We exercise to improve our physique but also for the health benefits exercise offers. The health benefits alone are pretty powerful! Resistance training helps to build metabolically active muscle tissue that burns more calories while aerobic and HIIT training that works aerobic and anaerobic energy systems, thereby improving cardiovascular health. Preserving cardiovascular health is essential as heart disease is still the leading cause of death in developed countries and the incidence goes up with age. In fact, a study showed almost half of all people over the age of 60 have heart disease. That’s a hefty chunk of adults! Heart health is something we should all be concerned about it. We know that aerobic exercise has heart health benefits but combining it with Yoga may be even more protective. Are Yoga and aerobic exercise a good combination for heart health?
Aerobic exercise lowers the risk of heart disease in a number of ways, including:
- Beneficial effects on blood lipids
- By lowering blood pressure
- By improving insulin sensitivity and metabolic health
- By relieving stress
- By reducing inflammation
- By preventing weight gain and obesity
- By lowering the risk of blood clots forming
In fact, a study showed among middle-aged and older adults, those in the high exercise group enjoyed a 40% reduction in heart attack and stroke risk relative to those in the low exercise group, those who didn’t exercise very often. So, yes, aerobic exercise lowers the risk of dying of a heart attack or stroke even if you have a family history of heart disease. Genetics aren’t destiny when it comes to heart disease risk.
Aerobic exercise places stress on your cardiovascular system and your body adapts to this stress in ways that reduce your risk of experiencing a cardiovascular event. However, a new study shows that combining aerobic exercise with another type of workout, yoga, may lower your risk of heart disease even more. It seems the combination of these two forms of exercise have synergy when it comes to your health.
In this study, researchers found that patients who already have heart disease and practiced yoga AND did aerobic exercise showed greater improvement in cardiovascular risk factors than those who did only one form of exercise. In fact, the participants who did both enjoyed greater improvements in lipid levels, BMI, and blood pressure. When they looked at other measures, including heart function and exercise capacity, the group that did yoga AND aerobic exercise benefited more.
Yoga for Heart Health
Yoga isn’t the first type of exercise that comes to your mind when you think of heart health but there’s substantial evidence that it’s a heart-healthy activity. In fact, a study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology and published on the Harvard health blog found that yoga lowered the risk of cardiovascular disease as much as moderate-intensity exercise, like brisk walking or jogging. For example, studies show regular yoga practice lowers blood pressure and helps with weight control, partially by making us more aware of the food choices we make. Mindfulness matters! Surprisingly, some studies show that yoga improves lipids as well. In one study, yoga participants experienced a 12% reduction in LDL-cholesterol.
Some small studies even show the practice of yoga improves insulin sensitivity and blood sugar control. That’s important since metabolic syndrome and insulin resistance are strongly linked with cardiovascular disease. Yes, yoga is more than just a mind-body exercise that tames stress, although that too is important for reducing the risk of heart disease and heart attacks. Acute stress sends a flood of stress hormones into the bloodstream that elevates blood pressure and constricts blood vessels, forcing the heart to pump against more resistance. Over time, this can cause the heart to enlarge.
Chronic stress is no less damaging. When your body is exposed to constant stress, it releases more of a hormone called cortisol, one of the stress hormones produced by your adrenal glands. In fact, a study showed that higher cortisol is a strong predictor of cardiovascular risk and those with the highest levels are five times more likely to die of a stroke or heart attack. Lack of sleep can also elevate cortisol.
Yoga and Aerobic Exercise, Cortisol, and Stress
We know that aerobic exercise in moderation is beneficial for heart health but excessive cardio without giving your body time to recover between sessions can be detrimental. Overdoing the cardio can place enough stress on your body to cause a rise in the stress hormone cortisol and that’s bad for your heart. In contrast, regular yoga practice may actually lower stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline – and that’s a positive for your blood pressure and the health of your heart. Yoga also teaches you how to breathe more deeply to relieve stress and how to quiet an overactive nervous system. As an added perk, the calming effect of yoga may also help with sleep.
Yoga and Aerobic Exercise: A Good Combination?
It’s not hard to see how yoga and aerobic exercise compliment each other. Aerobic exercise stresses your body in a positive way but also leads to increased production of stress hormones. In contrast, yoga has a calming effect that helps lower the impact of cortisol and adrenalin on your body. Yoga and intense aerobic exercise are complementary to one another and each has benefits. You can do a yoga session after an aerobic workout or after a resistance training session as well to help your body cool down and recover more quickly. Alternatively, you can schedule yoga sessions in between your harder days to help your body recover.
Doing yoga can even improve your performance when you do aerobic training by teaching you to be more mindful and aware of your body and how you’re breathing during a workout. So, don’t assume you always have to work out at a high intensity for heart health. By combining aerobic AND yoga, you might be lowering your risk of heart disease even more.
Science Daily. “Yoga and aerobic exercise together may improve heart disease risk factors”
Clin Geriatr Med. 2009 Nov; 25(4): 563–vii. doi: 10.1016/j.cger.2009.07.007.
Science Daily. “How Exercise Lowers Cardiovascular Risk”
Harvard Health Publications. “More than a stretch: Yoga’s benefits may extend to the heart”
Mayo Clinic. “Stress Management”
WebMD. “Stress Hormone Predicts Heart Death”
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