Namaste, Yogis: Review Suggests Yoga Improves CVD Risk

December 16, 2014

BOSTON, MA — A review of studies examining the benefits of yoga suggests the ancient Eastern practice provides significant benefits on cardiovascular risk factors, including LDL cholesterol and systolic blood pressure[1].

Compared with individuals who did not participate in any physical activity, those who practiced asana-based yoga reduced their LDL-cholesterol levels by 12.1 mg/dL and systolic blood pressure by 5.2 mm Hg and increased their HDL-cholesterol levels by 3.2 mg/dL. In addition, the yoga practitioners also saw significant reductions in body-mass index, diastolic blood pressure, total cholesterol, triglycerides, and heart rate. Overall, the yogis lost 2.35 kg compared with nonexercisers.

When comparing the effects of yoga against aerobic exercise, including in studies with both healthy and hypertensive subjects, among others, there appeared to be comparable effects on body-mass index, body weight, systolic blood pressure, LDL cholesterol, HDL cholesterol, and triglycerides. Yoga, it appears, might provide a benefit in terms of improving cardiovascular risk profiles similar to that of physical activities like cycling or brisk walking, say researchers.

"This finding is significant, as individuals who cannot or prefer not to perform traditional aerobic exercise might still achieve similar benefits in cardiovascular-disease risk reduction," according to lead investigator Dr Paula Chu (Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, MA). "Evidence supports yoga's accessibility and acceptability to patients with lower physical tolerance like those with preexisting cardiac conditions, the elderly, or those with musculoskeletal or joint pain."

The review, which is published December 15, 2014 in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, included 32 randomized, controlled trials involving 2768 participants.

The duration of the studies varied, ranging from 3 to 52 weeks, with a median follow-up of 12 weeks. The control arms also varied and included conventional medical therapy, relaxation therapy, education, diet, no intervention, aerobic exercise, and cognitive-based therapy. Approximately one-third of the studies were compared against no intervention and 21% compared against aerobic exercise.

Despite the improvement of risk factors associated with cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome, the researchers say their results should be interpreted cautiously. The review is limited by sample size, heterogeneity between the trials, and the potential risk of bias associated with blinding of participants.

Still, "this review helps strengthen the evidence base for yoga as a potentially effective therapy for cardiovascular and metabolic health," particularly since yoga is low cost and accessible to large segments of the population, state Chu and colleagues.

Future studies will be needed to help understand physiological mechanisms underlying the benefit—a modulatory effect on the autonomic nervous system has been suggested—as well as help understand how much yoga people must do to gain a health benefit.

Recently, the United Nations declared June 21 the International Day of Yoga.

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