Practicing yoga can help prevent the dreaded middle-age spread and even shed unwanted pounds.

A new study shows that normal weight adults who practiced yoga regularly gained an average of 3 pounds less between the ages of 45 and 55 than those who didn't practice yoga.

Meanwhile, overweight adults who practiced yoga lost an average of 5 pounds, and those who didn't gained about 14 pounds during the same time period.

Researchers say men and women between the ages of 45 and 55 typically gain about a pound per year, as their energy needs decline, without a similar decrease in the number of calories they consume.

They say it's the first study to look at the effects of yoga on weight loss and suggest that overweight people may have the most to gain from regular yoga practice.

Read WebMD's "Beyond Om: The Many Styles of Yoga"

Balancing Mind and Body

In the study, researchers examined the impact of yoga on weight change in a group of 15,550 adults aged 53-57. The participants provided information on physical activity (including yoga) and weight change between ages 45 and 55.

The results appear in the current issue of Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine.

Normal weight men and women who practiced yoga regularly (at least one session of 30 minutes or more per week) for four or more years gained an average of 3 pounds less than those who didn't practice yoga (9.5 pounds vs. 12.6 pounds).

Among overweight men and women, those who practiced yoga regularly lost an average of 5 pounds from ages 45-55; those who didn't practice yoga gained about 14 pounds.

Read WebMD's "Yoga May Aid Body Image, Cut Eating Disorders"

Listening to Your Body

Researchers say yoga's effect on weight loss and maintenance may have more to do with body awareness than the actual calories burned during the average session.

"During a very vigorous yoga practice you can burn enough calories to lose weight, but most people don't practice that kind of yoga," states researcher Alan D. Kristal, DrPH, professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington School of Public Health and Community Medicine, in a news release.

"From my experience, I think it has to do with the way that yoga makes you more aware of your body. So when you've eaten enough food, you're sensitive to the feeling of being full, and this makes it much easier to stop eating before you've eaten too much."

By Jennifer Warner, reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD

SOURCES: Kristal, A. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, July/August 2005; vol 11. News release, Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.