Yoga for Everyone, Especially Heart Patients

Fri, 4 Nov. 2011 - 6:59 p.m. MT
Credit: ARA Staff - American Running Association

Yoga and Pilates are terrific ways to supplement your running or help you recover from injury. If you’re not injured and looking instead to improve strength, flexibility, stamina, and breath control, you can even safely perform yoga or Pilates on the same day as a running workout.
 
Yoga is a great counterpoint to the muscle-tightening effects of running. Pilates is generally more intense, though there are power (ashtanga) yoga workouts whose fast pace will get your heart rate up considerably more than traditional hatha yoga—Bikram hot yoga comes to mind. Apart from the more intense power yoga workouts, yoga and Pilates are not really considered aerobic workouts, though you will certainly break a sweat. They are best performed on a long-term basis, and over time you’ll see significant increases in your range of motion.
 
A strong core is another benefit of yoga and Pilates. The strength of the smaller muscles throughout the body required for stabilization will noticeably improve as you progress. The result is better posture and stride while running, and also very likely increased protection from injury.
 
It takes all kinds. One great benefit of yoga is that it can be performed simultaneously by people of all fitness levels. This makes it a great activity to do with your kids—or your parents. One runner may use yoga on an off day to increase flexibility. Another, injured runner may use it to maintain strength while recovering, skipping positions that aggravate the injury. Both runners can perform yoga together. Furthermore, if there is someone in your life you are seeking to introduce to fitness, yoga is the perfect activity to take up together. And recent research shows that people with cardiovascular disease may see real health improvements by performing yoga.
 
Yoga for heart disease. A small but promising body of research suggests that yoga’s combination of stretching, gentle activity, breathing, and mindfulness may have special benefits for people with hypertension, heart failure, and other forms of cardiovascular disease.
 
One of the interesting aspects of this research is that it does not leave out the meditative psychological component of yoga. After all, the word “yoga” comes from a Sanskrit term that means union. In today’s highly Westernized yoga classrooms, it’s easy to forget that yoga was developed to join body, mind, and the day-to-day challenges of life into a unified experience rather than keep them separate.
 
Hatha yoga’s path to balancing the mind and the body involves three interconnected threads: physical postures (asanas), controlled breathing (pranayama), and calming the mind through relaxation and meditation. The three work together. How might this improve cardiovascular health? Most obviously, getting into the various postures during a yoga session gently exercises the muscles. Anything that works your muscles is good for your heart and blood vessels. Activity also helps muscles become more sensitive to insulin, which is important for controlling blood sugar.
 
The deep-breathing exercises help slow the breathing rate. Taking fewer but deeper breaths each minute temporarily lowers blood pressure and calms the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for generating stress hormones. The postures and deep breathing offer a kind of physical meditation that focuses and clears the mind. Meditation and the mindfulness of yoga have both been shown to help people with cardiovascular disease.
 
The need for more studies. Research into the connection between yoga and cardiovascular disease is still in its scientific infancy. Several randomized controlled trials are under way that could help establish what yoga can and cannot do for heart disease patients. Yoga could be a useful method for coping with the disease. It’s hoped that these more rigorous trials will support the evidence that so far has come anecdotally or only with very small groups of subjects.
 
Currently we are waiting for the big study to really establish cause and effect. Nevertheless, among the benefits that are suggested by these small studies, yoga may: reduce high blood pressure; improve symptoms of heart failure; ease palpitations; enhance cardiac rehabilitation; lower cardiovascular risk factors such as cholesterol levels, blood sugar, and stress hormones; improve balance and reduce falls; ease arthritis; and improve breathing for people with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. This is an impressive list.
 
Tips for first-timers. If you’re going to introduce someone who was formally sedentary to yoga, always make sure they consult with their physician and undergo a physical examination prior to new adventures in fitness. Keep in mind that people with heart disease often have other health concerns, like arthritis or osteoporosis, that limit their flexibility. A good yoga instructor creates a safe environment for his or her students and helps them modify poses to meet their abilities and limitations. And do look for a yoga class that includes the full package — poses, breathing, and meditation — rather than one that offers just exercise with a yoga bent to it.
 
Harvard Health Beat, “It’s no stretch — Yoga may benefit heart disease,” May 2011, http://view.mail.health.harvard.edu/?j=fe6516767c64077f7510&m=febb15747d630d7a&ls=fde71c78706d0d7b71137075&l=fe57157677630c7b7217&s=fe2e157574600775771776&jb=ffcf14&ju=fe3317707c62077c761473&r=0
 
Runner’s World Guide to Injury Prevention by Dagny Scott Barrios, 2004, Rodale Press, pp. 78-79

(RUNNING & FITNEWS®  May / June 2011 • Volume 29, Number 3)


Latest News
Luxury Cruise Fitness: It Can Be Done
Luxury Cruise Fitness: It Can Be Done

Aug 02 1:02 p.m.

Article by: Jeff Venables

Comrades Ultra - Loose and Fun = Success
Comrades Ultra - Loose and Fun = Success

Jun 04 12:26 p.m.

Article by: Rick Ganzi, M.D.

Young Milers in Anaheim CA love running
Young Milers in Anaheim CA love running

May 15 3:03 p.m.

Article by: Jeff Venables

Catch Them If You Can
Catch Them If You Can

Apr 08 7:22 p.m.

Article by: Jeff Venables

New Roles of Sports Chiropractic
New Roles of Sports Chiropractic

Feb 21 11:15 a.m.

Article by: Jeff Venables