Yoga health benefits: Study reveals this ancient practice is as good for you as cycling or aerobics - but scientists can't explain why

Study shows it reduces the risk of heart disease, lowers blood pressure, cuts cholesterol and reduces BMI

Yoga could be as effective at combating heart disease as traditional aerobic exercise, say scientists – but they have no idea why.

Dismissed by some as hardly being exercise at all, yoga is an ancient practice that originated in India and incorporates physical, mental and spiritual elements.

But a team of investigators have revealed that yoga “may provide the same benefits in [heart disease] risk factor reduction as biking or brisk walking”, as well as helping cut down on weight, blood pressure and cholesterol levels when compared to those who do no exercise at all.

A group of scientists from the US and the Netherlands carried out a comprehensive “meta-study” of 37 randomised controlled trials – in total covering more than 2,700 test subjects.

The heart disease findings were the most dramatic, with even greater risk factor improvements observed when yoga was combined with medication.

The similarity of yoga and exercise's effect on cardiovascular risk factors, say the investigators, "suggest that there could be comparable working mechanisms, with some possible physiological aerobic benefits occurring with yoga practice, and some stress-reducing, relaxation effect occurring with aerobic exercise".

The study has been published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, and senior author Professor Myriam Hunink from Erasmus University Medical Center, Rotterdam, and Harvard School of Public Health, Boston said it represented the growing evidence of yoga’s health benefits.

But she said scientists were yet to come up with a physiological explanation for the practice’s marked impact on cardiovascular wellbeing.

“Also unclear are the dose-response relationship and the relative costs and benefits of yoga when compared to exercise or medication,” she said. “However, these results indicate that yoga is potentially very useful and in my view worth pursuing as a risk improvement practice.”