Inspiratory Muscle Strength Training: Vigorous Breaths Boost Heart, Brain

“Maybe they won’t do 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, but perhaps they’ll do 5 minutes of this."

More than 100 million Americans have high blood pressure. Doctors say a mere 30 minutes of daily aerobic exercise can combat the condition, but only about 5 percent of adults meet that minimum. In an effort to meet this challenge, scientists at the annual Experimental Biology Meeting presented preliminary evidence supporting a new way of working out, which they claim is just as good for the heart, body, and brain.

It’s called Inspiratory Muscle Strength Training (IMST), and it’s designed to only take up five minutes a day. Essentially, IMST is strength training for the muscles we use to breathe. Across two presentations on Sunday and Monday, researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder explained how early trials suggest that IMST lowers blood pressure, improves blood vessel health, improves cognitive health, and increases exercise tolerance time.

To work out with IMST, people breath vigorously through a handheld device called an inspiratory muscle trainer, which provides resistance — you can think of it as sucking through a straw that sucks back. Lead author Daniel Craighead, Ph.D., tells Inverse that its ease of use makes him hopeful that people will adopt the device.

“It’s very time efficient so we hope that someone who has a reason to try it out — they have high blood pressure, or they want to keep their blood pressure under control — would adopt this as something they can do daily, like brushing their teeth,” Craighead says.

A volunteer demonstrates Inspiratory Muscle Strength Training at the University of Colorado Boulder.

CU Boulder

This research is also not complete yet. So far they’ve collected about half the data they eventually want to have — the goal is for these trials to result in a larger, long-term study that can ensure that what they’re seeing is real and robust.

But what they’ve seen so far is encouraging. This trial focused on 50 subjects who were 50 years and older. Each individual had blood pressure above the ideal blood pressure of 120 millimeters mercury, but they were otherwise healthy.

The blood pressure of participants was key — the study’s foundation is to test whether or not they can lower their blood pressure. The team suspected this approach would help after results emerged from a 2016 University of Arizona trial led by Fiona Bailey, Ph.D.. Her study was designed to see how IMST could help people with obstructive sleep apnea. IMST was originally developed in the 1980s to help wean critically ill people off ventilators. Because it strengthens inspiratory muscles, Bailey figured it could aid apnea patients, who have weaker breathing muscles.

The heart health results linked to this device are similar to 30 minutes of aerobic exercise

Unsplash / Jenny Hill

IMST did help these patients, and it yielded an unexpected side effect: After six weeks, their systolic blood pressure dropped by 12 millimeters mercury. That result is about twice as much of a decrease as researchers would expect to see from aerobic exercise.

Craighead and his colleagues wanted to see whether these results were specific to people with apnea, or could be applied to the public at large. So far the data shows that when it’s utilized at a high-intensity level — 30 vigorous breaths in five minutes — IMST can promote optimal health. Each patient demonstrated improved cerebral vascular function, motor function, cognitive function, and bodily vascular function. They also had an easier time exercising than they did prior to the trial.

“I think IMST has slowly evolved from something used only by a very sick population to being something that people can adopt as a part of their everyday lifestyle,” Craighead says. “Maybe they won’t do 30 minutes of aerobic exercise, but perhaps they’ll do five minutes of this and get some benefits.”

While the study isn’t over yet, IMST devices are already on the market. The researchers used ones from a company called PowerBreathe, namely because they have an internal data storage system that tracks how the device is being used. There’s a big range in IMST prices, but Craighead says there’s no evidence yet that the more expensive ones yield better results.

He does, however, caution people to talk to their doctors before taking up this form of exercise. While you ostensibly can be sitting while you do this, it’s still considered a form of high-intensity physical training, so it’s important that people consult a physician to make sure this is the right choice for their health.

In the future, Craighead hopes to see doctors encouraging their patients to use IMST. Until then, he’s gathering the evidence needed to make that happen.

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