Blood pressure - exercise or meditate?
I was watching an episode of "Trust Me I'm a Doctor" and was interested by a segment about yoga for high blood pressure. The small study they did for the program took 5 participants with high blood pressure and they did a 1hr yoga class, three times a week plus 15-30mins of yoga at home on the days with no class. The study only lasted for 3 weeks and they all reduced their blood pressure by up to 9mmHg which is comparable to taking medication or doing aerobic exercise. So it was a lot of yoga but amazing results in only 3 weeks.
The yoga they did was very gentle yoga with a lot of breathing and relaxation exercises. The theory being that it helps to relax the arteries making it easier for blood to flow and therefore lowering blood pressure. This is different to doing cardiovascular exercise which strengthens the heart making it pump blood more efficiently and therefore lowering blood pressure.
Looking at what "proper" research has been done on the benefits of yoga or meditation and blood pressure unfortunately shows an inconsistency of results. This is probably due to variability in the type of yoga and meditation practices used. This is understandable as there are many different types of yoga and meditation and many, many, many different teachers. There was even one study where people doing an online yoga class at home reduced their blood pressure more than those who went to a group class which demonstrates that how we feel about where we are exercising may be just as important as the actual exercise we are doing. If we get stressed about running late for a class or feel like we are being judged or just feel self-conscious in a class environment we may not benefit as much as we would if we feel relaxed and enjoy the class. Also, sometimes in a group setting we may push ourselves more than we should in order to keep up with everyone else.
So if you are wanting to reduce your blood pressure, anxiety or stress levels here are my take home messages:
Do a combination of cardiovascular exercise and gentle yoga or meditation to get the benefits of a stronger heart and relaxed arteries.
Cardiovascular exercise may be aerobic such as walking, running, swimming, dancing where you feel puffed but could still hold a conversation. It could also be more anaerobic like circuit training with a cardiovascular element to it or interval training. Both aerobic and anaerobic will help to strengthen the heart.
Choose an environment you enjoy e.g. group class, one on one training with a personal teacher, online classes at home, walking/cycling with a friend, meditation app like Insight Timer. The possibilities are endless and you may choose a combination e.g. one walk with a friend and one on your own each week.
Schedule your exercise in your diary and don't book in anything else. Think of it as being just as important as taking a medication - it may even save you having to go on medication in the case of blood pressure or anxiety.
Be realistic - don't set yourself up for failure by going from zero to 5 exercise sessions a week. Start with one or two, get into a good habit with them and then add on. This is a habit for the rest of your life - make sure you can stick to it! Which leads me onto...
Be consistent. You will definitely not get results if you exercise one week and then get too busy for a couple of weeks and then exercise again ... you know the pattern - we've all been there! If you are struggling to be consistent it may be because you're not being realistic and are trying to fit too much in or are pushing too hard and keep injuring yourself or are just not enjoying it. Change it until you can be consistent.
Review it regularly (every 3-6 months) - use both measurable outcomes such as blood pressure and subjective outcomes such as "Am I enjoying this?" If you are not achieving what you want to achieve and/or you're not enjoying it, change it! It may mean you are not yet doing enough to see a measurable outcome or it might be that there is too much stress involved with a particular class/time/environment that is negating the benefit for you. It might be as simple as talking with your class teacher or personal trainer and making a slight change or it could be you need to try something completely different.
Stuck for ideas? One new form of exercise I've started recently is online yoga classes with Dr Sue Morter https://drsuemorter.com/bodyawake-yoga-membership/
What I like about the classes is Sue's combination of the physical and spiritual elements of yoga. Her background is as a Chiropractor so she has a fantastic understanding of the body's physiology plus she can sense the flow of electromagnetic energy/chi/pranayama through the body and really shows you how to get this life force moving with the breath and the postures. If you've thought about trying yoga and are disciplined enough to do classes at home I highly recommend it.
Most importantly, either get off your arse and do some exercise OR sit down on your arse and meditate. They are both going help your blood pressure, anxiety and stress (plus much more!)
Happy, healthy hearts everyone,