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High blood pressure drops significantly with breathing training: injection

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Simply improving our breathing can significantly lower high blood pressure at any age. Recent research has found that exercises that strengthen the diaphragm and certain other muscles do just five to 10 minutes a day.

SciePro / Getty Images / Max Posner / NPR

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SciePro / Getty Images / Max Posner / NPR

Simply improving our breathing can significantly lower high blood pressure at any age. Recent research has found that exercises that strengthen the diaphragm and certain other muscles do just five to 10 minutes a day.

SciePro / Getty Images / Max Posner / NPR

It is well known that lifting weights can strengthen our biceps and quads. Now, there is accumulating evidence that strengthening the muscles we use for breathing is also beneficial. New research shows that a daily dose of muscle training for the diaphragm and other breathing muscles helps promote a healthy heart and reduce high blood pressure.

“The muscles we use for breathing atrophy, just like the rest of our muscles tend to do as we age,” explains researcher Daniel Craighead, an integrative physiologist at the University of Colorado Boulder. To test what happens when these muscles are given a good workout, he and his colleagues recruited healthy volunteers between the ages of 18 and 82. To try a daily five-minute technique using a resistance breathing machine called the PowerBreathe. The handheld machine – one of several on the market – looks like an inhaler. When people breathe in it, the device provides resistance, making it difficult to inhale.

How it works

Breathing force

“We found that doing 30 breaths daily for six weeks lowered systolic blood pressure by about 9 millimeters of mercury,” says Craighead. Those reductions have to do with what to expect from traditional aerobic exercise, he says — such as walking, running or biking.

A normal blood pressure reading is less than about 120/80 mm Hg, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These days, some healthcare professionals diagnose patients with high blood pressure if their average reading is consistently 130/80 mmHg or higher, notes the CDC.

The effect of a sustained 9 mmHg drop in systolic blood pressure (the first number in the ratio) is significant, says Michael Joyner, a physician at the Mayo Clinic who studies how the nervous system regulates blood pressure. “This is the kind of reduction you see with a blood pressure drug,” Joyner says. Research has shown that many common blood pressure medications lower blood pressure by about 9 mmHg. The reductions are higher when people combine several drugs, but a decrease of 10 mmHg is associated with a 35% lower risk of stroke and a 25% lower risk of heart disease.

Training helps prevent high blood pressure too

“I think it’s promising,” Joyner says of the prospects for incorporating strength training for respiratory muscles into preventative care. It might be useful for people who aren’t able to do traditional aerobic exercise, he says, and the simplicity is appealing, too, since people can easily use the device at home.

Joyner concluded in an editorial published alongside a previous study in Journal of the American Heart Association.

So how exactly Do breathing exercises lower blood pressure? Craighead points to the role of endothelial cells, which line our blood vessels and boost production of nitric oxide—a key compound that protects the heart. Nitric oxide helps widen our blood vessels, promoting good blood flow, which prevents plaque buildup in the arteries. “What we found is six weeks of IMST [inspiratory-muscle strength training] It will increase endothelial function by about 45%,” Craighead explains.

Good for all ages and can help endurance athletes

It has long been known that diaphragmatic deep breathing — often used during meditation or mindfulness practices — can help lower blood pressure, too. Muscle training with the PowerBreathe works in a similar way, engaging breathing muscles and boosting nitric oxide production. The particular benefit of the IMST machine, says Craighead, is that it takes less time to gain benefit because the small machine adds 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 how effective IMST was in lowering blood pressure,” Craighead says. Before the results came in, he suspected that healthy young adults might not benefit much. “But we did see strong effects,” he says, noting a significant reduction in blood pressure for participants of all ages. He says the findings suggest that IMST can help healthy young adults prevent the heart disease and high blood pressure that tend to develop with ageing.

There may also be benefits for cyclists, runners, and other endurance athletes, he says, citing data that six weeks of IMST increased aerobic exercise tolerance by 12% in middle-aged and older adults.

“So we suspect an IMST of just 30 breaths per day would be very helpful for endurance training,” Craighead says. It is a technique that athletes can add to their training regimens. Craighead, whose personal best marathon is 2 hours 21 minutes, says he entered the 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 risk of heart attack or stroke. Instead, Craighead says, “it would be a good additive intervention for people who already follow other healthy lifestyles.”

This is how Teresa de Hernandez, 61, sees her breathing exercises. She lives in Boulder, has a family history of high blood pressure, and has been involved in Colorado research. When the study began, she had blood pressure readings close to the threshold at which doctors would recommend medication.

“It was a surprise that something as simple as that can be so profound in terms of its impact,” Hernandez says of six weeks of breathing exercises. “It made my blood pressure below the bare minimum so I didn’t need to take medication,” she says.

Her blood pressure has dropped dramatically, and she says she plans to stick with it — five minutes every day.