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Study: Conventional Stretching Exercises Just as Effective as Yoga

A new study, believed to be one of the largest ever conducted, has found that conventional stretching exercises are as effective in relieving lower back pain as yoga, which discounts the popularly held notion that yoga is superior to other forms of exercise.

According to Science Daily, the new study was funded by the National Institutes of Health's National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine and was published online Monday in the Archives of Internal Medicine. It was designed by Karen J. Sherman, Ph.D., M.P.H., from Group Health Research Institute, Seattle, and colleagues to determine whether yoga is more effective than conventional stretching exercises or a self-care book for primary care patients with chronic low back pain.

A total of 228 adults with chronic low back pain were split into three groups, with some attending 12 weekly yoga classes, others participating in conventional stretching exercise classes and another group using a self-care book that provided information on causes of back pain and advice on exercising, lifestyle modifications and managing flare-ups. The patients were all interviewed at various points in the program to assess their condition.

"Back-related dysfunction declined over time in all groups," the authors report. Compared with the self-care group, the yoga group reported superior function at 12 and 26 weeks and the stretching group reported superior function at six, 12 and 26 weeks.

"There were no statistically or clinically significant differences between the yoga and stretching groups" at any time point, the authors note.

"We found that physical activity involving stretching, regardless of whether it is achieved using yoga or more conventional exercises, has moderate benefits in individuals with moderately impairing low back pain. Finding similar effects for both approaches suggests that yoga's benefits were largely attributable to the physical benefits of stretching and strengthening the muscles and not to its mental components."

The type of yoga used in the study was viniyoga, a form of hatha yoga that adapts exercises for each person's physical condition. The stretching classes involved 15 stretches targeting the lower back and legs.

This study discounts earlier findings in smaller studies that suggested yoga, which involves stretching exercises along with deep breathing and other relaxation techniques, is better than other forms of stretching exercises.

It also makes it easier for those who are uncomfortable with the spiritual component of yoga being introduced in schools and gyms to prove that conventional stretching exercises are not only just as good, but are more suitable because they come without the religious baggage.