With a new grant from the National Institute on Aging, University of Colorado Boulder researchers have launched a clinical trial to learn more about the exercise known as Inspiratory Muscle Strength Training (IMST).

“It’s like strength training, except it’s for the muscles you use to inhale,” says Daniel Craighead, a postdoctoral researcher in the Integrative Physiology department in the College of Arts and Sciences, in a release.

“It’s only 30 breaths. It takes people about 5 minutes, and so far it looks like it is very beneficial to lower blood pressure and possibly boost cognitive and physical performance.”

Developed in the 1980s as a means to wean critically ill people off ventilators, IMST involves breathing in vigorously through a hand-held device—an inspiratory muscle trainer—which provides resistance. Imagine sucking hard through a straw that sucks back.

During early use in patients with lung diseases, patients performed a 30-minute, low-resistance regimen daily to boost their lung capacity.

But in 2016, University of Arizona researchers published results from a trial to see if just 30 inhalations per day with greater resistance might help sufferers of obstructive sleep apnea, who tend to have weak breathing muscles, rest better.

In addition to more restful sleep and developing a stronger diaphragm and other inspiratory muscles, subjects showed an unexpected side effect after six weeks: Their systolic blood pressure plummeted by 12 millimeters of mercury. That’s about twice as much of a decrease as aerobic exercise can yield and more than many medications deliver.

Professor Doug Seals, director of the Integrative Physiology of Aging Laboratory, notes that systolic blood pressure, which signifies the pressure in your vessels when your heart beats, naturally creeps up as arteries stiffen with age, leading to damage of blood-starved tissues and higher risk of heart attack, cognitive decline, and kidney damage.

While 30 minutes per day of aerobic exercise has clearly been shown to lower blood pressure, only about 5% of adults meet that minimum, government estimates show. Meanwhile, 65% of mid-life adults have high systolic blood pressure.

Photo by Casey A. Cass/University of Colorado