Yoga vs. Gym: Which Is Really a Workout?

Yoga vs. Gym: Which Is Really a Workout?
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“Is yoga really a workout?” When I typed that into Google I was pretty astonished at the contrast of dead set opinions and recommendations that are floating around out there. Some individuals, which could be anyone from your Average Joe to those who claim to be medical professionals swear by yoga, often stressing the benefits that come out of it are beyond physical, manifesting on the mental and spiritual playgrounds. Others claim yoga is nothing compared to intensive gym workouts, citing the gym provides weight resistant and the ability to better workout your cardiovascular system.

I understand there are benefits and cons to each, and also there are people who are so obsessed with one or the other they can’t see beyond what they believe to be true. But with a newfound schedule of doing whatever I want, whenever I want on my own time, I decided to explore what the hype about yoga was all about, even investing in what I thought to be the best yoga outfits for women. What follows is my account of doing a week straight of the gym, details of which I’ll get into, as opposed to doing a week straight of yoga. To be clear, the point of this was not to lose weight, but rather to see how each type of exercise impacted myself and my life.

The Experimentee

Prior to the experiment
Prior to the experiment
Kara Kamenec

I did my experiments three weeks in between each other. Gym seven days straight, 3 weeks of mixed, or to be honest very little working out, and then seven straight days of yoga. I’ve belonged to a gym since before I was a teenager, which didn’t matter because our houses growing up always had gyms in them anyways, and at the time I began this test I had done yoga sporadically but increasingly - far less than 20 times in total - so I would still consider myself a beginner.

I’m female, Caucasian, 29 years old, with weight that fluctuates but my BMI sits around 15 (which, yes, friends, family, and others I realize is underweight). I’m at least moderately active everyday thanks in part to living in a city, and I track myself taking an average of about 8,000 steps per day or in other words going the distance of on average 2.8 miles daily. Beyond walking, on average I workout in some form about 5 days a week - which could be a 20 minute workout or 2 hours. I do consider walking over 10 miles a workout for that day, but otherwise workouts are confined to the gym or, more recently, a yoga studio.

I continually played sports, just about every one a girl can play you can think of when I was younger, year round as well, until my mid-teens at which time, to be honest, I decided I was more interested in dating than scoring a point for my team or winning a race. Point being I have a decent amount of muscle memory thanks in part to my parents forcing me to play sports until I became a rebellious teenager. I once did but no longer smoke regularly, maybe when drinking here or there now, I consume alcohol more frequently than I should (which I will 100% blame on anxiety issues) but not too much in excess, and I eat fairly healthy, but have no set diet or anything of that nature.

Outside Factors

Nutrition wise, I tried to stick to around the same diet (read: meals and caloric intake) everyday. I’d have steel cut oats topped with blueberries or plain with a side of about a cup of strawberries in the morning. I reluctantly gave up my normal machta tea latte and stuck to no caffeine, an Emergen-C packet, or some random tea mixture from Physical GraffiTea each day. For lunch I’d snack on berries and vegetables with hummus and throw a Cliff Bar in if I was more hungry. I had no problem eating right before the gym, but before yoga I needed at least an hour in-between eating and doing the practice.

At night I’d consume either a bag (6 servings) of cooked vegetables, 2-3 salmon packets and hummus, or soup, oyster crackers and hummus with crackers. I’d consume a cocktails or wine (hey I’m not working right now) nightly, which was either vodka with lemon juice and water or my new favorite red wine of Carmenere each night. I’d alter between half a glass of something to 3 glasses. I went out once during the 7 days and consumed more alcohol than those 3 glasses and I also splurged on sushi one of the nights I stayed in, with a meal consisting of 3 rolls, one snow crab naruto roll, and a salad with ginger dressing. I’d snack late night on frozen grapes, blueberries, popsicles, or candy if I was really craving it as explained below. I refuse to count calories but I know for what I consume in general I need to be physically active to not gain weight in the wrong places - my face and legs gain fat first.

In addition to gathering nutrients from food, I also took my regular double dose of fish oil pills, normal dose of cranberry pills, and I take a regular sized dose of time-release Adderall and a very small dose of Xanax each day - which I know sound contradictory but that’s what I’m given. I did not take any sleeping pills or melatonin, even when I couldn’t fall asleep.

I slept anywhere from 7-10 hours a night. Some nights it was easier to fall asleep than other depending on what activity I did and at what time, what I ate and drank, and how much other physical activity I had from walking or socializing that day.

The Workout / The Practice

When I did the gym part of the experiment I would do either 6-9 miles on an elliptical with 10 to 15 minutes of moderate pilates stretching or 4.2 (I’m weird with numbers) miles on the elliptical with 20 minutes of leg-focused weight-lifting and 10-15 minutes of moderate pilates stretching. The entire workout would take anywhere from an hour and 15 minutes to around 100 minutes. On the elliptical I switch up going forward for 5 minutes and backwards for 5, have an incline of 15-18 and a resistance level of 15-18. I do this cardio consistently, without intervals of sprinting. The pilates was mainly to stretch so I didn’t get tight and strengthen my core. The leg weight lifting was to combat the fact that that’s where I gain either fat or muscle the easiest. I would do 3-5 rounds (which probably isn’t the correct trainer-approved term) of 3 sets of 20 repetitions - 10 focused on the front of my legs and 10 focused on the back.

As for yoga, which I’ve come to learn is called ‘the practice’ I did 60-minute sessions of all levels welcome classes that would surprisingly and dramatically range in intensity depending on the instructor, but all fell under the title of Power Vinyasa Flow. I did every move, even if I fell over trying to do it and didn’t go down into child’s pose once without being instructed to do so. I did one day of Hot Power Vinyasa Flow, and the rest in regular, warmer than normal conditions. (And sorry but, no, I still don’t get the hype about hot yoga after that class.)

During the Workout / Practice

Working out at a gym is rewarding to me after the fact. I have to drag myself there, stare at the time continually as a change from backwards to forwards on the elliptical and try to zone out as much as possible watching mindless TV. (I tended to do these workouts in the evening so it was Seinfeld or Friends for the most part.) I find that after a little over 20 minutes of cardio I get more into what I’m doing and the endorphins start to flow. If I’m angry over something I become more relaxed and if I have a problem in my life I tend to see more angles and solutions to it. I become more empathetic of situations and others in my life as my workout intensifies. I find myself getting competitive with myself as I remain weird with numbers and trying to hit certain caloric or distance number combinations such as 420 calories or 6.66 miles.

With yoga I really felt the urge to want to go some days, figuring it was a short walk away and basically free - Yoga to the People is amazing. We begin in child’s pose and focus on breathing and to be honest that’s probably the only time my breathing is correct. I’m still learning all the poses and tend to have to look around to follow the class rather than close my eyes and focus on breathing in the correct fashion, which, yes, I know is the point of Vinyasa yoga. Perhaps because I’m still learning and trying to keep up, or simply because it’s yoga I tune out for the hour. If thoughts pop into my head they rapidly go away as I change positions - something this type of yoga is known for.

At first I was a little annoyed with all the yoga-speak that the instructors say, but the more I did it the more I learned to just let the talking continue and focus more on my poses. I do appreciate that at the end of every class the instructor talks about thanking your body and how you’ve done enough. I don’t feel like I uncover any deep unsolved mysteries or solve any problems during the practice but I do feel like it takes me away from thriving on thoughts I don’t need to be putting energy into.

After the Workout / Practice

After my gym sessions I normally felt drained. I’m sure I don’t drink enough water while working out so that’s part of it, the other part being I can’t stand to eat after working out - the look and smell of food makes me nauseous after and I’ve been that way since childhood. I feel accomplished and gross from sweating so much and just want to shower and, because I did most of this at night, have a drink and relax until I get hungry. My workouts took place in the small gym in my building so I was only an elevator ride away from those two things. The following day however I feel the effects of what I did in my legs intensely, which feels pleasurable first of all as well as extremely satisfying.

After yoga, I don’t get the same ‘yoga high’ I got the very first time I did it, but I absolutely feel more flexible. Because my mind was able to somewhat shut off for an hour I feel refreshed and like I had an extra kick in my step. Granted I did yoga on St. Marks where I walk out into madness, so how long this rejuvenated feeling lasts was mostly dictated on what was going on on that block at the time - aggressive bums, tourists walking at unbelievably slow speeds, and random police incidents were far from uncommon.

Because I have to walk .45 miles to get to yoga I find myself being more active and actually walking more throughout the day after it. I have an excessively thick, yet oh so wonderful yoga mat, so carrying that around while I ran my errands or just walked for a bit was much of an added weight-resistance workout in and of itself. The feeling of calmness and flexibility lasts throughout most of the day, however the next day I don’t see or feel any real results.

Calories, Weight Loss, Sleep, and Other Benefits & Results

I did my elliptical workouts on quick-start mode so the amount of calories burned that are displayed are clearly not in line with my body and weight. I would burn anywhere from 420 (numbers again) to 950 calories according to the machine from the elliptical part of my workout alone. I would estimate that means I really burned 300 to about 720 calories for my body type.

Over the course of 7 days I slept deeply and soundly. I found myself feeling stronger physically and more confident personally, but not necessarily in a good way. I felt like I got more of an arrogant, aggressive confidence - or maybe it’s that it just brought out an more conceited side of my personality, considering I felt better 12 hours after doing the workout. I found myself craving meat, which makes since as I’m anemic, but it got to the point that I don’t think consuming a massive steak would have satisfied the hunger. I also suddenly, and much out of character, began craving certain sweets - There were some nights I swear I NEEDED dark chocolate or black liquorice, (which, hey, is better than a cigarette, right?)

Power Vinyasa Flow yoga apparently burns approximately 594 calories per 150 pound person, with hot yoga apparently burning about 10 percent more. I’d estimate with my body I’d burn somewhere between 350 and 400 calories per class, depending on intensity. I did not gain any weight or lose any either. I slept normally, sometimes with a little trouble, but I found the later in the day I did the class, the better I’d sleep. I discovered myself gaining new muscles I didn’t know existed in my legs, specifically inner thighs, and arms since I wasn’t doing much arm work at the gym, the former which I would credit to all the side stretching and chair poses of the classes and the latter all the downward dogs. I found doing yoga made me a little more lax, or rather ‘flexible’ in my daily routine, which as a freelancer is bad, but in general is probably just the lingering effects of increased relaxation and a better ability to handle stress.

Pretzel twisting my legs post-yoga
Pretzel twisting my legs post-yoga
Kara Kamenec

As far as other benefits are concerned, I felt more in-tune with my body, and found myself craving fruits and vegetables more, which is odd as I almost always crave meat. I think I would need more time doing the practice to see if it actually helped with anxiety, but since that’s a condition I deal with daily, any anxiety reducing effects were probably just less noticeable to me than they might be to others. Oddly I did find myself going into yoga-like poses throughout my day, such as pretzel twisting my legs or doing side-body bends randomly. I also found I was more attentive at listening to podcasts and other learning materials, even something as non-educational as watching a show, perhaps meaning it helped with any ADD I may or may not have.

The Bottom Line

I’ve come to realize doing a workout at the gym and doing yoga are two very different beasts. I think both offer benefits, depending on what you’re looking for. Because this concerns physical activity, weight is of course a factor and I lost some, probably too fast, doing my gym workout, whereas with yoga I maintained my weight, all with roughly the same calories consumed.

I’ll continue to do yoga and see where it takes me, because after a straight week of this I’m seriously considering signing up for their teacher course, but I’ll also incorporate my gym workouts back into the mix. In the end, like most things in life, it’s about a decent balance - something I do not do well with as I tend to have an all or nothing state of mind - and I don’t think cutting out anything that makes you feel good is healthy or satisfying to your mind, body, or spirit… And, yes, now I’m starting to sound like I’ve done yoga too much, go figure.

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