Stretching may do more than make you limber, according to new research from Yale University School of Medicine. Findings show that people who practice yoga and meditation at least three times a week may reduce their blood pressure, pulse and — most importantly — their risk of heart disease.

Moreover, yoga improves heart health in both healthy individuals and those with diagnosed heart disease, says Satish Sivasankaran, MD, who conducted the study while training at Yale. He says that volunteers taking a six-week yoga-meditation program improved blood vessel function by 17 percent. Blood vessel function, also called endothelial function, is the way vessels contract and expand to aid blood flow and is a measure of healthy vessel function. However, study participants who had heart disease had close to a 70 percent improvement in endothelial function.

Endothelial function is an important indicator of atherosclerosis because as the disease and plaque build-up progresses, the blood vessels become less supple and less able to constrict and expand.

“Stress is known to increase the risk of coronary events. Both anxiety and type A behavior have been associated with coronary diseases,” Sivasankaran, who is now a cardiology fellow at the Lahey Clinic in Burlington, Mass., tells WebMD. Yoga and meditation, on the other hand, are often recommended as a way to relieve stress.

The study, which was presented during the opening day of the American Heart Association’s 2004 Scientific Sessions here, is the first to look at the way blood vessels respond to stress.

“The endothelial function improved in the total cohort of patients and was most dramatic in patients already diagnosed with heart disease,” he explains.

And, it doesn’t take years of lotus positions and meditation to see improvement — the study volunteers had measurable improvement in just six weeks, he says. The yoga and meditation program included 40 minutes of postural yoga, 20 minutes of deep relaxation, 15 minutes of yoga breathing, and 15 minutes of meditation.

The study enrolled 33 patients, 30 percent of whom had heart disease. The study required them to practice yoga and meditation for an hour and a half at least three times a week. More than 60% of the volunteers were men and the average age of the study participants was 55.

The researchers monitored blood pressure, pulse, body mass index (BMI, an indirect measure of body fat used to measure weight), and cholesterol levels at the beginning of the study and again after six weeks.

The researchers used an ultrasound to measure the blood flow in an artery of the arm, he explains.

Yoga Improves Blood Pressure

At the beginning of the study the average blood pressure was 130/79 mmHg. The American Heart Association says that a normal blood pressure reading is 120/80 mmHg. After six weeks the average blood pressure reading was 125/74 mmHg, which was a significant decrease with yoga and meditation classes. The volunteers also had a modest reduction in BMI — from 29 to 28, and they “had an average reduction in pulse rate of nine beats per minute,” he says.

While people with heart disease had the biggest improvement in blood vessel function, that improvement “was independent of any improvements in blood pressure,” he says. And after six weeks it was the healthy patients who posted the biggest improvements in blood pressure, pulse rate, and BMI.

“Even with a small number of patients for a short period of time there was a benefit of yoga

and meditation seen in people with heart disease,” he says. He says, however, that the researchers don’t know the mechanism involved in that benefit, which means that more study is needed.

Gerald F. Fletcher, MD, a cardiovascular disease specialist at the Mayo Clinic Florida in Jacksonville, tells WebMD that “it is probably exercise. There are several studies that suggest that exercise — any kind of exercise — improves oxygen consumption, which improves endothelial function.” Fletcher, who was not involved in the study, is a spokesman for the AHA.

“I’m not sure that meditation has a specific benefit, but if combining meditation with exercise will get people to exercise, then I’m all for it. But the most important message is that exercise works,” Fletcher says.

By Peggy Peck, reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD

SOURCES: Satish Sivasankaran, MD, “The Effect of a Six-Week Yoga Training and Meditation Program on Endothelial Function,” American Heart Association Scientific Sessions 2004, New Orleans, Nov. 7-10, 2004.Gerald F. Fletcher, MD, Mayo Clinic Jacksonville, Fla.