By Published: Oct. 17, 2023

CU Boulder researchers Daniel Craighead, Douglas Seals and their team are studying the effects of a specialized breathing exercise on older adults’ blood pressure, brain health, cognition and fitness

Although the health benefits of exercise are well known, less than 40% of older and midlife Americans meet recommended aerobic activity guidelines. But what if you could improve your health without getting out of your chair—and it took only 10 minutes a day?

High-resistance inspiratory muscle strength training (IMST) may be the ticket, according to recently published research from the Integrative Physiology of Aging Laboratory, which is led by CU Distinguished Professor Douglas Seals, in the University of Colorado Boulder Department of Integrative Physiology.

Researchers found that participants who engaged in IMST, a type of breathing exercise designed to strengthen the diaphragm and accessory breathing muscles, appeared to show improvements across multiple health measures, including blood pressure, exercise tolerance, cognition and the functioning of blood vessels in the brain.

How the study was done

IMST is a form of respiratory muscle training that lets you inhale against high resistance by breathing through a device that vaguely resembles a vacuum attachment. “The breath is rapid and intense and feels a bit like sucking up a thick milkshake,” says Daniel Craighhead, an assistant research professor of integrative physiology and the study’s lead investigator.

Daniel Craighead

CU Boulder researcher Daniel Craighead and his colleagues found that high-resistance inspiratory muscle strength training may support improvements in multiple health measures, including blood pressure.

All subjects in the randomized, double-blind study were generally healthy men and postmenopausal women, at least 50 years old, classified as having elevated blood pressure (systolic blood pressure of at least 120 mmHg) and on average met minimum physical activity guidelines.

The experimental group performed high-resistance IMST, while the control group used a sham, low-resistance device. Both groups performed a specific protocol for five to 10 minutes per day, six days per week, for six weeks.

While the control group saw no significant health changes, the experimental group showed improvements in blood pressure, aerobic fitness, cognitive abilities and brain-blood-vessel health.

Potential health benefits

On average, subjects’ systolic blood pressure decreased by nine points within six weeks, says Craighead. Given that high blood pressure is a risk factor for many health issues, including cardiac arrest, stroke, dementia and cancer, these preliminary findings justify more research, which Craighead is now spearheading.

Subjects also increased their capacity for aerobic exercise, a metric associated with positive health outcomes including longevity, quality of life and lower risks of stroke, heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

At the beginning and the end of the study, subjects were asked to walk on a treadmill with a gradually increasing incline until they could no longer tolerate the activity. Although their VO2 max, or their maximum ability to consume oxygen, didn’t change, subjects walked an average of 12% longer on the second trial—a significant improvement.

There were “really strong improvements” in the quality of the blood vessels in subjects’ brains as well. “Starting in midlife, the health of our brain blood vessels starts to decline. How rapidly and intensely that happens can impact our future risk for mild cognitive impairment and dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease,” says Craighead.

And while it’s too soon to say definitively that IMST could delay or prevent the onset of dementia, “it’s at least a promising early finding,” he says. 

Meanwhile, researchers observed significant improvements in subjects’ executive functioning, or the ability to plan ahead, focus attention and switch between multiple tasks. And “executive function is one of the areas [of cognitive function] that declines most rapidly with dementia,” says Craighead. 

So what does this mean?

If you’re tempted to trade your exercise routine for IMST, Craighead has advice: Don’t. “While it seems to have similar effects to exercise when it comes to blood pressure and other health measures, unfortunately we didn’t see changes in things like cholesterol levels, blood sugar or bone density—all things we know exercise improves.”

That said, if you’re not currently exercising, IMST is a low-impact, time-efficient way to improve your health that has no known serious side effects. While some subjects initially reported neck strain and lightheadedness, those issues resolved and were not significant enough to cause anyone to quit the study, says Craighead. However, he and his research colleagues do recommend that everyone check with their physician before starting IMST because it might not be 100% safe for everyone.

This technique can be helpful for those with health conditions that make it impossible to meet the recommended physical activity guidelines, Craighead suggests.

Those exercising at higher levels may benefit from IMST, too. “I think the data is strong enough to say, if you’re a serious athlete, you might as well add it. And if you don’t benefit from it, you’re likely not doing any harm,” says Craighead. “Say you’re a runner. It’s not going to fatigue your legs or increase your risk of injury, and it’s time efficient.”

While the data suggest that IMST might improve health, cognition and athletic performance, Craighead isn’t calling it a magic bullet. It’s too soon to make any sweeping statements about the IMST’s potential, according to Craighead. Still, he says, “The initial results are really exciting.” 

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