Most weight-loss programs focus almost exclusively on the body: Eat less, exercise more, and you'll drop pounds.
a mounting body of scientific evidence suggests that what and how you
think can also help you lose weight. And that possibility is drawing
mainstream attention: Even the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in
Bethesda, Md., are funding studies that examine how mental techniques
can help yield thinner, healthier people.
The following is a roundup of recent research on which mind-body practices best support a weight-loss program.
know that yoga is designed to bring inner calm, increase flexibility
and even build strength. But for years, little scientific evidence
existed to support yoga as a weight- maintenance activity.
2005, yogi Alan Kristal, D.P.H., M.P.H., and colleagues at the Fred
Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle reviewed data on 15,550
men and women who had reported their physical activity and weight
measurements for 10 years. The researchers found that participants who
were overweight when the study began and had practiced yoga at least a
half hour per week for 4 or more years lost 5 pounds during the 10-year
period, while those who didn’t do yoga gained 13.5 pounds.
weight gain was measured at the beginning and end of the study,
participants self-reported how often they practiced yoga. The study did
not take into account participants' social or economic status and
didn't show a clear cause and effect between yoga and weight loss — it
showed only an association between people who did yoga and lost weight.
"Regular yoga practice can benefit individuals who wish to
maintain or lose weight," the researchers concluded. They weren't sure
exactly how yoga helped people drop the pounds, but many yoga devotees
"You need to separate it from the fact that
it's a calorie-burning activity and view it more as a contribution to
behavioral change and lifestyle change," says Elizabeth Larkam, a
certified yoga instructor and mind-body spokeswoman for the San
Diego-based American Council on Exercise (ACE).
it as meditation in motion. You feel more calm, more centered and
therefore less likely to reach for a high-sugar snack to try to
artificially balance your body's energy or your mood," she says.
ancient martial art of tai chi combines mental concentration with slow,
choreographed movements designed to focus the mind and breathing.
Dozens of studies show that tai chi improves balance, stability and
pain management in the elderly, but few researchers link tai chi with
In the January-February 2004 issue of the Journal of Cardiovascular Nursing,
an analysis of 7 studies on the aerobic benefits of tai chi found that
it "may be an additional form of aerobic exercise," especially the
popular, gentle Yang style of tai chi when it's practiced regularly for
a year by previously sedentary adults.
Chodzko Zajko, Ph.D., a tai chi expert and head of the Department of
Kinesiology and Community Health at the University of Illinois at
Urbana-Champaign, says that in general, tai chi is not an aerobic
exercise for most people. Instead, its weight- loss benefit is part of
"a broader wellness practice," he says.
"People who practice tai
chi are less anxious, depressed and nervous and have better
self-esteem," he says. "You could argue tai chi is a good component to
a total holistic attitude toward health, and that people who practice
tai chi are more likely to engage in healthy eating behavior that
encourages weight loss."
Fitness instructor Scott Cole, creator of the Discover Tai Chi for Weight Loss
DVD (Goldhil, 2002), believes tai chi's "sitting posture" — in which
every movement is done with bent knees — burns energy and consequently
helps people lose weight. "You're moving slowly and not relying on your
momentum, so you're using your muscles at the deepest level," Cole
says. "Your muscles are in quite a quivering state with a lot of muscle
fibers firing, which increases muscle mass and gives you a metabolic
and her colleague, Jean Kristeller, Ph.D., of Indiana State University,
are seeking a more definite answer to the question. They are working on
2 National Institutes of Health–funded studies designed to determine if
there is a clear link between meditation and weight loss. Together, the
2-year studies track about 230 people practicing vipassana, an ancient
Indian form of meditation.
Vipassana teaches students to
define and differentiate between their thoughts, feelings and
sensations. Quillian-Wolever suspects vipassana might help people
"register their body signals and learn what is physical hunger or what
is emotional." Her theory is that if people could gain more insight
into what drives their eating choices, they might have an easier time
controlling nonphysical hunger impulses.
she has successfully used vipassana meditation for weight loss with
individual clients. "Other forms of meditation don't change your
thoughts or your relationship with the world," she says.
often a person needs to meditate to achieve weight loss,
Quillian-Wolever says, is "the magic question" she and Kristeller hope
to answer. "My personal guess is 5 to 6 days a week, 20 to 30 minutes a
day for 3 months, and then a couple times a week indefinitely after
that" Quillian-Wolever says.
of studies have been conducted on how cognitive therapy can improve everything from depression to shyness. But Judith Beck, Ph.D., daughter
of the pioneer of cognitive therapy, Aaron Beck, M.D., knows of only
one study linking cognitive therapy to weight loss.
conducted in Sweden in 2005, tracked 105 obese people. Sixty-two of
them participated in 3 hours of cognitive therapy a week for 10 weeks,
while the rest served as controls. Eighteen months after the therapy
ended, those in the cognitive therapy group had lost an average of 23
pounds, while the control group gained an average of 5 pounds.
therapy for weight loss focuses on identifying negative thoughts — such
as "I can't lose weight" — and responding to them realistically based
on evidence. "If you change your thinking, you can change your
behavior," says Beck, director of the Beck Institute for Cognitive
Therapy and Research in suburban Philadelphia and clinical associate
professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.
The author of The Beck Diet Solution(Oxmoor House, 2007), she has seen similar results with more than 75
individuals she's coached over 20 years as well as with a group of 10
obese women who have met with her since July 2006. Prior to joining the
group, the women had tried an average of 8 times each to lose weight
and had failed. In the first 9 months of cognitive therapy with Beck,
the women lost between 10 and 45 pounds each.
individually or in a group, Beck's cognitive therapy for weight-loss
plan involves meeting once a week for months or even years. Patients
learn 34 to 40 different skills that help identify and change thinking
that sabotages weight loss. Although Beck has anecdotal evidence that
her program helps people lose weight, she hasn't conducted a
controlled, clinical study.
"The idea is to identify your
sabotaging thinking and give yourself helpful, realistic responses that
allow you to follow a nutritious diet you can basically stay on your
whole life," Beck says. "If you change your thinking, you can change
your behavior and learn skills like how to recognize the difference
between hunger and craving."