We’ve been told for years that exercise is good for us and we need to get more of it in order to avoid or manage some of the most common chronic health conditions facing American adults these days including diabetes, obesity and heart disease.
Exercise, especially aerobic exercise, offers lots of benefits that can combat these conditions, says Amanda Leone, an exercise physiologist at Riverside University Health System in southern California.
Specifically, exercise can:
- Improve cardiovascular health and circulation.
- Improve blood pressure control.
- Help you manage stress.
- Improve your mood.
- Increase energy levels.
- Build stronger bones and muscles.
- Help you control your weight.
- Reduce cholesterol and triglyceride levels.
- Improve sleep.
“Exercise strengthens the muscles,” and the heart is a muscle after all, she adds, so “the better you are at staying consistent with exercise, the stronger your heart will be.” She recommends “going for walks, bike rides or swimming. Find exercises you actually like and make it a habit.”
If you’re new to exercise or have recently had heart a event, Leone recommends starting off slowly and gradually building up while working closely with your cardiology team to make sure you’re progressing at a pace that’s right for you. Eventually, you should aim for “about 30 minutes at least five days per week of exercise.”
Why Yoga Specifically?
Any exercise you enjoy and that you can stick to consistently will pay dividends for your heart, but yoga in particular might be a great option if you’re pressed for time or new to exercise. Why yoga?
Although yoga is not considered an aerobic exercise, it’s “counted as an exercise activity with profound cardiovascular impact,” says Dr. Mehrdad Rezaee, president of medical staff and chair of the cardiovascular services department at O’Connor Hospital in San Jose, California.
One of the main reasons why yoga is good for your heart is because it can work wonders on sky-high stress levels. “Stress plays a very important role in heart disease and heart attacks,” says Dr. Pratiksha Gandhi, a preventive cardiologist and founder of the Global Foundation for Preventive Cardiology, a nonprofit heart-health organization based in Los Angeles.
“Before the heart attack, we have seen there’s often a stressful event” that can serve as a trigger, she says. But if you can better manage stress and reduce its impact on your health, you may be able to prevent heart attacks and other forms of heart disease from occurring.
Proven Health Improvements
Yoga can help you reduce stress through its “focus on breathing, relaxation and meditation,” Rezaee says. These activities “decrease the overall secretion of hormones and other mediators that can increase the body’s oxidation products and inflammation. Furthermore, these hormonal activities increase the muscle stiffness that increase blood pressure and make the heart work harder.”
In other words, when you’re stressed and not active enough, the body tightens up and releases hormones that can elevate your risk for chronic health conditions such as heart disease, diabetes or even cancer.
And this risk reduction can happen fast, according a 2012 study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. That study of 86 people found lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol and higher levels of “feel good” endorphins just 10 days after participants began a yoga practice as part of the study.
Beyond decreasing stress, yoga has also been shown to impact inflammation, says Dr. Mark A. Steiner, a cardiologist with the Orlando Health Heart Institute in Orlando, Florida. “Some studies have noted lower blood levels of markers for inflammation, which contributes to heart disease. With chronic stress, the sympathetic nervous system is in overdrive, which can lead to inflammation and increased blood pressure.”
Inflammation contributes to cellular aging, a process called oxidation. A 2017 study found that 12 weeks of consistent yoga practice significantly slowed cellular aging.
Another 2017 study in the journal Frontiers in Neuroscience also found that an intensive three-month yoga retreat resulted in a marked reduction in inflammation and stress in the body. Though the 38 participants in that study were engaging in significantly more yoga than most of us probably have time for – 4 to 5 hours of sitting meditation, postural practice and chanting every day – the evidence was nonetheless compelling. Participants’ inflammatory markers were reduced, anti-inflammatory markers had increased and their levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, a protein that helps the brain make new cells and strengthens existing ones, also increased. Participants also reported feeling less anxious and depressed.
Yoga and other forms of exercise help ease the overdrive status and inflammation that the body can generate when we’re under stress by triggering the body to release endorphins and other feel-good neurotransmitters that can relax you and make you feel better overall. Gandhi refers to this process as “an entire endocrinology or hormone reset.” It’s this switching out the negative hormones for the more positive ones that can make exercise in general and yoga in particular such a powerful intervention for heart health.
These hormonal changes were observed in a 2005 study in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine which found that after just nine days, participants practicing yoga postures and breathing techniques showed improved blood sugar, cholesterol and triglyceride levels. These findings suggest a reduction in risk for diabetes and heart disease and an improvement in overall metabolic function.
In some cases, Gandhi says, you might even be able to reduce the amount of certain medications you need to be on, a statement that Rezaee agrees with. “Certainly, there are people that may need medications to treat cardiovascular and metabolic problems, but with activities such as yoga, the dosage of the medication may also be effected,” he says.
Plus, yoga teaches you to pay attention to your breathing, Leone says, which can lead to “better oxygen circulation and nutrient-rich blood reaching your entire body.”
This focus on breath also helps you “find your center through breath or meditation, which quiets the nervous system and in turn lowers blood pressure, heart rate and controls respiration,” she adds. A 2019 meta-analysis in the Mayo Clinic Proceedings found that yoga can be an effective therapy for hypertensive adults. The biggest results were noted when breathing techniques and meditation or mental relaxation are included along with poses.
Because yoga is gentler than some other types of exercise, it may be easier for you to engage with it more frequently or consistently than other exercises such as running or cycling. What’s more, yoga is a great exercise at any age and can be modified for your ability level, Leone says. “The movements are gentle, slow and smooth and can be done in a chair. But even so, “you’re building strength and endurance at the same time.”
The Emotional Benefits of Yoga
Another reason why building a regular practice of yoga to support heart health can be so powerful is because it creates a “union of the body, mind and soul,” Gandhi says.
“It’s one thing to look at symptoms and treat the physical aspect of it. But when we add a yoga practice, it has this effect on the mind” that helps ratchet down stress and help you reconnect with yourself. “With yoga we’re going to the root cause of the problem, the chronic emotional trap,” she says.
This integration of mind, body and soul gives you the space to slow down and release the stress and emotional turmoil that can build up. Releasing those negative emotions and sensations can in turn reduce inflammation, blood pressure and improve other indicators of overall and heart health, she explains.
“When you’re always in a hurry, that builds anxiety and restlessness. A yoga practice starts by calming your mind. It reduces anxiety and helps cultivate positivity. It can reduce depression,” and may even help you manage your emotions better, she adds.
Taken all together, it seems clear that, “the impact of yoga done on regular basis, goes beyond blood pressures and has been established to affect other metabolic processes such as cholesterol and blood sugar levels,” Rezaee says.
Indeed, “yoga is not merely a few postures, but a holistic lifestyle that promotes physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being,” Steiner says. Though “more studies are needed to determine the full benefits of yoga and heart health, there’s good evidence that both yoga and a good aerobic exercise program are an important part of our heart health.”
Creating a Holistic, Heart-Healthy Lifestyle
In addition to establishing a regular yoga practice, follow these tips to build a lifestyle that supports overall heart health.
- Eat a heart-healthy, plant-based diet. “Make your plate colorful with fruits and vegetables,” Leone says. “A healthy diet with regular exercise can make a difference in heart disease.”
- Exercise aerobically. If you’ve had a heart attack or other cardiac event recently, follow your doctor’s orders regarding cardiac rehabilitation. Eventually, you should be aiming for at least 20 to 30 minutes of exercise at least three to four times per week. In all cases, work with your health care provider to determine the right mix of exercises, frequency and intensity for your specific situation.
- Manage your weight. Carrying extra weight, particularly fat deposits around the abdomen, can be a risk factor for developing heart disease. If you’re overweight, dropping some excess pounds could reduce your risk and keep your heart healthier longer.
- Avoid tobacco and illicit drugs. Smoking has been linked with heart disease and illegal drugs such as cocaine can have a disastrous impact on the heart. Steer clear and protect your heart.
- Get enough sleep. Insomnia and sleep apnea, two conditions that can seriously disrupt your ability to get enough, good-quality sleep, have both been linked with heart disease. If you’re having trouble sleeping, talk with your doctor about ways to address sleep issues.
- Manage your overall stress level. Yoga can go a long way toward helping you manage stress, but sometimes you just have to say no to too many commitments. If you’ve recently been diagnosed with heart disease, take a careful look at your work-life balance and the responsibilities you have on your plate. See what you can offload to create more time and space for relaxation and self-care.
- Get support from loved ones. “Having positive support from friends and family will motivate you to stay on track,” Leone says. It’s hard to go it alone, so recruit support from loved ones to help you stay the course and prioritize your health.