Study suggests possible problem with six-day-a-week Ashtanga practice

This doesn’t apply to me since I’m giving up asana for Lent, but it may be of interest to others.

A new study from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, featured in Exercise & Science in Sports & Medicine (now with more ampersands!), suggests that fewer days of exercise per week might be better than more. And by more they specifically tested six days a week.

Sound kind of familiar?

The study gets into all kinds of tricky medicine and stuff, so thankfully the New York Times’ Well blog is here to help:

By the end of the four-month experiment, all of the women had gained endurance and strength and shed body fat, although weight loss was not the point of the study. The scientists had not asked the women to change their eating habits.

There were, remarkably, almost no differences in fitness gains among the groups. The women working out twice a week had become as powerful and aerobically fit as those who had worked out six times a week. There were no discernible differences in cytokine levels among the groups, either.

However, the women exercising four times per week were now expending far more energy, over all, than the women in either of the other two groups. They were burning about 225 additional calories each day, beyond what they expended while exercising, compared to their calorie burning at the start of the experiment.

The twice-a-week exercisers also were using more energy each day than they had been at first, burning almost 100 calories more daily, in addition to the calories used during workouts.

But the women who had been assigned to exercise six times per week were now expending considerably less daily energy than they had been at the experiment’s start, the equivalent of almost 200 fewer calories each day, even though they were exercising so assiduously.

What?!?

You read that correctly. All that exercise actually prompted the uber-exercisers to slow down. A possible explanation:

The women working out six times a week, though, reacted very differently. “They complained to us that working out six times a week took too much time,” Dr. Hunter says. They did not report feeling fatigued or physically droopy. Their bodies were not producing excessive levels of cytokines, sending invisible messages to the body to slow down.

Rather, they felt pressed for time and reacted, it seems, by making choices like driving instead of walking and impatiently avoiding the stairs.

We all know about the press of time, don’t we, with those 1:30 to 2 hour practices?

Here’s how the Times sums up the key findings:

But the more fundamental finding of this study, Dr. Hunter says, is that “less may be more,” a message that most likely resonates with far more of us. The women exercising four times a week “had the greatest overall increase in energy expenditure,” he says. But those working out only twice a week “weren’t far behind.”

In more jargony language, that is: “Results indicate that 3+3 training may inhibit NEAT by being too time consuming and does not induce superior training adaptations to 1+1 and 2+2 training.”

OK, some thoughts:

  • The main thing that leaps out is that the women in the study made conscious choices to avoid what is called “nonexercise training.” I’m not sure that’s a concern among the Ashtanga Type A personality crowd, but it still suggests that there is something to a six-day-a-week practice that runs counter to what our bodies want.
  • I suppose this thought will sound ageist and sexist but … I’m not sure that women ages 60 to 74 are necessarily relevant to other groups of people. Perhaps the researchers were trying to figure out a best exercise routine for older people. (That would be a great thing to nail down.) It is hard to tell what the goal was and it could be that the New York Times is the one at fault for extrapolating out from a study of older women to this headline: “Why Four Workouts a Week May Be Better than Six.” (There seems to be some similar thinking in the comments to the NYT piece.) And then I’m, like, sub-at-fault, and perhaps one shouldn’t be making this leaping assumption.
  • Here’s a potentially more positive thought: Is there any reason to think that the finding of expending fewer calories  relates to the womens’ being more efficient or, dare I suggest, calmer and more “at ease”? It sounds like the answer is no, and that they women chose to avoid the “nonexercise” activities. But, still, are there other possible explanations?
  • We might want to think there is some difference between a weight/running routine and Ashtanga. In other words, what would a study find if the three groups of women did Ashtanga (or some other asana practice) twice a week, versus four times, versus six?

Despite my thinking that this study doesn’t really generalize out well, the implication remains that there is a right level or balance of intense exercise for humans. Does it mean Ashtanga may demand too much? (I know that when you factor in Moon Days, you start getting closer to its being a five-day-a-week practice.) Has anyone out there found that a certain number of days per week really works best for you? Does this study suggest that practicing five days a week and taking off Moon Days — in other words, pushing the practice toward four days a week — might be beneficial?

OK, off to have my chocolate and whiskey.

Posted by Steve

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theconfluencecountdown

Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

27 thoughts on “Study suggests possible problem with six-day-a-week Ashtanga practice”

  1. This test was performed on women over 60 years old. It doesn’t mention any history of the women with respect to their exercise regime and eating habits. It doesn’t talk about intensity of the exercise regimes (at least in the abstract). I feel Ashtanga Yoga is moderate exercise if you follow the system. If you add more exercise or hard manual labour on top of it then it might be too much 6 days a week. In the Yoga Makaranda Krishnamacharya says 3.4.1 No stressful physical exertion other than asana pranayama.

    1. Brad, you might be the first person I’ve heard describe Ashtanga as moderate exercise. (I think back to our post related to DG and how one has to have a “love of asana” to keep going through Third Series because of the intensity: https://theconfluencecountdown.com/2013/02/01/love-of-asana/ .)

      But, as I tried to qualify over and over, there definitely are some stretches here. But the six days a week struck me as at least one slightly more relatable factor. It may still be thin. More generally, though, it seems like it might be at least some fodder for discussing one aspect of the asana practice: frequency and intensity.

      Wait, is that two aspects? 🙂

      1. I would think if a you are able to get 7 hours of sleep, are properly hydrated, well nourished the practice should give you energy not deplete you. This would be the protocol for any type of physical training. I’m not saying that the practice is easy but if you come to it depleted then it is exhausting. As i’ve said before the practice keeps me focused, calm, energized etc. I can’t practice in the morning because I am often up many times during the night and have been doing this grueling schedule for about 7 years caring for my daughter. I do the practice when I can, Pranayama in the morning, asana and meditation/japa mala some time during the day. Last night I did my asana practice from 11:45 until 1:30 a.m. The other part of the practice for me is the mental part which can be draining. As an advanced ashtanga practitioner told me.

        “Your asana practice should support your well-being on all levels. There is no goal or aim. Binding or sitting in lotus are not a means to an end. The emphasis in your asana practice should be placed on your breath and the extension of your spine.
        way that you fit your Yoga practice into your daily life and how you make it a part of your rhythm is beautiful.
        Being vegan is also creating a clear mind and pure heart. ”

        Now I don’t worry I just do the practice, meditation, pranayama along with my karma yoga practice. Once I let go of the competitive edge within myself it seemed to have made the practice flow more and become nurturing.

      2. When I say moderate that is in relation to running a marathon or cross country running. I don’t feel like i’m pushed to the limit I do what I can do and notice gains in my flexability and strength over time. My heart rate is moderate when practicing. There is definitely muscle fatigue but my challenge is flexibility but I can only sit with where I am.

      3. I re read the love of asana post and watched the video again. I really like DG’s advice and videos especially his videos on nutrition. I’m trying not to question why it’s 6 days a week and just show up to the mat and do it. I think one of the problems us westerners have is that we don’t live in Indian society (not that they aren’t busy people these days) but we have so little time especially when you have children. Maybe life was slower when this yoga was created or maybe this yoga is telling us we are doing too much and we have to let some unimportant things go so we have time to practice and take care of ourselves. I just look at how long Krishnamacharya, Iyengar and Guruji lived and are living and it informs me that there is something to this. The long life is certainly not the goal it is a byproduct of a yoga life I would think. You just have to give into it, show up at the mat, and
        clear your mind. I often say my mantra through my whole practice to keep the noise out of my head. My grandfather was an excellent gymnast, trained the troops crossing the atlantic and was a massage therapist since the 1930’s. His favorite saying was, “it’s not how long you live but how you feel while your alive.” What i’m experiencing from this yoga journey is just how darn good the asana practice makes your body feel, the stress release, sitting quietly, japa mala practice. Little bits of peace and quite throughout the day, 20 minutes here, 10 minutes there etc. whatever you can do. It’s better if you can have a solid set routine and time but if you can’t it’s better to do what you can, when you can then not to do it at all.

      4. Thanks for all the comments. I suppose one difference is that I am, in a way, trying to question the 6 days a week nature. Not on any serious, we’re going to change thing level, but as a way to further an understanding of the practice. (I think of this as in keeping with Guruji’s original Asthanga Yoga RESEARCH Institute title; that isn’t meant to sound as self-satisfied as it does. We here just think that research and reflection this way are important.)

        I’m also clearly far away from a point where the asana practice makes me feel good. At some point, maybe, I’ll get clarity around that. At least I keep practicing.

  2. I want to mention one more thing. I’ve never been to Mysore nor am I able to do every pose in first series. Im going to be 50 this year and I came to this practice in the last 2 years and didn’t stretch much in my life before this but did a lot of running, weights, skiing, lots of sports. The one observation that really struck me watching videos of Guruji is that you can’t help but notice that he was a deeply religious man. Guruji to me seemed to be much more than his Asana practice which doesn’t seem to be discussed much. When I watch videos of Guruji I feel his reverence for his guru emanating from him as well as thousands of years of tradition in his discourse. Everything I seem to read on the internet is 99% Asana and 1% the 7 other limbs.

    Yoga Makaranda
    3.4.2 Activities that should be done
    These activities must be practised: Get up early in the morning at 4:00 a.m. every day and have a bath in a great river. If that is not possible, have a bath in clean hot water. Eat in the afternoon and at night, both times as mentioned earlier. Eat measured quantities of soft sweet food. Place signs of one’s (religious) tradition on the body and put on clean clothes. Follow the rules of your caste and creed and work according to your dharma.
    Worship the idols representing the deities. Have sincere heartfelt devotion to the guru and elderly. Tattvam and sastram –study and research these constantly. During times of war constantly practise asana and pranayama and the earlier yogangas. Bathe using good-smelling oil. In the night, eat food with milk and ghee.These activities must be carried out.

    There is so much more to all of this than 3rd series, 6th series etc. Asana is just one limb. It’s a beautiful tradition, earthy, cosmic, conscious, so much to learn.

    1. I do think you’ll find with teachers like Tim Miller, Eddie Stern, Richard Freeman — well, yeah, the Confluence teachers as a whole — not mention many others (probably with a bias in my thinking to the more senior teachers, just because we all seem to natural move away from the emphasis on asana as we get older and shed our attachment to our body) that there are these other limbs always there. They may have different approaches and different focuses beyond the Asana practice, but it certainly is more than the 1 limb.

      But, yes, it is easiest to talk asana and certainly for most yoga practitioners — those 18 million or whatever out there in America — it is almost all about the twisting and the body it produces.

      S

  3. What I take from this post is that it’s not such a tragedy if I miss one or two practices.

    More than any “scientific” research I trust my own body. To make progress for me more than 2 practices a week are necessary. I know similar researches and from them I learned that practicing anything 3 times a week is necessary to start seeing progress.

    I think one must really differentiate what it is what one is doing. Preparing for a marathon is different to an Ashtanga yoga practice. There are activities that strain unevenly some body parts, others are neglected. Then it might be even dangerous to practice 6 times a week.

    Age is an important factor for me, too. Being above 50 I know that for me it’s better to have 6 practices every week, also when they are shorter, than 2 intensive practices in a week.

    What is neglected: It’s so easier to practice every day than 2 times a week. To have stable routines is helpful beyond imagination. If one wants to establish a life long healthy exercise routine it’s easier to do it daily or 6 times a week.

    I love this post, because for me it was a reminder not to feel bad when I miss a practice here and then.

  4. I guess the practice isn’t necessarily addressing the same goals and questions as the study. We don’t do it just for the physical benefits, but its impact on the mind.

  5. I’m 29 and female and I mostly practice full Primary and the first few asanas of Intermediate four days a week. Depending on how I feel (I get migraines sometimes), I throw in one or two shorter practices (30-60 minutes of “freestyle” Yoga) on the remaining days. On average, I guess I would end up with five days of practice a week, four long, one short. Ideal for me.

  6. What exercises did they do in the study? This question has to be answered before you can make a parallel to yoga. I am sorry about running on a treadmill and working out with weights is not yoga.

    1. I agree it isn’t an exact parallel but a study (which was building on others) that suggests something about physical exercises benefits / effects has to have at least some relation to the purely asana side of yoga, doesn’t it? We also don’t know if some of these women were able to get into a meditative-like state while lifting weights or whatever.

      I think it comes down to: We may be able to overdo exercise more than we think. Would that scientific finding affect how we approach our asana practice? Should it?

      S

  7. I blogged about this article and topic already here (http://qoftheev.wordpress.com/2013/02/13/why-four-workouts-a-week-may-be-better-than-six/).

    I think the lifestyle of having to be in bed early enough to get up and practice 2 hours or more, six days a week can tend toward rigidity. I know it did in my case. In order to be more flexible in life, I chose the 5-day week. And I tended to be injured less when I did things that way.

    Plus I figured three days of Advanced A with some Advanced B was quite enough for one week, when I was also doing my required Intermediate (plus) and Primary (plus).

  8. I agree. The yogis that made first contact with Guruji are definitely practicing much more than Asana and it’s inspiring listening to them explain the depth of their practice. As Krishnamacharya states, ” Sometimes, in other acivities, one has to wait until the end to experience the benefits of the action. This is not so in yogabhyasa. There are benefits at every stage of the practice. From practicing only asana, one gains strength of the body; from the practice of only yama, one develops compassion towards living beings; from the practicing only of pranayama, it is possible to achieve long life and good health. These words are elaborated upon in the relevant sections. Let me summarize them succinctly: if one follows ahimsa, satya, astheya, aparigraha, and brahmacharya systematically without fail, one develops a relationship of affection and compassion not just for other people but equally for all living beings. This attitude of perceiving all living beings with total impartiality (equality) is essential for the welfare of society.”

  9. I recently switched from practising 6 days a week to 5 instead, and have to admit I feel much better for it. I can feel my body really appreciates the extra day of rest and when I come back to my practice feel refreshed and renewed. My practice feels more relaxed and fluid than it did before

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