public health

Why are Americans so concerned about weight?

Why are Americans so concerned about weight? It’s not just because thinness is portrayed as ideal. Overweight and obesity are public health concerns because of the increased likelihood of concurrent  diseases and increased likelihood of death. People who are overweight are at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease, diabetes, arthritis, and decreased reproductive health. Of women in the United States, 63% are overweight, 36% are obese, and 8% are extremely obese.

What is it like for overweight women trying to lose weight in the US? Challenging. Society’s negative views of overweight and obesity create more than just physiological barriers for women who are motivated to become healthier. Overweight and obese women are oppressed by stress and anxiety from stigma, more than those of women of normal weight. The American culture is the most powerful factor that contributes to how, when, and why people eat and the amount they exercise they perform.

The easiest way to understand overweight and obesity is as results from an energy imbalance. While the body needs a certain amount of calories from food to maintain basic life functions, people continuously eat and drink more calories than they burn. How and where we live also affect our energy balance. Our new living environments require a lot more driving and a lot less walking. These lifestyle changes tip the energy balance towards weight gain. Our energy imbalances are a result of eating habits, our bigger portion sizes, and our food selections, which are mostly full of calories from high-fructose corn syrup and refined fats. Not only are they full of calories, they contribute to the changing patterns of food consumption – how and what we eat.

It is easy to understand weight gain and loss through the lens of energy balance. However it is more complex than that, which is why we need more comprehensive treatment and prevention. Other treatments might be related to behavioral, nutritional, surgical, or pharmaceutical…but not everybody has access to these strategies. I know I’ve said this before, but I will say it again – Yoga provides overweight women with many means to change their lifestyle and decrease their weight. Yoga is becoming a part of our American culture. Our culture affects our eating and exercise habits. Let’s pick this new part of our culture to influence our lifestyle habits. 

Yoga Teachers as Public Health Professionals

The yoga teacher community is an untapped source of public health professionals. We reach many people in deep, meaningful ways, but our students don’t know the little amount of training that is required for us to call ourselves yoga teachers.

Students look to us as sources of health related information. We have the power to influence people’s lives by teaching what it means to be at risk for chronic diseases and how to reduce those risks… but many teachers don’t actually know how to answer their students’ questions. We aren’t taught such powerful information. If we were, we would all be correctly responding to our students and helping them enjoy their lives without disease, disability, or loss of productivity.

At this moment in high-income countries, thinness is portrayed as ideal. And despite being the norm in the United States, overweight women are stigmatized… which creates an extra hurdle to lose weight for women who actually are motivated to lose weight. With proper instruction, yoga can increase positive health options for overweight women.

While research shows yoga practitioners are not free of health concerns, most believe their health has improved because of yoga. Yoga is proven to be beneficial for those with chronic diseases. Yoga students agree that yoga has helped them attain or maintain a healthier weight. People do believe that yoga helps their health. Yoga does have the potential to increase healthy behaviors. Why aren’t we tapping into that, taking it for a ride on this crazy yoga craze American has going on, and promoting health for overweight women in America?

It doesn’t matter whether beliefs that yoga improves health cause women to seek yoga or if yoga practitioners develop beliefs after they see the benefits of yoga. Either way, we need to train yoga teachers to disseminate health information to overweight women. Because yoga teachers miss out on this crucial piece of education, there is no way for us to be aware of this population’s special needs. With an increased awareness, yoga teachers would maximize yoga’s impact as a weight reduction, health improvement practice, connect with their overweight female students in an even deeper, meaningful way, AND work to improve the health of the public. 

Yoga for Weight Loss: The Power of Yoga Teachers

As many of you know, I am a yoga teacher and a personal trainer. This past year (which actually still isn’t over), I was working, writing a master’s thesis, and finishing up grad school. My thesis topic was inspired by each and every one of my personal training clients (thanks you guys). Specifically though, the topic emerged after several somewhat overweight female personal training clients approached me to teach them yoga privately. I couldn’t figure it out. I encourage all of the people I work with to practice yoga outside of our sessions and do other forms of exercise. However, they were feeling uncomfortable attending group yoga classes. 

 As yoga teachers, we are taught and trained to create safe, non-judgmental spaces for all of our students. While conducting research, I attended classes imagining I was an overweight woman and observing how teachers and other students treat overweight women in the studio. This is what I learned: most classes aren’t safe or non-judgmental for all students. I was confused, and still am, that teachers are focusing on only one type of student. Maybe it’s just here in New York City, but it got under my skin.

 I began to understand many of the ways yoga classes can help overweight women, and it became my mission because these women I care about don’t feel comfortable attending yoga classes! Overweight women need to be taught yoga in a safe, non-judgmental space - a space that ALL yoga classes call for.

 And the type of yoga class I’m proposing will benefit everyone. When a person practices yoga asana, they are active, moving their body, and exercising, in addition to joining a supportive community. If overweight women feel comfortable attending yoga classes, research shows the physical activity they perform will encourage them to exercise outside of yoga classes. When yoga classes are successfully designed to include helping overweight women (which is the new normal in the United States), yoga teachers will help increase their mind-body connections, something we yoga teachers are all taught to do.

 While I recognize that yoga is about more than just asana, it is true that a physical yoga practice expends energy. Yoga and its teachers can help students decrease their food intake and feel more connected with their bodies. Yoga can act as a stepping-stone for health promoting diets and changes in physical activity, and we as yoga teachers have the power to empower overweight women to take steps towards lifestyle overhauls to increase their well-being.