Mind-Body Methods & Heart Health

by Larry Cammarata, PhD on Aug 26, 2009

Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, ranking above cancer and stroke. Additionally, hypertension, commonly referred to as “high blood pressure,” is the 13th leading cause of death in the U.S. (Kung et al. 2008). It is therefore important for all health and fitness professionals to be informed about the methods available to support heart health.

Mind-Body Approaches to Stress and Cardiovascular Health

There is evidence that lifestyle modification programs incorporating mind-body methods can play a significant role in the treatment of cardiovascular disease, reducing risk factors such as body weight and total cholesterol (Rutledge et al. 1999).

The groundbreaking research of Herbert Benson, MD, on the effect of meditation on blood pressure was described in his landmark book, The Relaxation Response (Benson 1975). Benson described a relaxation response that could offset the effects of the fight-or-flight response to stress, which is associated with increased heart rate and blood pressure, among other changes (Benson & Klipper 2000).

The relaxation response is the opposite of the fight-or-flight response, resulting in decreases in heart rate and respiration, blood pressure (if already elevated) and the metabolic rate. Benson and Klipper (2000) describe four basic components that help elicit the relaxation response:

  1. a quiet environment
  2. a mental device—a sound, word, phrase or prayer repeated silently or aloud, or a fixed gaze at an object
  3. a passive attitude—not worrying about how well one is performing the technique, and simply putting aside distracting thoughts to return to one’s focus
  4. a comfortable position

Benson’s work is a cornerstone in the foundation of mind-body medicine, relevant to all who use mind-body disciplines to promote health and wellness, with particular significance for cardiovascular health. Recent research by Dusek et al. (2008) suggests that the relaxation response can change the expression of genes that are normally associated with the damaging effects of stress, essentially “turning off” genes associated with disease!

Benson (1983) notes several mind-body methods that can elicit the relaxation response, including meditation, yoga, tai chi, repetitive prayer, breathing exercises, biofeedback, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery and qigong.

Applying Your Mind-Body Knowledge to Cardiovascular Health

Now, more than ever, health and fitness professionals have information, technology and methods at their disposal to assist their clientele in maintaining the highest degree of cardiovascular health possible. However, make sure you use mind-body methods responsibly. Consider these suggestions:

Increase Your Effectiveness by Staying Informed and Updated About the Benefits of Mind-Body Methods. Knowing the benefits of mind-body practices prepares you to explain how these methods can help. Clear information, combined with supportive encouragement, can motivate clients to make healthy changes.

Practice What You Preach. As an old provocative saying goes, “Nothing worth learning can be taught.” Experience yoga, tai chi, meditation and other mind-body methods for yourself. This will allow you to involve both mind and body in the learning process!

Become Trained to Teach Mind-Body Practices Such as Tai Chi and Yoga. There is a growing need for competent teachers to help the aging population prevent cardiovascular disease.

Know Your Limits, and Share Resources. Health and fitness professionals are responsible for working within the scope of their license or role. For times when the limits of your expertise are reached, it’s advisable to keep a list of resources (e.g., health professionals, books, websites, class schedules) available to share.

Stay Balanced by Acknowledging That Stress, Negativity and Hostility Are Equal-Opportunity Diseases. It may very well be easier to perceive your clients’ stress and negativity than your own. Recognize the cardiovascular risk factors of stress, hostility and lack of social support in your life as well as the lives of your clients.

For much more information and a complete reference list, please see “Cardiovascular Disease and the Mind-Body Connection” in the June 2009 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal or read the full article online in the IDEA Library. Learn more about mind-body methods at the 2009 Inner IDEA® Conference, September 10–13, in Palm Springs, California.

Extra! Online Audio Program: Autogenic training is the oldest known Western system of self-regulation. It is a safe and effective way of inducing mind-body relaxation that involves body awareness and the repeating of relaxing phrases to induce a state of mind-body relaxation. Author Larry Cammarata, PhD, has created an online audio program as an example. Please take a few minutes to try it, or share it with clients, by clicking on www.ideafit.com/autogenic-training-audio.

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About the Author

Larry Cammarata, PhD

Larry Cammarata, PhD IDEA Author/Presenter

Larry Cammarata, PhD, is a licensed psychologist, mindfulness educator, and instructor of Tai Chi & Qigong who can be contacted at www.Mind-BodyWellness.org and www.MindfulnessTravels.com.