A simple breathing exercise can lower blood pressure, improve vascular health, and reduce your risks of developing major cardiovascular disease in just five minutes each day — roughly the time it takes to take 30 deep breaths.
It almost sounds like advertising (and we haven’t even mentioned how you can accomplish this from the comfort of your own home, on the couch while watching TV).
This, however, is not a joke. According to a recent study, it’s the genuine deal: a very handy and simple-to-implement approach that has the potential to enhance the health of millions of individuals, particularly older folks with high blood pressure and cardiovascular issues.
“We have found a unique kind of therapy that reduces blood pressure without the use of pharmaceutical substances and with far higher adherence than aerobic exercise,” explains integrative physiologist Doug Seals of the University of Colorado Boulder.
It’s called Inspiratory Muscle Strength Training (IMST), and it’s a type of physical training that uses a portable device that produces resistance as you inhale through it to strengthen the diaphragm and other breathing muscles (kind of like an asthma puffer that works against you).
IMST was developed decades ago to assist critically sick respiratory illness patients in strengthening their independent breathing capabilities while utilising just mild or moderate resistance in the device.
However, recent research has shown that the same technique, when combined with high resistance and performed in short sessions of only five minutes per day, can provide a variety of health benefits, including improved sleep in patients with sleep apnea, lower blood pressure, and reduced stress perception.
To go further, a team lead by integrative physiologist Daniel Craighead from the University of Colorado Boulder performed a six-week clinical experiment in which 36 healthy people aged 50 to 79 tried IMST.
In this cohort, half of the participants were randomly allocated to conduct high-resistance IMST, which involves inhaling through devices that make it much more difficult, giving your respiratory muscles a higher-intensity exercise.
The other half of the sample received IMST for six weeks as well, but it was a placebo: a fake therapy that employed low-resistance versions of the device.
Aside from that significant change, the experiment was identical for all groups: use the device to inhale 30 times each day, in five-minute sessions, six days a week for six weeks.
After six weeks, the treatment group employing high-resistance IMST had substantial reductions in systolic blood pressure (SBP), which were larger than or equivalent to those seen with other healthy lifestyle measures, such as aerobic exercise and some blood pressure-lowering medicines.
“This improvement in SBP is clinically important since it is linked with a 30% to 40% decreased risk of mortality from cardiovascular disease,” the researchers write in their paper, noting that the effects remained for several weeks after the trial was completed.
“The drop in casual SBP was significantly sustained after six weeks of IMST abstinence, with approximately 75% of the initial reduction preserved.”
Furthermore, the IMST group observed substantial increases in vascular endothelial function, indicating that their artery health had improved (although arterial stiffness remained unaltered in such a short experiment), as well as reduced indicators of systemic inflammation.
While the researchers may not completely understand all of the processes by which high-resistance IMST provides these advantages, it is conceivable that the breathing exercises cause the cells lining blood vessels to create more nitric oxide, which relaxes muscles and increases blood flow.
The researchers think that a longer-lasting intervention might produce even more spectacular outcomes, but they also admit that their work has to be reproduced in a broader experimental environment before we can learn more.
While high-resistance IMST cannot be widely advised until the outcomes of bigger research are known, what is definite is that the approach appears simple to implement: The study’s 95 percent of participants completed all necessary from their 5-minute workout sessions, and no one dropped out.
That high degree of adherence – offered by the simplicity and comfort of doing something for only a few minutes a day – is worth remembering, considering that adults’ adherence to the usually suggested 30 minutes of physical exercise per day is significantly lower – estimated by one research to be as low as 5%.
“Taking a deep, resisted breath offers a new and unusual method to create the advantages of exercise and physical activity,” write Mayo Clinic researchers Michael Joyner and Sarah Baker in a commentary on the findings.
The study’s findings have been published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.