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Yoga is Good for Your Heart New Research Concludes
Wondering how to best prevent heart disease and stroke as you get older—without drugs and unwanted side effects? Consider taking up a regular yoga practice.
According to a new review and meta-analysis of 44 randomized studies on the effects of yoga, a regular yoga practice can help to reduce many of the leading risks for heart disease and stroke, such as stress, obesity, depression, and hypertension.
Approximately 80% of the risk factors for cardiovascular disease are modifiable, meaning that they can be greatly affected by changes in lifestyle. The most notable of these risk factors includes high blood pressure (hypertension), abdominal obesity, hyperglycemia and hyperlipidemia.
It is estimated that more than 13 million Americans practice yoga with the express purpose of improving their health. Now physicians are beginning to recommend yoga as a means of reducing cardiovascular disease risk.
Many studies provide evidence that yoga can reduce a number of factors related to heart disease and stroke such as stress, obesity, depression, and hypertension. A study in the International Journal of Cardiology provides a systematic review and analysis of the research to see which of these risk factors might be directly influenced by yoga practice.
The fact that this is a meta-analysis and review of several studies is particularly significant. Reviews and meta-analyses examine all of the current research regarding a particular topic with the goal of obtaining some consensus regarding the current scientific evidence.
In this case, researchers examined all of the published studies worldwide in which participants were randomized to either yoga or a control group for the purposes of changing their risk for heart disease or stroke. Participants included both healthy individuals and those with a previously identified risk for heart disease (hypertension, obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, etc.).
The authors analyzed the findings of 44 articles of randomized controlled trials published between 1989 and 2013 in which yoga was tested as a form of therapy. Nineteen of these studies were conducted in India, 8 in the USA, 3 each from the United Kingdom and South Korea, 2 each from Australia and Iran, and 1 each from China, Cuba, Jamaica, Japan, Sweden, Taiwan and Thailand.
Of the studies reviewed, 21 included healthy participants, 11 involved individuals with type 2 diabetes, and 12 included those without diabetes but with risk factors for cardiovascular disease including hypertension, metabolic syndrome, obesity, dyslipidemia, and impaired fasting glucose. All but 4 studies included adults only.
As is typical in yoga research, there was a great deal of variability in the type of yoga practiced, as well as the amount of yoga (dosage) received. Of the 20 studies that specifically identified which style of yoga was used, 7 reported using Hatha Yoga, and the remaining 13 used a variety of traditions including Iyengar, Ashtanga, Restorative, Silver, Sudarshan Kriya, and Kundalini Yoga, Viniyoga, and others.
The duration of yoga programs ranged widely from 3 weeks to 12 months. Practices ranged from daily to weekly, and from as little as 35 minutes to as long as 2 hours. Thirty studies compared yoga to typical care or no treatment, 12 used an exercise control group, and 6 used educational or psychological treatment as a control condition.
Yoga is Safe and Effective
Overall, the benefits of yoga compared to other conditions were convincing. Compared to usual care or no treatment, those in the yoga group showed significant reductions in heart and respiration rates, systolic and diastolic blood pressure, total cholesterol, HDL, VLDL, triglycerides, and insulin resistance, as well as a significantly reduced waste circumference and waist to hip ratio. Many of these findings were consistent for both healthy individuals as well as those at high risk for heart disease and stroke.
In terms of dosage, effects were most pronounced for yoga programs that were exactly 12 weeks in duration. Interestingly, fewer effects were found not only for yoga programs of shorter duration, but also for longer programs as well.
Generally speaking, the safety of these yoga programs was insufficiently addressed in the research literature. Of those studies that did provide data, only minor incidents were reported, suggesting that these types of yoga were safe for healthy and risk populations of participants.
The authors caution that the large majority of these studies were not methodologically rigorous, suggesting that their overall impact should be interpreted with caution. Their findings were consistent with other reviews of the effects of yoga for cardiovascular disease, however.
Taking these factors into account, the authors of this review concluded that, “Yoga seems to be effective in improving most modifiable biological cardiovascular disease risk factors. Therefore, yoga can play a role in the primary prevention of cardiovascular disease especially in patient populations with increased risk of cardiovascular disease but also in healthy participants…. Exactly 12 weeks of intervention duration seems to be more effective than shorter or longer interventions.”
This is good news for the millions of people worldwide who are at risk for heart disease and stroke, and for those hoping to use yoga to prevent cardiovascular illness. Research provides strong support that yoga is good for your heart, as well as the rest of your body.
B Grace Bullock, PhD, E-RYT 500 is a psychologist, research scientist, educator, author, yoga and mindfulness expert and creator ofBREATHE: 7 Skills for Mindful Relationships. Her mission is to reduce stress, increase health and wellbeing and improve the quality of relationships. She offers classes, workshops, writing and research that combine the wisdom of applied neuroscience, psychophysiology, psychology and contemplative science and practice. Her goal is to empower individuals, groups, leaders and organizations to reduce chronic stress and increase awareness, attention, compassion, mindfulness and effective communication to strengthen relationships, release dysfunctional patterns and unlock new and healthy ways of being. Dr. Bullock is a Certified Viniyoga Therapist and Faculty at the Integrated Health Yoga Therapy (IHYT) Training program. She is the former Senior Research Scientist at the Mind & Life Institute and former Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy. For more information see www.bgracebullock.com