By Matthew Papa, PhD
With an increasing emphasis being placed on future gen
erations’ weight and stress management routines, and an environment for children and adolescents that contains increasing amounts of stress, it is important to look at studies that address as many key issues as possible. A recent pilot study by Sandra Benavides and Josher Caballero at the University Texas may hold the key to future research direction.
Challenges facing today’s youth
As divorce is on the increase and single parenting on the rise, it’s not a surprise to see the current figures on overweight and obese children reaching epidemic proportions. With increasing pressure to perform well at school, a breakdown in ‘family routine’ and peer pressure, it is not surprising that overweight and obese children make up around 30% of their peer group. This figure drops to an estimated 15% by the time they reach their teens.
The poor choices in lifestyle and food that adults make filters down to their children giving them health problems in the future. It is noteworthy that childhood obesity is linked to the same diseases as in adults and the incidences of childhood type 2 diabetes, hypertension and heart disease are on the rise. With an inclination to spend more time in front of the television and a challenge to find exercise that is appropriate, healthy, and engaging for children and teens, yoga seems to have filled a gap, as this study highlights.
The pilot study
The study itself consisted of children with one or more of a set of risk factors defined by the American Diabetic association:
- First degree relative with type 2 diabetes (mother, father, sibling)
- Of Hispanic or African-American Descent.
Further key points in the makeup and demographic of the group were:
- Aged between 8.8 and 14.7
- Predominantly female (11 girls, 3 boys)
- Blood pressure (systolic and diastolic) within tolerable ranges, but tending towards the high side, heart rate on the high edge of average.
- Body Mass Index (BMI, a measurement of body fat) varying between 16.6-36.2 kg/m2 (considered overweight above 25)
- Weight varying between 30-91.4kgs (66-201lb)
Exclusion criteria were then applied, such as the removal of those that had already been diagnosed with diabetes. All children underwent control tests, which provided accurate measures to gauge the success of the study. Of the 20 children that finally went through to the classes themselves, 14 completed the study. No dietary or exercised restrictions were placed in the group.
Each child attended yoga classes three days a week for 12 weeks and each class was for 1 hour and 15 minutes. They underwent a modified form of Ashtanga Yoga training with pranyana and meditation. Modifications were built in due to age and flexibility considerations, to allow maximum participation. The same instructor taught the class throughout the study for consistency, and the children were provided with a yoga mat to practice their asanas on their days off. Each child was enco
uraged to attend all classes. These classes contained specifically tailored asanas that were static and held for around 5 breaths each. The asanas were based around flexibility or strength challenges and varied in difficulty depending on ability.
Overall, the results were positive, and in line with yoga studie
s in adults that have been undertaken in the last 34 years and published in peer-revie
- Weight and BMI – The average BMI change in these children was 0.8, from 26.4 to 25.6 kg/m2. This correlates to an average 2kg (4.4lb) weight loss – with one participant losing 5.9kgs (13 lb). The weight loss found in this study is consistent with goals for weight loss in children. While there was no overall pattern to the weight loss versus ability shown in class or attendance, it is important to highlight that the weight reduction was in line with expected decrease in a child of those age ranges. Although yoga did not make these children lose weight remarkably fast, a sustained weight loss was observed.
- Mental wellbeing – Five children were specifically identified and referred to their paediatrician after discovering they suffered from poor self esteem or very poor self esteem. Four of these five children reported improvement. A parent specifically commented that her child became more confident. Three were discovered to be suffering from depression and two from anxiety, both of which showed signs of improvement at the end of the study. All children reported either an equal or lesser level of anxiety.
- Chemical and other body changes – In agreement with other studies in adults on yoga and its effect on blood chemistry at various levels, cholesterol was lowered alongside other undesirable parameters. Glucose and other values dropped towards acceptable levels, too.
Though the first study of its kind, the improvements in self-concept, the decrease in depression as well as the lowered blood serum levels of markers considered to be risk factors for cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes are remarkable.
Other similar studies linked Hatha yoga to lower anxiety in adolescents with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) and Sahaja yoga to lower rates of anxiety and higher self-esteem in those with Attention Deficit/Hyperactivety Disorder (ADHD). Therefore, the implications of yoga training with children and adolescents reach further than the simple ‘weight loss’ scenarios reported in the study mentioned. It is also important to note that three participants who may have struggled with the positions or progressed slower, did undergo worsening of self-image and depression. This is also in line with other studies of their kind, as yoga can be seen to be a ‘humbling’ experience, and this could lead to depression in those few who are too competitive or don’t like failing while still in the learning phase.
All of this evidence, even at its most formative stage, highlights the need for researchers to look further into the benefits of yoga as both a weight loss and possible curriculum addition for its wider benefits. While it is possible that more evidence based examination and control studies will bring issues to light, the positive aspects of Yoga and its impact on children and adults alike should not be ignored and is worth examining them with more rigorous scientific methods.
About the writer:
Matthew Papa is a biochemist at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, Missouri. Being twice awarded grants by the American Heart Association he researches cardiovascular disease and obesity treatments, his long time passion. In his website www.weightlosstriumph.com, he posts the latest obesity research news from the scientific community and credible reviews about best diets on weight loss, as well as a Medifast promotional code offered in the US by a medically approved health program.