Simply by improving our breathing, high blood pressure can be significantly reduced at any age. Recent research has found that just five to 10 minutes of daily exercise that strengthens the diaphragm and certain other muscles is enough. SciePro/Getty Images/Max Posner/NPR Hide Caption
SciePro/Getty Images/Max Posner/NPR
SciePro/Getty Images/Max Posner/NPR
It is well known that weightlifting can strengthen our biceps and quads. Now there’s growing evidence that strengthening the muscles we use to breathe is also beneficial. New research shows that a daily dose of toning the diaphragm and other respiratory muscles promotes heart health and lowers high blood pressure.
“The muscles we use to breathe, like the rest of our muscles, atrophy as we age,” explains researcher Daniel Craighead, an integrative physiologist at the University of Colorado Boulder. To test what happens when these muscles are exercised well, he and his colleagues recruited healthy volunteers aged 18 to 82 Try a five-minute daily technique with a resistance breathing machine called PowerBreathe. The handheld device – one of several on the market – looks like an inhaler. When people breathe in, the device resists, making it difficult to breathe in.
How it works
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“We found that 30 breaths a day for six weeks reduced systolic blood pressure by about 9 millimeters of mercury,” says Craighead. And those reductions are about what you might expect from traditional aerobic exercise, he says — like walking, running, or cycling.
A normal blood pressure reading is below about 120/80 mmHg, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Today, some health professionals diagnose patients with high blood pressure when their mean is consistently 130/80 mmHg or higher, the CDC notes.
The effect of a sustained 9 mmHg reduction in systolic blood pressure (the first number in the ratio) is significant, says Michael Joyner, a Mayo Clinic physician who studies how the nervous system regulates blood pressure. “That’s the kind of reduction you see with a blood pressure drug,” says Joyner. Research has shown that many common blood pressure medications result in a reduction of around 9 mmHg. The reductions are greater when people combine multiple drugs, but a 10 mmHg reduction correlates with a 35 percent decrease in the risk of stroke and a 25 percent decrease in the risk of heart disease.
Exercising also helps prevent high blood pressure
“I think it’s promising,” says Joyner about the prospects of integrating strength training for the respiratory muscles into preventive care. It could be beneficial for people who aren’t able to do traditional aerobic exercise, he says, and the simplicity is also appealing as people can easily use the device at home.
“Taking a deep breath without resistance offers a new and unconventional way to reap the benefits of exercise and physical activity,” Joyner concluded in an editorial published along with a previous study in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
So how exactly does breathing exercise lower blood pressure? Craighead points to the role of endothelial cells, which line our blood vessels and promote the production of nitric oxide – a key compound that protects the heart. Nitric Oxide helps dilate our blood vessels, promoting good blood flow, which helps prevent plaque from forming in arteries. “What we found was six weeks of IMST [inspiratory-muscle strength training] will increase endothelial function by about 45%,” explains Craighead.
Good for all ages and could help athlete endurance
It has long been known that deep diaphragmatic breathing — often used in meditation or mindfulness practices — can also help lower blood pressure. Muscle training works in a similar way with the PowerBreathe device, which addresses the respiratory muscles and promotes nitric oxide production. The particular usefulness of the IMST device, says Craighead, is that it takes less time to get the benefit because the small machine adds the resistance that gives the muscles a good workout. His research is funded by the National Institutes of Health.
The new study builds on the previous study and adds to the evidence that IMST — which is essentially strength training for the respiratory muscles — is beneficial for adults of all ages. “We were surprised to see the ubiquitous effectiveness of IMST in lowering blood pressure,” says Craighead. Before the results came in, he had suspected that young, healthy adults wouldn’t benefit as much. “But we saw robust effects,” he says, pointing to a significant drop in blood pressure in participants of all ages. He says the finding suggests that IMST could help healthy young people prevent heart disease and the rise in blood pressure that occurs with age.
There could also be benefits for elite cyclists, runners and other endurance athletes, he says, citing data showing that six weeks of IMST increased aerobic exercise tolerance by 12% in middle-aged and older adults.
“So we suspect that IMST, which consists of just 30 breaths per day, would be very helpful in endurance exercise,” says Craighead. It’s a technique that athletes could add to their training plans. Craighead, whose personal marathon best is 2 hours and 21 minutes, says he incorporated IMST as part of his own training.
The technique is not intended to replace exercise, he warns, or to replace medication for people whose blood pressure is so high that they are at high risk of a heart attack or stroke. Instead, says Craighead, “it would be a good additive intervention for people who already have other approaches to healthy living.”
This is how Theresa D. Hernandez, 61, sees the breathing exercises. She lives in Boulder with a family history of hypertension and has been involved in Colorado research. When the study began, she had blood pressure readings close to where doctors would recommend medication.
“It was a surprise that something so simple could have such a profound effect,” says Hernandez of the six-week breathing exercises. “My blood pressure dropped below the threshold, so I didn’t have to take any more medication,” she says.
Her blood pressure dropped significantly, and she says she plans to stick with it — five minutes every day.