Is yoga better than other exercise for boosting self-esteem?

ResearchBlogging.orgIn our little college town, one of the most popular fitness trends over the past few years has been yoga. Friends and acquaintances often suggest we join them in their favorite class, claiming not only that we'll get stronger and more flexible, but that we'll feel better about ourselves.

But Greta and I both have fitness routines that work well for us. I like to go for a morning run, I bike, and I play soccer, and Greta not only walks for 30 minutes on the treadmill every day, she also walks to and from work, 1.3 miles each way. Despite our assurances that we enjoy these things, devout yoga fans seem convinced that we're missing out on something: a chance to improve our self-esteem.

Despite all the hype about yoga and self esteem, there hasn't been a lot of research demonstrating a connection, especially in comparison to other forms of exercise. But Steriani Elavsky and Edward McAuley have conducted a new study comparing yoga to walking. They recruited 164 women age 42 to 56, with offers of a free fitness program. At the study outset, all the women were paid $20 to undergo both psychological testing for measures such as their body image, physical self-esteem, and global-self esteem, as well as physical measures like weight and body fat percentage. Then they were randomly divided into three groups: yoga, walking, and control (no exercise).

The yoga group participated in a 90-minute Hatha yoga class twice a week for four months, while the walking group met for 60 minutes three times a week on an indoor track or a university quad. The yoga classes focused on meditation, strength, flexibility, and balance, while the walkers focused on building aerobic endurance, walking up to 45 minutes at 75 percent of the heart rate reserve by the end of the study period. The women in the study were rated as sedentary or low-active at the start of the study and had an average Body Mass Index of 29.6 and body fat percentage of 37.6, which put them on the borderline of being clinically obese.

At the end of the study period, the participants who remained (a few dropped out of each group) repeated the psychological measures they had taken at the start. The results: While there was a trend for walking and yoga to increase both types of self-esteem, there was no significant difference between any of the three groups' gains in physical self-esteem or global self-esteem.

But physical self-esteem is measured by dividing the concept into several different types of esteem, and in several of these areas, there were significant effects:

  Walking Yoga Control
Physical condition 0.61 0.30 0.23
Body attractiveness 0.34 0.23 0.05
Strength 0.32 0.03 0.09
Sport competence 0.09 0.04 0.09

For physical condition and strength esteem, walking yielded significantly larger gains than either the yoga or the control group. For body attractiveness esteem, both walking and yoga yielded larger gains than the control group.

So while yoga does offer some gains in certain aspects of physical self-esteem, those gains are never significantly greater than the gains experienced by walkers. Interestingly, while the yoga participants' heart rates were significantly lower than the walkers during their activity, there was no significant difference in participants' perceived exertion. It's possible that more physically demanding forms of yoga might offer equivalent benefits to walking. It's also possible that over a longer period or more intense participation, the physical and global self-esteem measures would also rise to significance.

But this study doesn't support the notion that yoga is a better form of exercise than Greta's daily walking routine. Many other exercise forms have also been found to have beneficial self-esteem effects, and yoga hasn't yet been found to offer a unique advantage over any of them. So if you like yoga, there's no reason to stop doing it, but if you like some other form of exercise, you shouldn't feel pressured to add yoga to your regimen.

Elavsky, S., McAuley, E. (2007). Exercise and self-esteem in menopausal women: A randomized controlled trial involving walking and Yoga. American Journal of Health Promotion, 22(2), 83-92.

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I think it has to do with the cute clothes you get to wear when you do yoga! A tank top and yoga pants are definitely more attractive than all the gear I have to wear when it's 20 degrees outside and I am walking home from work.

Umm, all that said, this study is limited to menopausal women. Low generalizability. Not strong enough research to start drawing conclusions from.

What are those numbers in that table? A number without a unit is meaningless. That said, I'm not certain that any number that purports to measure self-esteem is likely to be meaningless, units or not.

I'll also echo Kalea. This study is limited to menopausal women who are borderline obese! It's certainly possible that walking has benefits in excess of yoga for this population, but for you local college age population, the benefits are different.

Unless you have a perfect body I can tell you categorically that yoga is just about the worst exercise for self-esteem. Well Hot Yoga at least. Watching my sweaty tubby self in a mirror for a whole hour alongside all the petite yoga bodies leaves me depressed for days. What mental torture.

No doubt the "esteem scores" of those leaving the study would be more telling than those who stuck with it.

By missbossy (not verified) on 08 Apr 2008 #permalink

statistical tests simply test to reject the null hypothesis, in this case being that there is no significant difference between the 2 modes of exercise, which in this case, it fails to. so i'd think that all the experimenter has to say is that based on the analysis, there is not enough supporting evidence to safely say that yoga is in fact better at improving self-esteem for these specific group of people.


Sorry about that -- those are effect sizes for the intervention: Cohen's d scores. Here's the wikipedia entry, which gives a pretty good explanation.


The women were pre, peri, and post-menopausal, and there was no difference in the results based on menopausal status. Just as many other studies consider only college sophomores, this is a limited study group, and you're right that the information isn't strictly generalizable, but it's the best we've got for now.

a lack of self-esteem is, among others, an indication of a weak manipura chakra, so unless the techniques performed were those specifically designed to activate / increase / harmonise this aspect of the being, you're right, the chances (at 5% confidence levels?) are that the experiment would show no statistically significant difference.
Focussing on "meditation, strength, flexibility, and balance" gives no indication as to what was being tested, and suggests that the programme developer has little real understanding of how the yoga system works. Yoga is a perfect system for self-transformation, however, as with all things, seek out the experts and ask existing students how they have changed. If they cite simply feeling happier and more relaxed, I'd suggest looking for another Yoga class - yoga is much more than this. And if the teacher can't satisfactorily explain HOW it works, keep walking!

With love and blessings to all trying to improve themselves - may you find success

Perhaps part of the trouble is that these folks were randomly selected to participate in each different sport. That's necessary for a valid study, of course but it can mean that the results don't entirely reflect the real state of play.

It may be that those who choose yoga, for themselves, and continue with it do indeed have increased self-esteem but what works for Joe will not necessarily work for Jane.

My somewhat flip comment earlier may have been in response to the fact that studies are based on generalizations not individuals. And what experience someone gets out of yoga v. running would, I think, be highly subjective to many things about that individual's experience.

I don't think anyone should ever base their actions on this type of research, though the results do offer some food for thought.

I would have added self esteem related to flexibility to the list of measurements. Increased flexibility is one of yoga's main benefits.

I think improved self-esteem is probably the wrong reason to do yoga. I'm surprised that your friends assure you that it will help your self-esteem. A good yoga practice is difficult - walking is much easier to do consistently.

I would be more interested in a study that followed people who did a serious yoga practice for a significant period of time and compared them to walkers for metrics like posture and flexibility, and possibly for other health improvements as well, like resting heart rate and recovery rate (a strong yoga practice will tend to vary the heart rate more than walking, which would tend to produce a fairly steady elevated heart rate).

I guess measuring self-esteem would be helpful for determining whether or not a person would stick with the exercise regime, but overall it doesn't seem like a very useful metric.

The whole article may be summed up thus: BASED ON THIS STUDY, there is no sufficient evidence to say that yoga is better than exercise.

Well, that does not say much, does it? We'll know for sure when there are many more comprehensive studies. But I am guessing that plain physical exercise does not offer the same benefits as yoga. I do weight training thrice a week. Obviously yoga's emphasis on mind as well as body is more attractive to me. I joined and dropped out of a yoga class once and will give it a try again.

The cued breathing is a key to why yoga may be more beneficial in terms of mental health than walking. Therefore, a good yoga instructor is key. The practice of focused, controlled breathing acts on the vagus nerve specifically; this nerve extends from the brain to the abdomen. It is part of the autonomic nervous system which is involved with unconscious messages that keep the body at a constant state like telling the heart to beat. With yoga breathing, one can activate the vagus nerve and slow breathing, slow heart rate, and increases intestinal activity.

Therefore, some forms of yoga have long been shown to reduce hypertension, cholesterol levels, and signs of physiological stress. More recent studies document yoga's ability to decrease mood disturbance, and reduce physical stress and anxiety. It is the breathing that physiologically affects the nervous system to produce profound changes in emotional states.

Research published in a bi-monthly psychology magazine reports dramatic drops in stress among yoga participants. Research has shown positive results when using yoga to treat those who suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder, depression, stress, anxiety attacks, hypertension, headaches, and aggression/violence. Those who practice yoga will not only see physical changes in their bodies, but research supports claims that participants leave with a greater self-awareness, increased self-acceptance, a calmer attitude, increased relaxation, and better concentration. Improvements were seen in just four days!

Lastly, I think this greatly depends on the yoga instructor. I am an avid yoga participant and have had some instructors who are robotic, while others and inspirational and attentive.

By Anonymous (not verified) on 09 Apr 2008 #permalink

What kind of results are those? Strenght 0.32 vs 0.03. I practice Yoga about once a week along with weighlifting and swimming and ever since I started integrating yoga into my training my strength and balance have sky rocket? Could I have achieved the same effect from walking? I think not.

Actually, if you are looking for self esteem, nothing will promote it like the martial arts, especially the kind that actually works. Not only are you in supreme physical condition, but you are confident that you can handle any physical problem or emergency.

BTW, I have taught Yoga, Kung Fu, and Tai Chi full time for over 20 years.

It seems common sense that the best exercise routine for you is the one you will actually do consistently. This is most likely what you enjoy doing, what is convenient for you and/or what helps you meet your fitness goals.

These kind of articles are what gives media and science a bad name. Yoga has to be learned and it takes much longer than twice a week for four months to even learn basics. I have to assume that the walkers had probably been walking for fourty years or more. And measure of sport competence in fourty plus year old women would tell virtually nothing. Having played competitive sports, recreational sports, coached at both levels, studied yoga and am someone who loves a good long walk,(I mean more than an hour), I assure you that there is no comparison. Yoga is used by top international athletes as a training regime. Walking is how they get to training.

I had 15 to 17 year old girls I coach to play ice hockey use yoga training and in ten sessions their flexibility and balance were greatly improved. Fitness was relatively unchanged.

Anyone that doesn't sweat at yoga should find a new instructor.

What puzzles me is the authors lack consideration for even writting this and cluttering up the web.

These kind of articles are what gives media and science a bad name. Yoga has to be learned and it takes much longer than twice a week for four months to even learn basics. I have to assume that the walkers had probably been walking for fourty years or more. And measure of sport competence in fourty plus year old women would tell virtually nothing. Having played competitive sports, recreational sports, coached at both levels, studied yoga and am someone who loves a good long walk,(I mean more than an hour), I assure you that there is no comparison. Yoga is used by top international athletes as a training regime. Walking is how they get to training.

I had 15 to 17 year old girls I coach to play ice hockey use yoga training and in ten sessions their flexibility and balance were greatly improved. Fitness was relatively unchanged.

Anyone that doesn't sweat at yoga should find a new instructor.

What puzzles me is the authors lack consideration for even writting this and cluttering up the web.

It's not the self-esteem, its the AWARENESS you are missing out on.

Once you begin to attain the awareness, anything viewed as a self-esteem issue very clearly becomes something else. That new perspective and understanding of what you appear to be missing out on manifests itself as a marked gain in self-esteem.

You just "get" more of life, and you "get" the "getting".

Can you provide f values for your statistics?

I teach yoga. There's crappy yoga; there's crappy walking, though maybe less. With a good fit of student, community and teacher, yoga can help immensely with "self-esteem." It can also hurt, -- checking yourself out critically in mirrors, for example. But yoga doesn't "work" like popping Advil, or taking a drink ... or going for a walk. Most yoga folks need to walk too. Lastly, most of us know, accurately, what walking is. We've done lots of it. Precious few know what yoga is. Walking -- or gym exercises, for that matter -- can be yoga. Yoga isn't advanced stretching done to new-age platitudes. (Alright, for some people it is.) Google the words "abhyasa" and "vairagya." Don't stop with Wikipedia.

Yoga is "exercise" for people who are simply too lazy to really exercise. The benefits are few because yoga (unless you're in awful physical condition when you start) is neither aerobic nor anaerobic and those things are what makes exercise worthwhile.

I believe that yoga helps to cultivate a mind-body connection, increases awareness, peace of mind and greater concentration. This study seemed to focus more heavily on the physical effects of exercise than actually researching an activities influence on mental well-being.

Oh Jeff, Jeff, is for lazy people? Not aerobic? Try some sun salutations (fast pace, like in a power yoga class). If you're not sweating and breathing heavy after a few series, you must be doing it wrong. Not anaerobic? Try holding warrior pose (warrior 1 or warrior 2) and tell me your thigh muscles aren't on fire.

It's not marathon running or bench presses, but I guarantee you it IS exercise and it IS worthwhile for a lot of people. I would argue, the benefits are far broader than cardio and weight training. I never felt better (or weighed less) than when I was taking power yoga 3-4 times a week without any additional cardio or weights. Lately, I've been limited to cardio (elliptical and walking) and some weights-- and I am heavier, sore, stiff and generally feeling lousy. You've motivated me to roll out my yoga mat again. Thank you.

Yoga should be practiced without mirrors! its so much better that way! and if you practice yoga for a long time you do start feeling better about yourself. you see yourself get better and better all the time... walking doesn't provide the same ammount of room for progress... but i am an avid walker as well as a yogi :-) so i recommend both!

look folks, what everyone here in the west knows as yoga is just hatha yoga. the purpose of hatha yoga is to prepare your body for meditative practices, period. anything else, like flexibility and stress relief and peace of mind, is a side benefit. of course, there's nothing wrong with that. but when you do hatha yoga for the purpose of gaining the side affects, you're not doing yoga, you're just exercising using asanas instead of weights or aerobics.

Did they control for the chatter of the instructor?

Yoga teachers generally have all this yoga-chatter, which is sometimes spiritual or motivational. The personality of the teacher and what she/he talks to the students about is one of the things that differentiates teachers and seems to be a big part of the teacher's ongoing marketing efforts.

I don't know what walking instructors talk about, but aerobic instructors usually limit themselves to calling out the next steps or counting the repetitions. Yoga teachers are more likely to correct form and give out praise for attempts at hard poses.

You have to do Yoga for at least 6 months, preferably a year before you begin to see any difference. When I started, I wasn't able to keep "Down Dog" for more than a few seconds before it became too uncomfortable. Now, many years later, it feels just fine and I have no problems. Furthermore, I used to have problems reaching down to get the dishes out of the bottom of the dishwasher. Now, I don't even notice it. It makes a huge difference when you know you can position your body any way you like (foot up on the counter to cut your toe nails, no problem!)

I love my Yoga and I highly recommend it everyone!

Remember that this study's subjects were fat sedentary women.

Yoga is, in my opinion, best for people who are already physically active and reasonably fit. Especially people who do repetitive actitivities (running, cycling) that create strain and imbalance.

Walking is, in some sense, the PERFECT exercise for everybody, because we are after all built for it. But it is especially well-suited for sedentary people as a gateway exercise.

By notthedroids (not verified) on 10 Apr 2008 #permalink

I'd love to see any of these commenters racing to the rescue of yoga to site a scientific study to back up any of their claims. Science is great until it says something with which they disagree. Then it's right back to the anecdotal evidence and uncritically held beliefs.

Have you heard of the phenomenon called conformation bias - it is the tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one's preconceptions. Check it out on wikipedia.

I used to have an article on my notice board on some research that had demonstrated that yoga was more effective than walking.

If you look hard enough you will find research to demonstrate whatever you want to.

As a long time yoga teacher I admit that I have more fun playing tennis, surfing ,,,,, than I do practising yoga. However I have more fun and am a better surfer ... and my life is better than it was before in part due to the self awareness and the capacity to be in the moment that my yoga practice has helped me develop.

I think walking is great and I recommend it to my students - it gives the opportunity to be out in nature and is a great opportunity to talk / relate to others - yoga is generally practised inside and is silent / introverted.

Yoga isn't for everyone and there are so many different approaches.

Hope you have a good day.

By Alan McCrindle (not verified) on 10 Apr 2008 #permalink

"I'd love to see any of these commenters racing to the rescue of yoga to site a scientific study to back up any of their claims."

The word is "cite", and simply do a pubmed search for yoga and find plenty of evidence for its benefits. As a frinstance:
Sherman et al. (2005) "Comparing Yoga, Exercise, and a Self-Care Book for Chronic Low Back Pain." Ann Int Med 143:12.

Incidentally, I find it highly dubious that the Munger's friends who recommend yoga would consistently cite self-esteem as a reason for practicing. Bit of a shoe-horned lead-in, I'd say.

By notthedroids (not verified) on 11 Apr 2008 #permalink


Thanks for the post. I picked up on a few great tips now! If I had the choice between yoga and walking, I think I'd rather do the walking seeing that the results are the same. Although, in my opinion, the results are not the same. I have taken a few yoga classes, as well as tried to stay fit with walking, and the results are nowhere near each other. Walking did manage to whip me into shape, but yoga gave me that boost of confidence, as well as a rush of endorphins, that walking never did. My results were the opposite of what you posted--I felt much more physically self-confident after yoga than I did with the walking, and much stronger after walking than with yoga because my stamina increased so much. To be fair, in both cases my self-esteem went through the roof after desirable results were achieved, and vice-versa. In response to your perception of exertion for both being equal, hands down yoga is requires much more exertion than walking, at least in my experience. It seems obvious that yoga should require a lot of exertion, even at a beginner level as it requires full body exertion, whereas walking requires only leg work, would you not agree? As you stated "It's also possible that over a longer period or more intense participation, the physical and global self-esteem measures would also rise to significance," so the true difference of effects of yoga and walking on self-esteem are yet to be established, but any boost of confidence and self-esteem is beneficial to everyone.

I've read the book "The Instinct to Heal: Curing Depression, Anxiety and Stress Without Drugs and Without Talk Therapy (Paperback)". In it, the author, an MD, PhD and Cofounder of the Center for Complementary Medicine for the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center, found that ANY exercise, 3 times per week, about 30 minutes at a time provided about the same benefit. They defined exercise as any activity that elevate heartrate / breathing to the point where you couldn't sing. Walking was enough.…

That being said, many Yoga folks (me included) believe that Yoga relieves the body of toxins. While this is hard to backup with real science, if you read the WikiPedia entry on the Lymphatic System, it is a passive circulation system, linked to your immune system. The lymph fluids are circulated by the movement of your body and the vessels themselves. Yoga twists your body like a wet washcloth, so you can just imagine what it does to lymph filled vessels.

Yoga is fabulous and part of my exercise routine, including walking, biking, running and chopping wood.

when i took yoga i actually was getting upset because i had to drive across town to get to my class and wait in traffic so i started to do it at my house and it helps

I started doing Yoga for weight loss.It was recommended by my friend, I also practice Yoga from home. From the time I started doing it I really do feel better about myself. I liked this article for a lot of reasons. When I was, (still am a little)overweight, I had self esteem problems. I dint feel good about myself and I used to be depressed.
From the time I started practicing Yoga, I've felt a kind of peace and am less stressed out.It maybe due to the energy levels which did increase. I did lose weight, still am losing weight but I'm also feeling good about myself and and a lot more confident. It maybe argued that it's because I lost weight, but I firmly believe that it's because helps in an all round physical and mental development.

With all respect to those who think of yoga as an exercise routine it is not, it is a spiritual science. The benefits, physical, emotional and mental are many and valuable and inherent within the practice, there are more and more studies proving the positive benefits on specific ailments and conditions. For anybody, whether it is just exercise to them or not, the most important thing is that you enjoy doing it. If you don't you are unlikely to persist and experience the deeper dimensions. If the women in the study didn't actually enjoy doing yoga, they are unlikely to perceive benefit, it was subjective in that respect.
Of course if your teacher teaches it at the level of exercise you don't even have a guide.

For me yoga is both exercise and an activity that improves my spiritual outlook. So in that sense it totally improves my self esteem. I have been doing yoga for about 8 years at It's Yoga in San Francisco, and it works for me. Since I started yoga i am much happier, stronger, and more confident. I did plenty of other types of exercise earlier in life, and yoga has had the best impact for me.

@ Naruto, comment 42,
What toxins are removed and what is the mechanism?

By drunk dude (not verified) on 29 Sep 2009 #permalink