The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends doing regular aerobic exercise of moderate intensity on most days of the week to promote overall health. In addition, experts also advise doing some muscle strengthening exercises at least twice a week for additional health benefits. For people who are overweight or obese, with high blood cholesterol levels or elevated blood pressure, heart specialists suggest doing about 40 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity aerobic exercises three or four times a week to promote heart health.
These standards may not be too easy for most people to follow, especially for those who are busy with work, those who have been living a sedentary lifestyle, or those who have some health condition that limits their ability to be physically active. The good news is that several studies show that intense physical training or long periods of exercise are not the only ways one can take care of their heart. These studies reveal some "promising evidence" that the mind-body technique popularly known as yoga is also beneficial in managing heart health and improving many risk factors associated with heart disease. In fact, authors agree that yoga is a potentially effective treatment for cardiovascular conditions.
The Benefits Of Yoga
Ancient Indian tradition teaches us that yoga practice is based on the belief that the body is one with the mind. It combines physical exercise (through postures) with proper breathing and meditation. Therefore, it does not only improve physical health by promoting strength, stability and flexibility, but also reduces stress and calms the spirit.
The beauty of yoga lies in the fact that it can be done anytime, anywhere, by almost anyone. Even seniors and people with limited physical capability can practice some form of yoga and benefit from it. One can do simple to more challenging postures while standing, sitting, lying down, or on a headstand position. However, health experts do not count yoga exercises towards fulfilling physical activity requirements, which consist of moderate intensity aerobic activity (150 minutes of per week).
A review of several European and American studies, however, show that compared to no exercise, yoga is an effective, low-cost prevention strategy against cardiovascular disease. Furthermore, the review also found that its benefits are comparable to exercise in preventing or reversing heart disease.
The researchers who reviewed 37 randomized controlled trials that included almost 3000 participants also found that practicing yoga may have the same benefits in reducing risk factors to heart disease as conventional exercises such as brisk walking or biking. They believe this is a significant finding, especially for individuals who cannot or prefer not to do the more strenuous aerobic exercises for health.
The meta-analysis found that compared to no exercise, practicing yoga was associated with improvements in:
- Body mass index (BMI), a measure of body fat
- Systolic blood pressure
- Bad (LDL) cholesterol levels
- Good (HDL) cholesterol levels
- Total cholesterol
- Heart rate
Participants who practiced yoga in addition to taking medications for cardiovascular disease also experienced a significant improvement in their risk factors. However, the scientists found no difference in benefits in terms of lowering blood sugar levels, a risk factor involved in diabetes.
Yoga Versus Aerobic Exercise
Investigators who reviewed the results of various international studies on yoga also found that in comparison with aerobic exercise, yoga has similar benefits on cardiac risk factors. They noted that this might be due to yoga's impact on stress reduction, which has a positive impact on neuroendocrine metabolic and cardiac function. Their finding suggests that yoga may have similar mechanisms as aerobic exercise in bringing about the health benefits, including its relaxation and stress-reducing effects.
According to Professor Myriam Hunink, the study’s senior author, it is still unclear how yoga exerts its benefits on cardiovascular health, but evidence is growing, showing that the relative costs and benefits of yoga are comparable to exercise and medication. In addition, yoga is acceptable as an alternative treatment, especially to patients who have low tolerance for physical activity, such as the elderly.
Yoga and Heart Health
Although the practice of yoga does not count as aerobic exercise, which one must do at least 150 minutes per week for overall health, experts like M. Mala Cunningham, Ph.D., founder of Cardiac Yoga believe that yoga can help prevent or even reverse heart disease. When practiced in combination with a healthy lifestyle, traditional yoga can promote physical, emotional and mental well-being. According to Cunningham, a yoga instructor for 40 years, yoga can help:
- improve muscle tone
- boost circulation
- lower blood pressure
- increase lung capacity
- improve respiratory function
- improve heart rate
- increase strength
- reduce stress
One study, involving more than 15,000 participants, showed that practicing yoga can help people shed excess pounds. Aside from burning calories, yoga also promotes mindfulness, which reinforces healthy habits that include proper eating habits.
Healthy individuals may benefit greatly by combining a healthy lifestyle, which consists of a balanced diet and regular exercise, and yoga to achieve physical mental and emotional health. However, for people who cannot engage in moderate or strenuous physical exercise, yoga offers an alternative form of therapy that may still help increase physical strength, flexibility and stability, at the same time promoting respiratory and cardiovascular function.
For people who have experienced a cardiac event such as a heart attack or cardiac arrest, emotional stress may have adverse effects on the heart. Patients who have undergone bypass surgery may also experience depression, anxiety and grief, which are common in people who have chronic disease. In these cases, yoga can help calm these emotions, promote relaxation and improve a patient’s blood pressure and cholesterol levels. When practiced regularly, yoga can lead to long-term improvement of overall health and functionality.
Cunningham advises patients who are obese, diabetic or suffering from heart disease to consult a doctor before initiating a yoga program and to seek help from a qualified instructor who is trained in cardiac yoga. Patients may contact their local cardiac rehabilitation center for more information on how to practice yoga for cardiac health.