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The Yoga-Heart Connection
A growing body of research from Johns Hopkins shows that practicing yoga can lower stress and help those recovering from heart events. Now may be the time to take up this gentle form of exercise.
Exercise that revs up your heart rate isn’t the only kind of physical activity that can help prevent or manage heart disease. The calming exercise of yoga is good for the heart, too.
“A large number of studies show that yoga benefits many aspects of cardiovascular health,” says Hugh Calkins, M.D., director of the Cardiac Arrhythmia Service at Johns Hopkins. “There’s been a major shift in the last five years or so in the number of cardiologists and other professionals recognizing that these benefits are real.”
Yoga is a mind-body activity that involves moving through a series of body poses and breathing exercises that can improve strength, flexibility, balance and relaxation. Dozens of different formats, or practices, such as hatha, anusara, ashtanga and many others, emphasize different focuses, such as toning, strength training or meditation.
Yoga as a Stress Outlet
One of yoga’s clearest benefits to the heart is its ability to relax the body and mind. Emotional stress can cause a cascade of physical effects, including the release of hormones like cortisol and adrenaline, which narrow your arteries and increase blood pressure. The deep breathing and mental focus of yoga can offset this stress.
Worry and depression commonly follow a cardiac event, such as a heart attack, bypass surgery or diagnosis of heart disease. As part of an overall treatment plan, yoga can help you manage this stress.
Yoga as Heart Booster
Beyond off-loading stress, practicing yoga may help lower blood pressure, blood cholesterol and blood glucose levels, as well as heart rate, making it a useful lifestyle intervention. One study has shown that blood measurements and waist circumference—a marker for heart disease—improved in middle-aged adults with metabolic syndrome who practiced yoga for three months.
Another study has shown that slow-paced yoga classes twice a week reduced the frequency of atrial fibrillation episodes in patients with that condition. In another report, patients with heart failure who went through an eight-week yoga program showed improvement in exercise capacity and quality of life. They also had lower blood levels of markers for inflammation, which contributes to heart disease.
Yoga as Smoking Cessation Aid
Some research indicates yoga might be a useful tool in helping smokers quit. Smoking is one of the biggest risk factors for heart disease.
Yoga as Exercise
Yoga can also improve flexibility, muscle strength and balance. Because it’s not a form of aerobic exercise that raises the heart rate, however, you shouldn’t count the time you spend doing it as part of your recommended weekly total for moderate to vigorous physical activity.
Arteries (are-te-rease): The blood vessels that carry oxygen-rich blood away from your heart for delivery to every part of your body. Arteries look like thin tubes or hoses. The walls are made of a tough outer layer, a middle layer of muscle and a smooth inner wall that helps blood flow easily. The muscle layer expands and contracts to help blood move.
Blood glucose: Also referred to as blood sugar, the primary energy source for the cells in your body. Blood glucose levels rise after meals and fall the longer you’ve gone without eating. Your blood glucose level is a measure of how much glucose you have in your bloodstream. A normal fasting blood glucose level is between 70 and 100 mg/dl (milligrams per deciliter of blood).
Cortisol (kor-tuh-sol): A hormone produced by the adrenal glands on top of the kidneys and involved in the stress response. It rises in the mornings, inducing wakefulness and also rises during stress. Sleep deprivation, caffeine and alcohol can also raise cortisol levels. Chronically high levels have been linked with low immunity, weight gain and other health problems.