Yoga could be as good for the heart as cycling or brisk walking, and easier to tolerate for older people and those with health challenges, according to a new review of existing research from Harvard University.
Based on 37 clinical trials, researchers found that doing yoga lowered blood pressure, cholesterol, heart rate and other cardiovascular risk factors in increments comparable to those seen with aerobic exercise.
The researchers say, however, that larger studies are needed to understand how yoga improves health, how much of it is ideal and if there are differences in benefits from various types of yoga before the practice becomes a standard prescription for heart disease.
Yoga originated in India more than 5,000 years ago, and has become a popular mind-body therapy in the West. Yoga’s breath control and body postures are believed to help nourish self-awareness, control stress and develop physical strength and balance.
The more traditional Hatha style of yoga is the most widely practiced in the U.S. But many specialized yoga “products,” such as hot yoga, power yoga and yoga retreats are part of a billion-dollar yoga industry.
The Harvard research team focused on yoga’s effects on cardiovascular disease, as well as risk factors including high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess abdominal fat and abnormal cholesterol levels that make up a profile - known as metabolic syndrome – that often leads to heart disease and Type 2 diabetes.
The study team analyzed 37 randomized, controlled trials involving 2,768 people through December 2013. The trials either looked at yoga compared to no exercise or to aerobic exercises. Participants’ average age was 50 and they were followed for anywhere from 12 weeks to one year.
Those who did yoga had significant improvements in a range of risk factors. Systolic blood pressure (the top number) dropped by an average of 5.21 mm Hg, and diastolic pressure (the bottom number) dropped 4.9 mm HG. LDL “bad” cholesterol fell and HDL “good” cholesterol rose. Average heart rate was lower by a little over 5 beats per minute and weight loss averaged slightly over 5 pounds.
These changes were similar to the improvements seen among people who did aerobic exercise instead.
There were no changes, though, in fasting glucose levels or A1C, a measure of long-term blood sugar control in people with diabetes.
The researchers noted that one weakness of the results is that the studies reviewed included various types of yoga that were practiced for different amounts of time. There was also a wide range of populations, from the young and healthy to older people with histories of heart disease.
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