Yoga may make women feel better about their bodies, steering them away from eating disorders, a new study shows.

In fact, yoga may have an edge over other forms of exercise in that regard, according to the study in the Psychology of Women Quarterly.

The reason may be yoga's mind-body aspect, say the researchers, who included psychologist Jennifer Daubenmier, PhD, of California's Preventive Medicine Institute.

"Through yoga, this study suggests that women may have intuitively discovered a way to buffer themselves against messages that tell them that only a thin and 'beautiful' body will lead to happiness and success," says Daubenmier in a news release.

If backed by further research, yoga may help prevent and treat eating disorders, say researchers.

Yoga Study

Daubenmier worked on the project as a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley. She compared women who practiced yoga regularly with those who did other forms of exercise. Women who hadn't done either form of exercise for at least two years were also included.

First, Daubenmier and colleagues studied women who were 37 years old on average. Next, they studied college-aged women.

The women completed surveys about the type of exercise they performed, how often they did it, and their feelings about their bodies. Those who practiced yoga expressed healthier attitudes toward their bodies and had less disordered eating behaviors.

Meanwhile, spending more time on aerobic forms of exercise (such as running or exercise classes) was associated with greater disordered eating attitudes, the study shows.

The researchers say body mass index didn't explain the findings because they took that into account.

Which Came First: Yoga or Body Image?

Did yoga enhance women's sense of their bodies, or did it attract women who already felt good about themselves? More research is needed to find out. Daubenmier's study didn't assign women to do any particular form of exercise.

Of course, many women who exercise aerobically don't have eating disorders. Health experts encourage men, women, and children to exercise regularly and lead an active lifestyle for optimum health.

Yoga practitioners learn to tune in to the body as it moves through the poses. That could emphasize the body's abilities, instead of its appearance, say the researchers.

That mindful approach is available to anyone, but yoga may help build that skill.

By Miranda Hitti, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Daubenmier, J. Psychology of Women Quarterly, June 2005; vol 29: pp 207-219. News release, Blackwell Publishing Ltd.