Study: Breathing Exercise Lowers Blood Pressure As Well As Exercise, Medications

The practice may be especially beneficial for postmenopausal women, who do not reap as many benefits from aerobic exercise programs as men in analyses of vascular endothelial function.

A 5-minute breathing exercise can lower blood pressure just as well as increased aerobic exercise or pharmaceutical treatments, according to researchers at the University of Colorado (UC) Boulder.

The study, published in the Journal of the American Heart Association, provides the strongest evidence yet that high-resistance inspiratory muscle strength training (IMST) could help aging adults lower their blood pressure and prevent cardiovascular disease., according to the authors. The study noted that 65% of American adults over 50 years of age have above-normal blood pressure, yet fewer than 40% meet recommended aerobic exercise guidelines.

“There are a lot of lifestyle strategies we know can help people maintain cardiovascular health as they age. But the reality is, they take a lot of time and effort and can be hard for some people to access,” said lead author Daniel Craighead, PhD, an assistant research professor in the Department of Integrative Physiology at UC Boulder, in a press release. “IMST can be done in 5 minutes in your own home while you watch TV.”

IMST was developed in the 1980s as part of an effort to help strengthen the diaphragms of critically ill patients with respiratory diseases. The exercise involves inhaling vigorously through a hand-held device that provides resistance.

It was initially recommended as a 30-minute-per-day regimen at low resistance, but researchers have been testing whether a more time-efficient protocol could also have benefits for cardiovascular health, cognitive ability, and athletic performance. This shorter protocol involves 30 inhalations per day at high resistance, done 6 days per week.

For their study, researchers recruited 36 otherwise healthy adults between 50 and 79 years of age with above normal systolic blood pressure. Half of these patients did high-resistance IMST for 6 weeks, whereas the other half did a placebo protocol in which the resistance was much lower.

After 6 weeks, researchers found that the high-resistance group saw an average 9-point decrease in systolic blood pressure. This reduction generally exceeds reductions achieved by walking 30 minutes a day, 5 days per week and is equal to the effects of some medications used to lower blood pressure, according to the study authors. Even 6 weeks after they stopped doing IMST, this group maintained most of that improvement.

“We found [that] not only is it more time-efficient than traditional exercise programs, but the benefits may be longer lasting,” Craighead said in the press release.

The treatment group also saw a 45% improvement in vascular endothelial function and a significant increase in levels of nitric oxide, which is key to the dilation of arteries and the prevention of plaque buildup. Nitric oxide levels naturally decline with age, according to the study.

Furthermore, the research team noted that inflammation and oxidative stress markers were significantly lower in the group that did IMST for 6 weeks, suggesting a lower risk of heart attacks. They also found that those in the IMST group completed 95% of the sessions, which is a significantly higher adherence level than physical exercise.

“We have identified a novel form of therapy that lowers blood pressure without giving people pharmacological compounds and with much higher adherence than aerobic exercise,” said senior author Doug Seals, PhD, a distinguished professor of integrative physiology at UC Boulder, in the press release. “That’s noteworthy.”

The practice may be especially beneficial for postmenopausal women, according to the study. Earlier research found that postmenopausal women who are not taking supplemental estrogen do not reap as many benefits from aerobic exercise programs as men when analyzing vascular endothelial function. The new study, however, found that IMST improved it just as much in women as in men.

“If aerobic exercise won’t improve this key measure of cardiovascular health for postmenopausal women, they need another lifestyle intervention that will,” Craighead said in the press release. “This could be it.”

REFERENCE

5-minute breathing workout lowers blood pressure as much as exercise, drugs. News release. UC Boulder; June 29, 2021. Accessed August 11, 2021. https://www.colorado.edu/today/2021/06/29/5-minute-breathing-workout-lowers-blood-pressure-much-exercise-drugs

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