Traditional hula dancing could be the secret weapon in the fight against the high blood pressure that bedevils many native Hawaiians.
In a preliminary study by the University of Hawaii, those who danced achieved better results than those who participated in a standard blood-pressure-reduction program that focused on exercise and diet education.
That shouldn’t come as a total surprise, as previous research by Keawe’aimoku Kaholokula and colleagues shows that native Hawaiians find the activity components of typical lifestyle programs boring or expensive and the dietary goals unrealistic and difficult to sustain.
Nevertheless, the initial results of the new study – which were presented at the American Heart Association’s Hypertension 2019 Scientific Sessions – are impressive.
The researchers recruited more than 250 people (average age 58, 80% female) who, although under medical treatment, still had high blood pressure, as well as type 2 diabetes.
After three one-hour sessions of hypertension education that included information on diet, exercise and the use of medications, participants were randomly assigned to a control group that received no further additional intervention or to the hula intervention.
Hula participants attended one-hour group hula classes twice a week for three months, followed by one monthly lesson for three additional months with self-directed practice, as well as group activities to reinforce hypertension education and healthy behaviours.
After adjusting for individuals’ weight and blood pressure at the start of the study, the researchers found that at six months those who did hula were more likely to have lowered their blood pressure to under 130/80, the current target for blood pressure treatment for patients without diabetes, and to have lowered their systolic (top number) blood pressure by an amount that significantly reduces the risk of heart attack, stroke and heart failure.
They also were able to sustain their improvements in blood pressure at one-year follow-up, which was six months after the study’s hula classes ended.
“The participants said the hula was fun and helped meet their spiritual and cultural needs,” Kaholokula says. “More than 80% stayed with the program for six months and 77% were still at it 12 months in, which reflects high interest in a culturally grounded program like this.”
“While the physical benefits of dancing hula are clear, other positive impacts include creating family-like social support and increasing self-confidence and acceptance of others,” adds Mapuana de Silva, a cultural expert on hula and a consultant to the study. “This all comes from the essential cultural value of aloha which is fundamental to hula.”
Many Native Hawaiians have difficulty controlling their high blood pressure, and the rates of heart disease and stroke are four times higher than in non-Hispanic whites. They also get these diseases 10 years younger than whites and Asians in Hawaii, Kaholokula says.