Coronary heart disease is the single biggest killer in the UK. The British Heart foundation fact sheet states that nearly 1 in 6 men and 1 in 10 women will die from coronary heart disease with most of these deaths caused by heart attacks.
The risk factors for coronary heart disease include obesity, lack of exercise, high cholesterol and high blood pressure. There are over 40,000 deaths every year from strokes. That is enough people to fill the O2 Arena twice over! The risk factors for stroke include high blood pressure and atherosclerosis or narrowing of the arteries.
The stats are shocking aren’t they? Almost as shocking is that there are really simple ways of reducing your risk of these diseases that you really should know about and, you guessed it, yoga is one of them.
The Heart of the Matter
Your heart beats about 100,000 times every day – that is about 2.5 billion times in the average lifetime. Every beat pumps oxygen-rich blood around our bloodstream and can be felt as our pulse. Most of us will have a resting pulse of between 60 and 100 beats per minute. In a healthy person, a lower pulse rate implies more efficient heart function and a highly trained athlete may have a pulse as low as 40 beats per minute.
Our blood pressure is a measure of the difference in pressure in our blood vessels when the heart is contracting and when it is relaxed. If the blood pressure is too low, particularly when the heart is relaxed, then the oxygen that the blood stream carries does not get to our organs so they cannot work efficiently. If the pressures are too high there is a risk of damage to the more delicate blood vessels, especially in the brain, heart and kidneys. High blood pressure is a major cause of life-changing illness and death in the western world.
Yoga to the Rescue!
But enough of the gloom and doom – where does yoga come in? In my previous article I explored how yoga practices like āsāna, prānāyāma and meditation all stimulate the parasympathetic, or calming, side of our nervous system. This in turn lowers blood pressure and heart rate which reduces our risk of heart disease and stroke. More specifically the medical science has been looking at yoga with some interesting results.
Last year, a team from Erasmus University Medical Centre in Rotterdam reviewed 37 studies including 2768 people and concluded that yoga is ‘as good as aerobics for cutting heart disease risk‘ in terms of reducing BMI, blood pressure and cholesterol. They also found that the yogis and yoginis studied were also shown to be, on average, 2.75kg lighter than those undertaking other forms of exercise. Trimmer and less likely to die young – good results!
Other studies have shown that yoga can also reverse the effects of atherosclerosis, a feature of cardiovascular disease where fatty deposits cause narrowing of the arteries. Reversing atherosclerosis also reduces the risk of heart disease and stroke. It’s good to hear that it isn’t all about prevention and that yoga can cancel out the bad things that may already be happening.
This is all great news for people who don’t like other forms of activity like running and exercise classes. It is even better news if you are unable to undertake those forms of exercise due to injury, illness or disability as yoga can be modified to suit any level of mobility, fitness or age. This means that yoga may be able to help people with these life threatening conditions who would not usually consider exercise.
For The Athletes Amongst Us
Researchers in India, the birthplace of yoga, have also been looking at the effects of yoga practice on endurance. They made Indian Army recruits do 60 minutes yoga six mornings a week for six months, and compared their endurance to a similar group of soldiers who continued to do the traditional physical exercise six mornings a week for the same period. Incredibly, they found that the yoga group had increased their anaerobic capacity, and could work harder without feeling uncomfortable. In other words they found that yoga can increase your endurance and exercise tolerance which explains why many high level sports teams are now incorporating yoga into their routine training schedules.
So, yoga really can help to prevent an early death from heart disease or stroke which is wonderful news for those of us already rolling out or yoga mat and dusting off the meditation cushions on a regular basis. It’s great news if you haven’t tried yoga yet as you are never too old, unfit or infirm to start. It is good news too if you are striving for that personal best in your chosen sport or discipline.
Yoga helps us to be healthier and feel better on so many levels. I am certainly going to keep on rolling out my mat and dusting off my meditation cushion as often as I can and for as long as I can to keep reaping these wonderful health benefits. Why don’t you join me as often as you can so we can all look forward to a healthy, happy and long yoga-filled life! Namaste.