- New research suggests yoga’s focus on breath and movement could be key for stress relief.
- Another new study finds yoga can also be beneficial for sleep and healthy eating.
- All of these effects can be a boost for immune function, which is a top concern in the midst of the pandemic.
Work-related stress has long been found to contribute to poor physical and mental health outcomes, including more back pain, higher risk of chronic disease, and lower sleep quality. But a new research review in the Journal of Occupational Health suggests yoga could offer significant relief.
Researchers looked at 15 studies involving 688 healthcare workers in total, all of which encompassed a range of interventions, including:
- Tai chi
- Progressive relaxation
- General stretching exercises
The interventions ranged from one session to multiple sessions done over a 15-week period, with follow-up times of 24 hours to a year.
Researchers found that only massage therapy and yoga were effective, with the latter being the best method. Although the other methods brought some advantages for short-term relaxation, yoga was better at reducing occupational stress over a longer period of time.
Why Yoga Helps
Much like other forms of exercise train the body to fire up certain muscles faster, yoga seems to be particularly effective at toning the autonomic nervous system, according to the study’s lead researcher, Michael Zhang, MD, MPH, of the Southern Nevada Health District.
Michael Zhang, MD, MPH
— Michael Zhang, MD, MPH
The way yoga connects breath and movement has been shown to lower levels of cortisol, the hormone most closely associated with the stress response. That can prompt reductions in blood pressure and improve emotional health, he says. Over time, and with regular practice, those effects may lower chronic disease risk.
“Work-related stress has been linked with cardiovascular issues, diabetes, depression, and other serious causes of morbidity,” states Zhang. “Yoga is particularly effective, and can be delivered virtually, making it convenient for employers to offer distance options to promote worker health.”
Although the research review didn’t cover stress during the pandemic, another recent study did look at COVID-related anxiety and how yoga provided benefits for those who adopted the practice during lockdowns.
Published in Frontiers in Psychiatry, the research looked at about 13,000 participants in India who provided information on their health during pandemic restrictions, including sleep, exercise, and eating habits.
Those who reported practicing yoga on a consistent basis showed:
- Less anxiety, stress, and fear
- Better coping strategies
- Lower use of substances like drugs and alcohol
- Healthier eating behaviors
- Better quality sleep
- More physical endurance
Although the researchers didn’t cover whether those in the yoga group had lower incidence of illness, all the benefits on that list have been connected to stronger immune function in previous research, says Jessica Schatz, RYT, a yoga and Pilates teacher in Los Angeles.
Jessica Schatz, RYT
— Jessica Schatz, RYT
“Anxiety and depression tend to be long-term, often lifelong, conditions that require a multi-layered approach,” she says. “Previous research has indicated that yoga can be helpful for addressing those in the same way that it alleviates stress.”
One important note is that to reap these advantages, a practice must be consistent, says Schatz.
A single session of yoga can provide some relaxation benefits, but as the recent studies found, doing a couple sessions per week can help “train” the body and mind to lower stress levels and increase sleep quality most effectively.
There are a breadth of options when it comes to yoga, especially now that many studios have re-opened, but the pandemic also brought the advantage of numerous virtual options, Schatz says. She suggests trying several online classes, either on-demand or live, and finding a teacher you like.
“The biggest strategy is to discover what you enjoy, because then you’ll keep doing it,” she says.
What This Means For You
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