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Breathing Exercises May Lower Blood Pressure, Improve Fitness

Woman with shortness of breath

Key Takeaways

  • Researchers note that using resistance for breathing exercises provides strength training for respiratory muscles.
  • This type of “breathing workout” can lower blood pressure and improve exercise performance.
  • Although this research utilized a breathing device, there are non-equipment techniques that can help.

Providing more resistance for your respiratory muscles can bring several key benefits, including lower blood pressure, better fitness performance, and greater lung and heart health, according to a study in the Journal of the American Heart Association.

The technique is called high-resistance inspiratory muscle strength training, or IMST, and involves using a small, hand-held device that forces you to provide more effort while inhaling. The sensation is similar to drinking a very thick milkshake, says study lead author Daniel Craighead, PhD, assistant research professor in the Integrative Physiology of Aging Laboratory at the University of Colorado Boulder.

Just five minutes a couple of times a day can offer improvements, he says, and that’s in contrast to standard treatment for breathing disorders, which often involves minimal resistance done for at least 30 minutes daily.

“IMST is much more time-efficient and yields similar results,” he says. “With a device like this, you’re breathing two to three times harder, which strengthens your respiratory muscles.”

Study Results

In the study, researchers recruited 36 healthy adults ages 50 to 79 with normal systolic blood pressure. Half did high-resistance IMST for six weeks and the other half did a protocol in which resistance was much lower.

At the end of that timeframe, the high-resistance group saw their systolic blood pressure drop nine points on average, which Craighead says is similar to what you’d find by walking five days a week for 30 minutes per session. It’s also about the change you’d expect if taking medications to lower blood pressure, he says.

Daniel Craighead, PhD

IMST is much more time-efficient and yields similar results. With a device like this, you’re breathing two to three times harder, which strengthens your respiratory muscles.

— Daniel Craighead, PhD

Also, researchers checked on the high-resistance group six weeks after the study’s conclusion and found that most of the participants had maintained that improvement.

In addition to lowering blood pressure, the group had a 45% boost in vascular endothelial function, which is the ability of the arteries to expand, and saw higher levels of nitric oxide, which is key for preventing arterial plaque buildup.

That leads to lower levels of oxidative stress and inflammation, Craighead adds, meaning the high-resistance group was at lower risk for heart attack.

Array of Uses

The age range for the study was chosen because people tend to lose respiratory function as they age and nitric oxide levels decline as well. This can be particularly true if they have cardiovascular issues, says Craighead. But lowering blood pressure and improving arterial function aren’t the only benefits with doing IMST, he says. Other perks include:

  • Ability to adjust to high altitude more quickly
  • Improvement of respiratory problems
  • Greater immune function
  • Stronger athletic performance
  • Maintenance of fitness level while injured

“Of course, this isn’t going to replace exercise, but working on your breathing does give you benefits that make it easier to get more activity,” says Craighead.

Do You Need a Device?

Most likely, only highly dedicated or professional athletes need the type of device used in the study, Craighead says, since they run about $400 each. However, most people wouldn’t need all the functions of that device, he adds, and there are more affordable options available.

For example, most home options are about $30 to $60, and he suggests first talking with your doctor about potential product options and ensuring you use them as recommended.

If you’re just getting started with breath training, though, you may want to begin with deep breathing exercises without a device. These can help you and build more awareness of your breath, especially if you integrate movement with the practice, according to Jessica Schatz, RYT, a yoga and Pilates teacher in Los Angeles.

Jessica Schatz, RYT

Even just sitting in a chair and doing five or 10 deep breaths can have a calming effect, because it helps to lower anxiety.

— Jessica Schatz, RYT

“Even just sitting in a chair and doing five or 10 deep breaths can have a calming effect, because it helps to lower anxiety,” she says. “That has been clear in plenty of research. These exercises can train your mind as well as your body to find more focus, stay present, and even reduce pain.”

Although regular breathing without resistance won’t have the same intensity as device-driven IMST, it makes a great starting point for a consistent practice that still yields ample benefits, Schatz says.

What This Means For You

Adopting a regular breathing practice that includes resistance can offer several benefits for your cardiovascular and respiratory systems.

 

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2 Sources
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  1. Craighead DH, Heinbockel TC, Freeberg KA, et al. Time‐efficient inspiratory muscle strength training lowers blood pressure and improves endothelial function, NO bioavailability, and oxidative stress in midlife/older adults with above‐normal blood pressure. J Am Heart Assoc. 2021;10(13):e020980. doi:10.1161/JAHA.121.020980

  2. Busch V, Magerl W, Kern U, Haas J, Hajak G, Eichhammer P. The effect of deep and slow breathing on pain perception, autonomic activity, and mood processing—an experimental study. Pain Med. 2012 Feb;13(2):215-28. doi:10.1111/j.1526-4637.2011.01243.x