Hundreds of years ago English physician Thomas Sydenham taught that “a man is as old as his arteries.” We usually don't think about the health of our arteries until a problem arises (like a heart attack or a failed erection), and it's challenging to directly measure the health of arteries in patients I see in my clinic and requires advanced equipment.
Some fascinating data has emerged in the last few years suggesting that the flexibility of our spine predicts the flexibility of our arteries. Additional data indicates that yoga may help maintain our arteries in a youthful state.
The studies below should connect the dots between your spine, yoga and heart health, giving you even more reasons to start (or maintain) a yoga practice:
1. Our spine flexibility relates to our arterial flexibility.
Japanese researchers evaluated the ability of 526 adults ranging in age from 20 to 83 years old to sit and reach their toes, a measure of spinal flexibility. Arterial stiffness (or aging) was measured by a technique using ultrasound. In patients over age 40, spinal and arterial flexibility were related. Spinal flexibility predicted arterial youthfulness independent of overall fitness and muscular strength.
The authors speculated that spinal and arterial flexibility may share similar components of muscles and collagen connective tissue. They also suggested that stretching reduces the sympathetic (or fight-or-flight) limb of our nervous system and less sympathetic activity relaxes arteries.
2. Stretching exercises improve arterial flexibility.
Scientists had sedentary but healthy men and women participate in 13 weeks of strength training, cardio, or stretching exercises. Only the group doing stretching exercises showed improved artery flexibility measured by sophisticated ultrasound techniques. These authors also suggested that stretching reduces artery constriction by reducing the sympathetic nervous system activity.
3. Yoga improves artery flexibility.
Researchers measured artery flexibility in 42 persons starting a Bikram 90 minute yoga practice three times a week for 8 weeks. In the 24 younger patients, arterial flexibility was improved at the end of the study. Cholesterol and insulin levels also fell after the yoga training.
The health of the spine is an important measure of overall health and fitness. Stretching, healthy back yoga classes, and heated hatha yoga instruction are excellent ways to improve spinal flexibility. Unexpectedly, our arteries appear to benefit if we maintain these practices.
The benefits of yoga on the health of our autonomic nervous system and its control of our heart rate is something I've written about previously. Furthermore, the ability of yoga to lower our blood pressure, blood cholesterol levels and insulin secretion is well established. Maintaining and improving your spinal flexibility on the yoga mat will lead to many health benefits, including a youthful heart.
Yoga is just one practice that can help you maintain your health for many years. If you're looking for more ways to lead a long, active life, check out my new video course, Living To 100: A Cardiologist's Guide To Health, Happiness And Vitality.