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Yoga, together with regular exercise, improves heart health

The practice of yoga originated in ancient India thousands of years ago with the aim to control and still the mind. Today it is known to have benefits in terms of mental, physical and spiritual health, and is part of a regular exercise program for millions of people around the world. Its benefits include improvements in muscle strength, flexibility, energy levels and mood, but it has not often been thought of as helpful for cardiovascular health – people are usually advised to engage in vigorous aerobic exercise to improve this aspect of their wellbeing.

However, as yoga’s popularity has increased, the body of research into its benefits has grown and it has become more apparent that yoga may indeed benefit people in terms of their heart health. In one of the latest scientific studies, published in the Canadian Journal of Cardiology, researchers have conducted a three-month pilot study to determine whether patients with high blood pressure (hypertension) benefit from the inclusion of yoga exercises in their regular exercise program.

“The aim of this pilot study was to determine whether the addition of yoga to a regular exercise training regimen reduces cardiovascular risk,” explained lead investigator Dr. Paul Poirier of Laval University, Quebec, Canada. 

“While there is some evidence that yoga interventions and exercise have equal and/or superior cardiovascular outcomes, there is considerable variability in yoga types, components, frequency, session length, duration, and intensity. We sought to apply a rigorous scientific approach to identify cardiovascular risk factors for which yoga is beneficial for at-risk patients, and ways it could be applied in a healthcare setting such as a primary prevention program.”

The researchers recruited 60 participants who had been diagnosed with hypertension (high blood pressure) and metabolic syndrome, and placed them in an exercise program for three months. All participants took part in 30 minutes of aerobic exercise training five times a week. In addition, the participants were randomly assigned to a group that included 15 minutes of yoga along with the aerobic training, or to a group that did 15 minutes of stretching exercises as well as the aerobic training. 

Various data were collected from the participants at the start, and during the period of the study. Their blood pressure, anthropometry (body proportions), and levels of high-sensitivity C-reactive protein (hs-CRP), glucose and lipids were measured.  In addition, the Framingham and Reynolds Risk Scores were measured as a way of estimating each participant’s risk of experiencing a heart attack within the next 10 years. At the start of the program, there was no difference between the yoga and the stretching group in terms of age, sex, smoking rates, body mass index (BMI), resting systolic and diastolic blood pressure, resting heart rate and pulse pressure.

After the three-month intervention, all participants showed a decrease in resting systolic and diastolic blood pressure, mean arterial blood pressure and heart rate. However, while systolic blood pressure was reduced by an average of 10 mmHg in the yoga group, it was only an average of 4 mmHg lower in the group that did structured stretching exercises. Participants in the yoga group also showed reduced resting heart rates and a reduction in their 10-year cardiovascular risk, as assessed using the Reynold’s Risk score.

These results add to the scientific evidence supporting the positive health benefits of yoga practice. Although previous studies have shown that hypertensive patients who do yoga experience a lowering of blood pressure, the exact mechanism underlying this positive effect is not fully understood. This pilot randomized study shows that yoga’s benefits cannot be attributed simply to the stretching component alone.

“This study provides evidence for an additional non-pharmacologic therapy option for cardiovascular risk reduction and blood pressure control in patients with high blood pressure, in the setting of a primary prevention exercise program,” noted Dr. Poirier. “As observed in several studies, we recommend that patients try to find exercise and stress relief for the management of hypertension and cardiovascular disease in whatever form they find most appealing. Our study shows that structured yoga practices can be a healthier addition to aerobic exercise than simply muscle stretching.”

By Alison Bosman, Staff Writer

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