Want to Lower Your Blood Pressure? Just Breathe (In)

Tom Heinbockel demonstrates inspiratory muscle strength training using an electronically tapered flow resistive loading device. Photo credit: Casey A. Cass/University of Colorado

About half of American adults have high blood pressure. This is alarming because high blood pressure increases the risk of developing heart disease, which is the leading cause of death worldwide. Could a daily five-minute breathing exercise help reduce this risk? Recent data suggest it could.

“Breathe in, breathe out, and repeat 30 times.” That’s what researchers asked volunteers to do each day for six weeks. The catch is that when they inhaled, the volunteers were told to use a small handheld device called a manual breathing trainer to add resistance. This doesn’t feel much different than breathing in through a straw.

Early research on this breathing exercise, called high-resistance inspiratory muscle strength training, found that systolic blood pressure dropped in healthy young adults. Systolic blood pressure measures the pressure of blood hitting the walls of your arteries when your heart beats. After this study, the same researchers were curious about whether people with obstructive sleep apnea would also benefit from high-resistance inspiratory muscle strength training.

Sleep apnea is a condition where people involuntarily and repeatedly stop and start breathing while they’re sleeping. This might show up as particularly loud snoring. People with sleep apnea tend to have high blood pressure and a higher risk of developing heart disease. Thankfully, this form of breathing training lowered their blood pressure when it was measured in the laboratory.

What lies ahead for using breathing exercises as medicine? Additional research will help researchers find out who else may benefit from this time-efficient routine. Studies are being done to learn if inspiratory muscle strength training improves blood vessel function in the brain and cognition in older adults or helps people recovering from COVID-19 improve respiratory function.

You might wonder what is so special about this five-minute breathing exercise. Research published in the Journal of Applied Physiology suggests that activity in the sympathetic nervous system—which plays a major role in regulating blood pressure—decreases after a single session. Positive health benefits may include a reduction in inflammation or better blood vessel function.

More work needs to be done to understand the immediate and long-term effects of high-resistance inspiratory muscle strength training in a variety of populations. But the data so far are exciting and suggest that manual breathing trainers could be a promising therapy. Who knew the answer to better cardiovascular health could be as simple as changing the way we breathe?

Joseph C. Watso, PhD, is a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Exercise and Environmental Medicine at Texas Health Presbyterian Hospital Dallas and the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. He is interested in studying the role of lifestyle habits, such as diet and exercise, for optimizing health.

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