Enhancing Heart Health With Yoga
February is all about pink and red hearts, roses, chocolate and cupids. It’s also the month the American Heart Association (AHA) dedicates to heart health education. While you’ve probably heard that eating a low-fat diet and exercising help prevent heart disease, you may not know that yoga is another important tool in fighting heart disease as we age. Here are five (5) ways yoga enhances heart health:
1) Yoga Exercises the Heart
As we age, our heart muscle, like the other muscles of our bodies, stiffens and weakens. Gradual stiffening and the accumulation of plaque deposits, which narrow the blood vessels, can lead to the increased risk of heart attacks, strokes and high blood pressure. To keep the heart muscle strong and blood vessels supple, the AHA recommends at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity at least five days per week for overall heart health.
Research shows that people who do yoga are more likely to become active and adopt healthy eating habits. A study, published in 2012 in the journal Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, found that previously inactive participants who enrolled in twice-weekly yoga classes for ten (10) weeks were more likely to stay physically active.
Furthermore, the combination of active static poses and dynamic flowing poses serve to increase the heart’s workload and strengthen the heart muscle. For example, moving in and out of a Warrior I pose a few times before holding the pose for several breaths serves to increase heart rate and overall stamina.
2) Yoga Improves Circulation and Blood Flow
Aging also reduces the amount of fluid in your bloodstream. This results in an overall decrease in blood volume. With lower blood volume also comes a reduction in the number of red blood cells. Our bodies produce red blood cells in response to illness or stress. Fewer of them means our body is less able to fight off disease or infection.
A well-rounded yoga practice supports the efficient circulation of blood through the contraction and relaxing of your muscles. As you transition in and out of poses, the muscles’ pumping action aids the movement of blood in stagnant areas, such as varicose veins, directing the blood back towards the heart. This also serves to maintain the health of blood vessels by preventing hardening of the arteries.
Inversions, such as Legs Up the Wall or Supported Shoulder Stand, are especially beneficial for improving circulation. In these poses, gravity aids the movement of blood back towards the heart, also reducing swelling in the legs and feet. As an added benefit, inversions are soothing for our nervous system, thus reducing stress levels.
3) Yoga Promotes Healthy Lifestyle Choices
Physical inactivity is a significant risk factor in developing heart disease according to the AHA. Happily, lack of physical activity is a risk factor that’s easily reversed. For people who have been inactive, yoga can be a gentle and accessible form of exercise.
As further incentive, research indicates that people who practice yoga are more likely to become active and adopt heart-healthy habits. For example, a study published in May 2018 in The International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity found an association between a regular yoga practice and healthier eating habits and more hours of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.
4) Yoga Promotes a Sense of Community
Depression and heart disease often go hand in hand. According to experts at John Hopkins Medical Center, depressed people, with no previously detected heart disease, develop heart disease at a higher rate than the general population. Similarly, having suffered a heart attack or other significant cardiac event, it’s common to struggle with feelings of depression and isolation. Participation in a yoga class can provide a sense of community that may help ease depressive symptoms. Not only does a yoga class provide a safe environment in which to engage in physical movement, but it also is a way to connect with others and find support.
5) Yoga Reduces Chronic Stress
One of yoga’s clearest benefits to the heart is its ability to relax the body and mind. Being in a constant state of stress overworks the heart and cardiovascular system, leading to the development of heart disease and/or high blood pressure. In fact, there is a well-documented link between high stress levels and heart attacks. Chronic stress is also associated with an increase in behaviors that elevate heart disease risk, such as physical inactivity, overeating and smoking.
Emotional stress can cause a cascade of physical effects, including the release of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which narrow arteries and increase blood pressure. Deep breathing, meditation, and restorative poses can offset stress, effectively lowering blood pressure and increasing feelings of well-being. Yoga also reduces inflammation which is believed to be a primary cause of clogged arteries.
Increasingly, health experts are recognizing yoga’s many benefits for improving and maintaining cardiovascular health. By engaging in a regular yoga practice, you can help to exercise your heart, lower blood pressure, increase circulation and reduce stress. Now that is something to celebrate! Be well.