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Lola Burns

Yoga And Insulin Sensitivity?

Kim Innes combines her love of yoga with her passion for science. As an assistant professor at the Center for the Study of Complementary and Alternative Therapies at the University of Virginia Health Systems, Innes studies how yoga affects chronic disease. "It was my personal experience with yoga and the benefits I felt, like reduced stress and better sleep, that sparked my interest in studying yoga as a disease intervention," she says.

Innes knew that in India, yoga was a common prescription for conditions associated with insulin resistance such as diabetes and hypertension. Curious about whether the practice could reverse metabolic syndrome's progression into chronic illness, she went on a hunt for clinical evidence. Digging through mounds of research, much of it published in India, Innes uncovered 70 solid, albeit small, studies on the impact of yoga on the disorders of metabolic syndrome. "The beauty of yoga is that it doesn't target just one marker of metabolic syndrome, like glucose control or blood pressure," she says. "They are all interrelated."

In the end, Innes gathered convincing evidence that yoga could increase insulin sensitivity and lower cholesterol by as much as 19 and 25 percent, respectively. Last but not least, she saw a connection between yoga and weight loss. In 13 studies of body composition and yoga, the practice reduced body weight by as much as 13.6 percent.

Although the exact means by which yoga placates metabolic syndrome is still unclear, Innes surmises that stress relief and feelings of well-being fostered by a regular yoga practice serve to rebalance the nervous system. "The chronic activation of our flight-or-fight response may be at the root of many of the so-called modern ills," she says.

Although she wasn't surprised that yoga turned out to be helpful, she was caught off guard by how fast its benefits appeared. "Even the short-term interventions-some as short as nine days-had dramatic effects on the symptoms of metabolic syndrome," she says. "That was eye opening."

Innes also studied how people store their fat and what impact it has on their health. She knew that people under chronic stress secrete hormones that cause their bodies to sock away fat around their bellies.

"Metabolic syndrome is tightly associated with an apple-shaped body," she says. "Anything you can do to shrink belly fat helps." And so, what if yoga could undo one of the biggest bugaboos of metabolic syndrome, stress-related weight gain?

Mention doing yoga for weight loss, and people tend to imagine rows of yogis sweating through a Bikram or Ashtanga class. But it's restorative yoga that experts hope will shrink the abdomens of people with metabolic syndrome. Unlike fat that lands on thighs and buttocks, giving one a pear-shaped body, abdominal fat irrevocably linked to stress. Could a yoga class that has students reaching for bolsters instead of water bottles be the answer to whittling down a stubborn paunch?

In the end, however, the biggest challenge in establishing yoga as an antidote to metabolic syndrome may be undoing yoga's reputation as a practice limited to the lithe and willowy. "When people think of yoga, they think of difficult postures that aren't accessible for people who are overweight," Innes says. To address that misconception, Innes went straight to one of restorative yoga's biggest advocates, Judith Hanson Lasater, who sees restorative yoga as a way to fill a yawning gap in the national psyche-an inability to rest. Americans, she says, mistake resting for vegging out in front of the TV. Restorative yoga, with its emphasis on supported poses, allows the body to enter the deep, restful state it craves. "When you stop agitating it, the body starts to repair itself," Lasater says.

"We know that meditation is effective in managing metabolic syndrome, but meditation is really, really hard for most Americans," she says. "Yoga is the next best way to get the Zen experience." He agrees with Innes's hunch that the secret is yoga's soothing effect on the jangled nervous system. "By relaxing your joints, you create that metaphor for your mind to relax too."

But aren't all styles of yoga relaxing? Lasater says any yoga is better than no yoga, but she thinks that some of today's yoga has lost touch with its restful roots. "Restorative yoga is a formal way of getting people to just stop and be."

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Exercise of all kinds helps insulin resistance. Especially short bursts of intensive activity like sprinting and stair climbing, resistance training and anything that increases muscle. And anything that relieves stress to lower cortisol.

It's actually the most effective thing you can do for it. Your cells won't take in the sugar you just ate if their stores are full. You have to burn your energy stores up before your cells can take in more.


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BreannaBreanna - I love yoga. I love that, to be done most effectively, you must slow down. With yoga, you will learn patience. Although, you should try a few more classes. It's really easy to injure yourself or learn bad habits on your own.

Edited by Lola Burns

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