it’s just starting out, can be really helpful.”
After practicing yoga as a method of exercise for some time, many people may want to adapt other elements of the practice as part of their lifestyle.
“People start making other changes in their lives,” Sherman says. “And one of the things that yoga teaches is to eat a plant-based diet. That’s because that’s the diet that reduces damage. It’s healthier for the body and we have the data to back that up now. Vegetarian diets are being prescribed for many things, from Alzheimer’s disease to cholesterol.”
When people adopt a plant-based diet, they often take in fewer calories throughout the day. Combined with the practice of yoga, this can lead to a slight weight loss. “Although 5, 10, or 15 pounds may not seem like a lot of weight or a big change, for someone’s cholesterol levels, it does have a big impact,” says Tewkesbury.
When you start to eat a plant-based diet, you can also cut out some meat and dairy ingredients that may be bad for your cholesterol. Tewksbury points out that saturated fat plays a role in cholesterol levels, and is mainly found in animal products. When people cut out or reduce some of these food products, they “tend to have lower amounts of saturated fat, which can lead to lower cholesterol levels,” she says.
Tewksbury also notes that eating more soluble fiber, such as oats or plant sterols, also helps improve cholesterol. “This is because this soluble fiber helps bind to cholesterol to help remove it from the body,” she says.
Whether you are looking to adapt yoga as a lifestyle or just add it to your exercise routine, the practice carries many benefits. “There’s a state of mindfulness taught on a yoga mat,” Sherman says. “This permeates life off the mat.”