Exercise Benefits, Part 5: Why You Should Do Yoga (or Barre or Pilates)
There are people out there who might be thinking, “Yoga? That’s not a workout.” I get it. I used to be one of those people. But as I’ve gained more knowledge and experience of fitness, I’ve come to realize that a workout doesn’t have to be highly intense or challenging to benefit your body.
Moreover, less intense types of exercise, like yoga, barre (ballet-based conditioning), and Pilates make for great activities on your recovery days (so does walking, but I already wrote an article on cardio). This is because these activities will still keep you moving, but without putting so much stress on your body. (Some forms, however, can get a little more intense; you may want to save those for a non-recovery day. Check with your yoga or barre instructor about which forms would be good for your recovery days.)
But there’s more to yoga, barre, and Pilates than just being good recovery day activities. Because of the nature of these activities, they confer some unique benefits that our bodies need but that are hard (if not impossible) to get from other types of exercise. So let’s dig in to why our bodies need these types of workouts.
Benefits of Yoga/Barre/Pilates
As with other types of exercise, simply moving your body and being active has major benefits in terms of lowering disease risk, reducing stress and inflammation, promoting cardiovascular health, and improving mood.
Yoga classes (but not the more stretching-based styles), barre, and Pilates also work your muscles and build strength, so you’ll get some of the benefits of resistance training. And for more intense yoga styles or more aerobic, dance-based barre workouts, you could be getting a really good aerobic workout as well, meaning you get all the great benefits of cardio.
However, because of the way you move your body during a yoga, barre, or Pilates workout, you get some highly valuable benefits, particular in the domains of balance and flexibility. Let’s take a closer look.
Stronger Core and Improved Posture
The so-called “core” muscles comprise the muscles of your hips and torso, and include muscle groups like the glutes, the abs, and the obliques. But there are a lot of muscles in this region of the body, so you have to do a lot of different movements to strengthen them all. Which means doing more than just crunches.
Resistance training, when done with free weights (i.e., not on machines), helps to build a strong core. Even though you’re not dynamically contracting the abs when you do push-ups, your abs and spinal muscles are working to help keep your posture strong ad stable. And while squats do work the glutes, they don’t hit all of the glutes and they don’t dynamically work the rest of the hip muscles. That’s where yoga, barre, and Pilates come in.
So much of yoga is about posture and stability, and with so many different forms and poses, those various core muscles will get worked, though often in an isometric fashion (i.e., a static contraction; holding a position).
Barre workouts tend to focus a lot on hips, working through all ranges of motion of this important joint. Depending on the workout, you might also get some work on other core muscles, as well as on legs and arms.
Pilates will often involve arm and leg work, but the focus is on core muscles, both dynamically, by contracting and moving the core muscles themselves, and isometrically, by holding them still to maintain posture and stability as you move other body parts.
Through this focus on hip and torso movements and stability, these types of workouts are some of the best for building a strong, stable core and for improving posture. And this improved core strength can do amazing things for preventing injuries, particularly to the hips and lower back.
Yoga and barre make use of many movements and poses that involve standing one one leg or otherwise being in a position where it is hard to balance. These movements create a balance challenge, putting the body in a state of imbalance.
By spending time in these imbalanced states, your body learns how to compensate for the less stable position by strengthening the muscles (and the neuromuscular connections) that help you balance. It’s just like working any other muscle group: if you want to strengthen it, you have to use it. So if you want to strengthen your balance muscles, you have to put your body in an imbalanced position. That’s why barre and yoga are some of the best ways you can improve your balance.
Pilates is traditionally done on special equipment, but it can be done on a mat for an at-home workout. As such, there are typically fewer movements that intentionally challenge balance. However, movements are often isolated to one side at a time, which will help to develop postural stability, which could transfer to improvements in balance.
For the reason of better balance alone, these types of workouts should be part of everyone’s weekly workouts. This is especially the case for older adults: the better your balance, the less likely you’ll fall. So, for the sake of living a long and active life, balance is crucial, meaning yoga, barre, and/or Pilates are crucial.
Because yoga, barre, and Pilates workouts are usually done with little to no external resistance, the movements themselves can be bigger. These types of big movements help increase active range of motion (i.e., how many degrees of motion your joints can move through without assistance). They do this in two ways: (1) by taking the joints through as much range of motion as possible and (2) by emphasizing movements that lengthen the muscles while working them. This helps to keep the muscles more elastic and less tight. (Muscle tightness is one of the main reasons joints lose mobility.)
You can think of active range of motion as functional flexibility; it determines how much mobility you have. This is important for everyday life, but especially as we get older and our joints and muscles get stiff. Better flexibility means being better able to reach our arms up high or to bend down to pick something up. This translates to better quality of life and more independent living into the golden years.
Active range of motion is also hugely important in injury prevention: the more range of motion you have, the less likely you are to pull a muscle or otherwise injure yourself by stepping wrongly or by inadvertently taking too big of a movement. This is also why stretching is so important. (But more on that in the final article in this series.) Some forms of yoga focus more on static stretching, making yoga arguably the best type of workout for promoting flexibility. But yoga, barre, and Pilates are all excellent ways to improve active range of motion.
As with any activity, there can be great benefits in terms of stress reduction from yoga, barre, and Pilates. However, because of the attention these activities place on bodily awareness (a form of mindfulness), that stress reduction can last beyond just the workout itself. After all, mindfulness is one of the best ways to combat stress.
However, yoga arguably has them all beat when it comes to reducing stress because it involves the trifecta (quad-fecta, if you want to count breathing and mindfulness separately) of stress reduction practices.
- First of all, it’s activity. Moving your body is one of the best ways to reduce inflammation and stress.
- Second, the very nature of yoga involves a focus on breath and body awareness. Yoga teaches you how to breathe deeply, slowly, and mindfully. This intentional breathing alone is a great stress reduction technique. But yoga also teaches you how to breathe with your body’s movements. Through this and the focus on breath, postures, and bodily awareness, yoga practitioners become more in tune with (i.e., mindful of) their breath and bodies. And mindfulness is one of our best defenses against stress.
- Lastly, yoga practices often involve some sort of meditation, usually with a focus on compassion, kindness, mindfulness, or other positive thoughts and feelings. This focus on positivity is another incredibly effective way for managing stress.
Put all of these things together, and yoga tops the list of stress-reducing activities. But barre and Pilates probably aren’t too far behind.
Balance and range of motion are two of the most important factors in preventing injuries and in aging healthily. Yoga, barre, and Pilates are some of the best activities you can do to promote balance and improve range of motion, making them essential inclusions in everyone’s workout schedules. (This is why a lot of football players and other professional athletes incorporate ballet into their training: it’s great for developing balance, coordination, footwork, flexibility, and more.) And with the minimal equipment they often require (usually little more than a mat and maybe some light dumbbels), yoga, barre, and Pilates workouts can easily be done at home.
Plus, with the variety of forms each of them can take, you won’t likely get bored, and you could probably find options that will also get you more cardio or more strength conditioning. After all, we need those, too; we need a little bit of everything. As I like to say, a body that’s trained for everything is ready for anything. So be sure to incorporate some yoga, barre, and/or Pilates into your workout schedule. Your body will thank you.
One of the best ways to start doing yoga, barre, or Pilates is learning with an experienced teacher. At ZentasticFit, our instructors offer personalized, online yoga classes, barre workouts, and Pilates sessions. Message them today to start your at-home workouts on your time and your terms.
“The Many Benefits of Barre”, Natalie Silver (reviewed by Daniel Bubnis) (Healthline)
“Pilates and yoga - health benefits” (Better Health Channel)
“13 Benefits of Yoga That Are Supported by Science”, Rachael Link (Healthline)
"Better Body Image: A Surprising Potential Benefit of Yoga" (ZentasticFit)
About the author
Dustin R. Meriwether, Ph.D., has a doctorate in cognitive psychology from the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities and is a certified group fitness instructor through AFAA