Five-minute breathing exercise better for heart than a workout: study

Who hates exercise? Well I hate exercise. But it’s important and has innumerable health benefits, not least of which is the effect on the heart and the risk of cardiac arrest. Taking meds is no fun either. They taste bad, they often have nasty side-effects and they’re expensive to boot.

In Australia, one in four men and one in five women have high blood pressure, according to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Long-term high blood pressure, known as hypertension, is a major risk factor for stroke, coronary artery disease, heart failure, chronic kidney disease and even dementia.

But what if there was a way you could lower your blood pressure and improve your heart health just by doing a five-minute breathing exercise? No drugs, hard work or money involved. Well there just may be.

A study published in the Journal of the American Heart Association has concluded that a five-minute intensive breathing exercise called Inspiratory Muscle Strength Training (IMST) can lower blood pressure and improve overall vascular health as well as, or even more than, aerobic exercise or medication.

Read: Beating the excuses not to exercise

IMST involves inhaling with force through a hand-held device which provides resistance, meaning you suck through a tube but the tube sucks back. It was originally developed in the 1980s as a method of helping critically ill respiratory disease patients rebuild strength in their diaphragms and in other breathing muscles.

The study involved 36 adults, aged 50 to 79 with above normal systolic pressure, who were otherwise in good health. Half the group was required to perform IMST by inhaling on the device 30 times per day, six days a week for six weeks. The remainder of the group performed a control exercise with lower resistance.

The results showed systolic blood pressure dropped nine points on average for those using IMST compared to the control group. This is a reduction that generally exceeds that achieved by walking 30 minutes a day, five days a week. That decline is also equal to the effects of some blood pressure-lowering drug regimens.

“There are a lot of lifestyle strategies that we know can help people maintain cardiovascular health as they age,” says Professor Daniel Craighead, one of the lead authors of the study and an associate research professor at the University of Colorado, in an interview with EurekAlert.

Read: Four easy exercises you can do while the kettle is boiling

“But the reality is, they take a lot of time and effort and can be expensive and hard for some people to access. IMST can be done in five minutes in your own home while you watch TV.”

The group using IMST also showed a 45 per cent improvement in what’s called ‘vascular endothelial function’. This is the ability of arteries to expand when stimulated, which is important for blood flow.

IMST also improved nitric oxide levels in participants. Nitric oxide plays a role in helping arteries dilate and prevents the build-up of plaque. Levels of nitric oxide usually decrease with age, so IMST could represent a relatively easy way for older people to retain this key molecule.

Markers of inflammation and oxidative stress, often associated with elevated heart attack risk, were significantly lower after people did IMST.

Read: Nine food and heart health myths busted

Whether or not IMST can replace full aerobic exercise or your blood pressure meds remains to be seen, but it may represent an easy-to-follow alternative. Speak with your GP if you think it could be something that helps you.

Would you be interested in trying out IMST? Do you think it could replace your workout or blood pressure meds? Why not share your thoughts in the comments section below?

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Disclaimer: This article contains general information about health issues and is not advice. For health advice, consult your medical practitioner.

Written by Brad Lockyer