Yoga and Your Heart: Here Is How It Can Help

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Yoga has been around in India for years. It is well known to help maintain health, enhance spirituality and preserve vitality.

In the recent years, the role of yoga has extended from maintaining overall health to maintaining specific organ health. Heart health is one such aspect.

Currently, the American Heart Association recommends that all individuals perform at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise (such as aerobic exercises – running, brisk walking, swimming etc.) a week. Yoga, while being a form of exercise, does not count towards this number.

Why Perform Yoga?

Well, yoga has a number of different health benefits and can maintain health despite our current lifestyle choices. These days, we are prone to be exposed to stress, lead poor lifestyles devoid of exercise and eat unhealthy food. It is rarely that we have a positive outlook towards life, and allow our daily stresses and emotions to rule our very souls.

bigstock-Indian-Girl-on-morning-exercis-27643658These negative factors in turn translate into negative effects on the heart and the mind. In situations of stress, many of us turn to the bottle (start drinking alcohol) or start smoking. Some even resort to illegal recreational substances, just so that they can escape their stresses for a short while at least.

Yoga is currently believed to help restore a balance in the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual aspects of an individual. It does so by altering the release of certain chemicals in the brain (cortisol and catecholamines), preparing the body for any form of stress and anxiety. In turn, over time, this can help an individual better manage their overall health.

Yoga may have numerous other health benefits –

  • It reduces mental stress
  • It reduces heart rate
  • It reduces blood pressure
  • It increases immunity and ability to fight infections
  • It maintains blood sugar levels
  • It reduces inflammation (which in turn can reduce atherosclerosis)
  • Improves balance

Can Yoga Help Keep Your Heart Healthy?

There has been much debate of the true benefits of yoga on the heart and blood vessels. The benefits which we have mentioned above are possibly true, but there does not appear to be a lot of clinical evidence supporting them.

One of the reasons why many of us do yoga is to keep ourselves healthy and to prevent heart disease. But for some reason or another, many believe that just performing regular yoga should protect them from heart disease completely.

In a recent review that looked at 11 different clinical studies, a total of 800 patients who tried different kinds of yoga were assessed (Hartley, 2014). The benefits that were noted include –

  • A reduction in diastolic blood pressure. This is the lower number in blood pressure.
  • A reduction in total cholesterol levels
  • An increase in HDL cholesterol, which is the good cholesterol
  • A reduction in triglyceride levels

There was no difference noted in the LDL (bad cholesterol) levels. LDL cholesterol is harmful and high levels are associated with an increased chance of developing atherosclerosis and heart disease. Most treatments that are given to patients these days are aimed at bringing down this LDL cholesterol. Individuals with high LDL who are performing yoga may still need treatment.

There are a number of conflicting studies.

One study published by Tyagi et al (Tyagi, 2014) looked at nearly 7000 people who performed regular yoga, concentrating on the effect it had on the blood pressure. It appeared from the study that the benefit is clearly there – yoga can reduce blood pressure in patients with high BP.

In patients with heart disease, the benefits of yoga in managing those with coronary artery disease and heart failure are weak at the most (Cramer H, 2014). It does not appear to improve quality of life, future death from heart disease or exercise capacity.

Most of the studies that have looked at yoga and the heart are poorly designed, making the results rather unreliable. The reliable ones that have a reasonably strong scientific base have shown varying benefit.

There are of course different kinds of yoga, and each of them can place the body under different levels of stress. Hatha yoga, which describes the physical aspect of yoga (includes Asana and Pranayama) has been shown to be equivalent to a very slow walk on the treadmill (around 3 km/hr).

If performed for just 10 minutes or so, this would not really be sufficient to enhance or improve cardiovascular fitness in any way. However, combining it with other postures and extending the yoga session can have positive effects on the overall fitness of unfit individuals (Hagins, 2007).

In 2012, a scientific group attempted to study the benefits of yoga in patients who had already been diagnosed with heart disease. In other words, they were looking at studies that looked at ‘secondary prevention’.  They looked at a number of different published studies, searching for the answer to the question – ‘does yoga have benefit in reducing heart disease or death from heart disease after a patient has been diagnosed with it?’

Unfortunately, there were no suitable trials for them to study, and the research had to be abandoned.

So the question is this – does performing yoga after being diagnosed with heart disease help prevent further attacks in the future? The available studies have not shown any clear benefit, but studies are ongoing and the results will no doubt be interesting.

What Is The Likely Belief?

Yoga has no doubt been received in a positive manner all over the world, with millions of people practicing it every day.

While yoga has a number of different benefits, we do not believe that it is sufficient as a single form of exercise to prevent heart disease and high blood pressure.

Yoga is excellent as a way to manage stress. But if one is looking to reduce blood pressure, combining it with other strategies such as cardiovascular exercise is essential. This could include brisk walking, jogging, swimming, cycling etc.

If you are not using yoga as a way to relax yourself and to get yourself healthy, its most certainly time to start.

References

1. Hartley, L., Dyakova, M., Holmes, J., Clarke, A., Lee, M. S., Ernst, E., & Rees, K. (2014). Yoga for the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease. status and date: New, published in, (5).

2.Tyagi, A., & Cohen, M. (2014). Yoga and hypertension: a systematic review. Alternative therapies in health and medicine, 20(2), 32-59.

3.Hagins M, Moore W, Rundle A. Does practicing hatha yoga satisfy recommendations for intensity of physical activity which improves and maintains health and cardiovascular fitness?. BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine 2007; 7:40.

4. Cramer H, Lauche R, Haller H, Dobos G, Michalsen A. A systematic review of yoga for heart disease. Eur J Prev Cardio. 2014;0(00):1-12

Dr Vivek Baliga B
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Dr Vivek Baliga B

Consultant Internal Medicine And Cardiovascular Sciences at Baliga Diagnostics Pvt Ltd
Dr Baliga is a consultant in Internal Medicine and Cardiology with an interest in diabetes and cardiovascular disease. He received his training in India and the UK where he completed his post graduate training and his doctorate. He then completed his MBA from University of Phoenix, USA. He has completed the post graduate program in Cardiology from Johns Hopkins University and participated in the Advanced Certificate Course in Diabetes from the Cleveland Clinic, USA. He also holds a Post Graduate Diploma in Lipid Management from Middlesex University, UK. He is the managing partner of Baliga Diagnostics, Bangalore. He is also the founder of HeartSense and is a keen advocate of patient empowerment, having written almost every article on this website and more. In his spare time, he enjoys running and spending time with his son. Find Dr Vivek Baliga on LinkedIn here - http://heartsense.in/linkedin.
Dr Vivek Baliga B
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