According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, nearly half of American adults have hypertension, aka high blood pressure. Lifestyle changes can be made to help control it, such as losing weight, eating a healthy, low-sodium diet, and getting more exercise. However, many of us also have to use medication.
With hypertension being such a common issue, the scientific community has been diligently studying the situation. And research suggests there’s another way to reduce high blood pressure that doesn’t have anything to do with medication or major lifestyle changes.
Instead, the study indicates that training our diaphragm and other breathing muscles can help promote heart health and reduce high blood pressure.
How Breath Training Works
The Journal of Applied Physiology recently published a study about “high-resistance inspiratory muscle strength training (IMST)” and how it lowers blood pressure. Just like weightlifting at the gym can strengthen our triceps and glutes, the idea behind this study was that strengthening the muscles we use to breathe could have BP-lowering effects.
After five pilot trials in healthy adults aged 18-82 years, researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder wrote that the results “provide the strongest evidence to date that high-resistance IMST evokes clinically significant reductions in SBP (systolic blood pressure) and DBP (diastolic blood pressure) and increases in PIMAX (maximal inspiratory mouth pressures), in adult men and women.”
Integrative physiologist Daniel Craighead explained to NPR that “the muscles we use to breathe atrophy, just like the rest of our muscles tend to do as we get older.” To find out what happens when you give your breathing muscles a workout, Craighead and his fellow researchers tested volunteers using a device called PowerBreathe for five minutes per day.
This hand-held machine is a breathing trainer that looks similar to an inhaler. When you breathe into it, the PowerBreathe creates resistance to make your diaphragm and other breathing muscles work harder.
“We found that doing 30 breaths per day for six weeks lowers systolic blood pressure by about 9 millimeters of mercury,” Craighead said. He noted that kind of reduction would be expected with walking, cycling, and other forms of conventional aerobic exercise.
It’s also the kind of reduction you could see from taking a blood pressure drug, according to Dr. Michael Joyner—a Mayo Clinic physician who studies how the nervous system regulates blood pressure.
In addition to lowering blood pressure, breath training with a PowerBreathe could possibly help prevent hypertension. Joyner wrote in the Journal of the American Heart Association that he believes the prospects of using this technique in preventive care are “promising”—especially for people who aren’t able to do traditional aerobic exercise.
He also pointed out what’s really appealing about this method—it’s so easy. Dr. Joyner explained that giving your breathing muscles a workout with high-resistance IMST “offers a new and unconventional way to generate the benefits of exercise and physical activity.”
Benefits Of Breath Training Surprised Researchers
Breath training may be new to the world of hypertension treatments, but strength training the breathing muscles through deep diaphragmatic breathing has long been used during meditation and mindfulness practices.
This is why high-resistance IMST using a small machine like the PowerBreathe could actually benefit adults of all ages, no matter their health status. But just how big that benefit was came as a surprise to researchers.
“We were surprised to see how ubiquitously effective IMST is at lowering blood pressure,” Craighead said, adding they “saw robust effects” in study participants of all ages. He noted that these results could indicate that IMST may help prevent heart disease and high blood pressure that tends to happen when we age.
If you happen to be an elite, endurance athlete, Craighead also noted that six weeks of IMST could be very helpful in increasing aerobic exercise tolerance.
If you’re thinking that breath training can replace exercise, though, that’s not the case. It shouldn’t necessarily replace your medication, either, Craighead warns. This is definitely a discussion to have with your doctor. Especially when your blood pressure is so elevated that you’re at high risk of having a heart attack or stroke.
Instead, the researcher says, “it would be a good additive intervention for people who are doing other healthy lifestyle approaches already.”
Still, the initial research looks promising, and for just five minutes a day, considering adding the PowerBreathe to your health routine may be worth it.