Breathing deeply has long been viewed as an important part of relaxation and is often used in meditation and yoga to help relieve stress, increase oxygen levels in the blood, and benefit our overall mental and emotional well-being. Now there’s new research showing that daily breath work may also be helpful in promoting heart health and reducing high blood pressure.
A study recently published in the Journal of Applied Physiology, which was conducted by teams at the University of Colorado Boulder and the University of Arizona, showed that a daily regimen of breath training for the diaphragm (the core muscle responsible for breathing), helps to boost heart health and lower blood pressure.
As part of the new study, researchers examined what happens when you give your diaphragm and other breathing muscles a workout using a resistance breathing technique with the assistance of a handheld machine called PowerBreathe. The machine forces the lungs and breathing muscles to work harder to catch a breath, a process that's believed to give muscles a workout and build their strength overall.
Here's a closer look at why that process helps promote heart health and improves blood pressure and how to integrate breath training into your daily routine.
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Breath Training Leads to Improvement Within Two Weeks
Volunteers who took part in the new study were healthy individuals between the ages of 18 to 82. Participants were asked to try a daily breath training technique using the PowerBreathe device that involved taking 30 breaths per day with the machine for six weeks. Each participant had their blood pressure measured before and after the study.
Researchers found within two weeks of using the device participants experienced improvements. And by the end of the six-week trial, the improvement was even more notable, specifically the systolic blood pressure among participants engaged in breath training lowered by 9 mmHG and diastolic blood pressure was lowered by 4 mmHG. For reference, a normal blood pressure reading is less than about 120/80 mmHG, says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
The reduction in blood pressure realized during the study is important because research shows that lowering the systolic blood pressure by 10 mmHG or the diastolic blood pressure by 5 mm HG reduces the risk of stroke by about 35 percent, and the risk of ischemic heart disease by about 25 percent at the age of 65.
Furthermore, the type of blood pressure reduction seen in the study is similar to what can be achieved with 30 minutes per day of aerobic exercise. But with breath work, the results were achieved in five to 10 minutes, making it incredibly efficient.
“This study asked a thoughtful question about an important issue that impacts many adults,” Neha Mehta MD, a practicing physician who specializes in pulmonary, critical care, and sleep medicine in the Southern California area, told Health. “It was a well-designed retrospective study that intended to validate prior findings of the positive effects that this non-pharmacologic therapy, specifically inspiratory muscle strength training, has on reducing cardiovascular risk.”
Previously, the type of results achieved in the study typically involved the assistance of common blood pressure medications. Researchers indicated that the results show breath training can be as effective as taking such medications.
"The study suggests that there is in fact a signal that inspiratory muscle strength training can improve blood pressure, and therefore reduce overall cardiovascular disease," said Mehta.
Exercise Is Still Important
Daniel Craighead, an integrative physiologist who led the study, told Health that the breath work identified in the study is not meant to replace exercise, nor is it something that people should start without consulting with their doctor.
However, he suggests that if this type of resistance training was maintained, blood pressure reductions on this scale would lower cardiovascular disease by about 30 percent.
"We found that initial reductions in blood pressure occur within two weeks, meaning inspiratory muscle strength training lowers blood pressure rapidly," said Craighead. "Additionally, blood pressure continued to decline across the six week intervention. This would suggest that training for longer than six weeks would lower blood pressure even more."
The device used in the study is the PowerbreatheK3, which costs about $500. But there are many other similar devices available online.
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Who Would Benefit From Breath Training Practice?
With such a wide range of people tested, it seems that this type of breath training does not discriminate when it comes to who might benefit.
The sample study included people with low to moderate cardiovascular disease, including those with normal blood pressure, just above normal blood pressure, those with obstructive sleep apnea, and even those who were taking blood pressure medications and some who were not. In other words, anyone is a candidate for this type of training. The efficiency of the training helps to make it widely accessible for all ages and lifestyles, as well.
"We saw how much food pressure dropped with training was only minimally impacted by age, sex, BMI, and use of antihypertensive medications," said Craighead. "We had adults aged 18 to 82 years in our study. This suggests that inspiratory muscle strength training is an effective healthy lifestyle intervention for most adults."
Mehta suggested that further studies with a larger sample size and those who already have established cardiovascular disease may be needed to confirm the same benefits of inspiratory muscle strength training across a wider group of people.
Beyond the medical benefits, IMST may also be beneficial to help the performance of athletes. Craighead worked on a previous study that found that high-resistance IMST showed an increase in exercise tolerance.
"Inspiratory muscle strength training is non-invasive and generally non harmful. In a time where we are always looking for something quick and easy that we can apply in our daily lives, this could hold promise in helping to prevent cardiovascular disease, when also combined with other healthy habits that are important, like diet and exercise," added Mehta.