Strength Training Your Breathing Muscles Can Improve Heart Health, According to a New Study

Photo: Getty Images/ The Good Brigade

Strength training can improve your bone mass, lean muscle mass, cardiovascular fitness, strength, and enhance your sense of well-being. But how often are you strength training your breathing muscles? There's no right or wrong answer, but according to a new study in the Journal of the American Heart Association, doing high-resistance inspiratory muscle strength training (IMST) for five minutes a day can help aging adults prevent cardiovascular disease.

The study recruited 36 adults ages 50 to 79 that had above normal systolic blood pressure (the number that measures the pressure in your arteries when your heart beats). Half of the group did high-resistance IMST for approximately five minutes a day and the other half completed a placebo protocol with a lower resistance level.

Experts In This Article
  • Daniel Craighead, PhD, Daniel Craighead is the assistant research professor at the Integrative Physiology of Aging Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder.
  • Sofiya Prilik, MD, Dr. Prilik is the clinical director of cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation at NYU Langone.

"So what we did in this study was 30 breaths a day, six days a week for six weeks," says Daniel Craighead, PhD, assistant research professor at the Integrative Physiology of Aging Lab at the University of Colorado Boulder and lead author of the study. "And what we saw was a reduction in systolic blood pressure of nine millimeters mercury." According to Craighead, if this was sustained in the long-term, it "would decrease someone's risk for cardiovascular disease and heart disease substantially."

The benefits of breathing exercise

The benefits of breathing exercises for overall health and heart health aren't new, and deep breathing signals to the brain to calm down, positively impacting the parasympathetic nervous system and the rest of your body, according to Sofiya Prilik, MD, clinical director of cardiac and pulmonary rehabilitation at NYU Langone.

Additionally, deep breathing positively impacts your blood vessels."It's a new area of exercise, so we don't know exactly how it's doing it, but we saw evidence that it's improving the health of people's blood vessels," says Craighead.

When you practice deep breathing or IMST, your blood vessels open in response to a substance called nitric oxide, which is released when deep breathing against resistance, explains Dr. Prilik. This action changes the structure and function of the blood vessels, she adds.

Tighter blood vessels equate to higher blood pressure and blood vessels that are more open lead to lower blood pressure, explains Dr. Prilik, which helps to explain why researchers saw a lowering of blood pressure in those who did IMST.

How to strength train your breathing muscles

If you're inspired to start strength training your breathing muscles, first check with your doctor to make sure this is a good option for you. It will be hard to stimulate lung effort with any other type of breathing aside from IMST, says Craighead. But that doesn't mean deep breathing doesn't have health benefits.

"So doing slow, deep breathing without resistance can lower blood pressure similarly. The main difference is that takes 30 minutes a day or so. The advantage of ours is if that people don't have time for that, they can do this in five minutes a day," says Craighead.

The participants in this study practiced IMST with the POWERbreathe K3 inspiratory muscle training device. This device allows you to program the level of resistance for inhaling, and it has a valve that won't open until you produce that pressure, he explains.

"If you imagine how hard you're breathing at the hardest you've ever run in that sort of effort, the intensity that people have to inhale against for this training is two to three times higher than that. So it's really a resistance to breathing that's much greater than anything people would ever come across in just daily life," explains Craighead.

But there are similar devices that are more affordable than the one used in the study that should work just as well, he says. "The key is that they have to provide this high resistance to inspiration. And because it's something that you can't really do with exercise, it's going to be hard to do without some sort of device."

Craighead advises using a device that reaches a resistance of at least 100 cmH20 to see the benefit, he says, and recommends the POWERbreathe Plus ($70).

Although this study has many positive impacts on blood pressure and cardiovascular health, it didn't improve every measurement of cardiovascular health such as cholesterol and blood glucose, which is why Craighead advises not cutting out other forms of exercise like running and walking. "I don't think it's a good replacement if you are already doing things that are healthy for you, but it's a good thing to add on that can give you extra benefit," he says.

Cardiovascular health tips

Although it may be challenging to mimic the results of this study without a device with a high level of resistance, Dr. Prilik says taking deep breaths is considered an exercise against resistance because your rib cage provides resistance to the lungs. "And it's quite a bit of it, in fact," she says.

Taking a few deep breaths throughout your day can "potentially provide some benefit I'm thinking," says Dr. Prilik. She also agrees with Craighead to continue doing physical activity as "any activity is better than no activity."

Additionally, Dr. Prilik recommends trying to manage and reduce your stress levels which can decrease your risk factors for heart disease. Getting more sleep, meditating and doing breathwork, taking movement breaks, and making sure you're fueling your body properly can also help improve your well-being and reduce your risk for cardiovascular disease.

Feel inspired to train? Try this cardio barre workout: 

Oh hi! You look like someone who loves free workouts, discounts for cult-fave wellness brands, and exclusive Well+Good content. Sign up for Well+, our online community of wellness insiders, and unlock your rewards instantly.

Our editors independently select these products. Making a purchase through our links may earn Well+Good a commission.

Loading More Posts...