We all know that medical science has come up with more than a few ways to treat high blood pressure, which is great. But to what extent can we simply lower our blood pressure by exercising?
A while back, the American Heart Association adjusted the measuring stick for what they consider to be healthy blood pressure. As of now, high blood pressure is defined as 130/80 millimetres of mercury or greater. That means a bunch of us probably need to be more diligent than we were a few years ago when the measurement was 140/90.
The new recommendation is a direct response to the results of a large, federally-funded study called Sprint that was published in 2015 in The New England Journal of Medicine which found that “…targeting a systolic blood pressure of less than 120 mm Hg, as compared with less than 140 mm Hg, resulted in lower rates of fatal and nonfatal major cardiovascular events and death from any cause…” which sounds like something we all want to avoid.
Now that you are aware of this, you may be inclined to rush off and talk to your doctor about whether X, Y, or Z medication is right for you BUT first, I would encourage you to consider getting active!
Can Exercise Lower Blood Pressure?
First, if your heart can take it easy and not work as hard to pump all your life-giving blood, then the force on your arteries will decrease and that will in turn lower your blood pressure. We all know that consistent physical activity can make your heart stronger so it follows that a stronger heart muscle will pump your blood with less effort.
Second, other parts of your body can assist in venous return—a more powerful phenomenon called the Calf Muscle Pump. As Biomechanist, Katy Bowman wrote, “Veins are often embedded within muscle. In short, when the calf muscles repeatedly contract—short, long, short, long—the tense-relax-tense-relax pumping action that surrounds the veins effectively propels the blood up the legs. Another way to say this is calves are like extra, tiny hearts stored at the bottom of your body, that work when you want them to. They are CALF HEARTS!!!” And these extra hearts can lead to lower blood pressure – if we move our muscles enough to make their contribution meaningful.
Third, we’ve known for a long time that simply by getting more movement in your day, you can lower your systolic blood pressure (the top number in a reading) by around 4 to 9 millimetres of mercury and that is as good as some of the most popular blood pressure medications.
Now, new research from 2020 out of the University of Milan in Italy showed that a 12-week stretching regimen improved blood flow, lowered blood pressure, and decreased the stiffness of arteries.
Researchers recruited almost 40 men and women for the study and divided them into three groups. One group did several leg, ankle, and foot stretches 5 times a week for 40 minutes, while another group just stretched one side of the body for the same amount of time. The third group didn’t stretch at all. When the study ended 12 weeks later, those in the stretching groups significantly improved the health of their blood vessels. Specifically, their arteries were much less stiff and function of their blood vessels got better.
The study participants did a form of stretching called passive stretching, which means they used stretch bands or their own weight and gravity to get a good stretch. This type of stretching can easily be done at home. And according to the study authors, “Improvement in blood pressure, arterial stiffness and vascular function was noted in the arteries of the body parts directly and not directly involved in PS training of the lower limbs.” So even if you don’t stretch every part of your body, every single session, your blood-flowing-parts still get the benefits.
Another bonus is that regularly getting your stretch or sweat on can help you maintain a healthy body weight and a healthy ratio of muscle to fat, which is a darn good way to keep your blood pressure under wraps.
If you are one of the lucky ones with blood pressure in the desirable range, even after the changed guidelines, regular workouts can still help prevent your blood pressure from getting out of control as you age.
What is the catch? Well, the key is to exercise regularly and to keep it up. The Mayo Clinic says that it takes about three months of regular workouts to see a meaningful change in those BP numbers and those changes only last as long as you keep that gym membership (actual or metaphorical) active!
How Often Do You Need to Exercise?
The good news is that you do not have to spend hours and hours in the gym every single day. All you need to do is simply get out there and add some moderate physical activities to your day. We’re not talking about anything heroic either. For most of you fit folks out there, this will be a literal brisk walk in the park. You can:
- Mow the lawn
- Shovel the walk
- Or any combination of the above!
The only stipulation that the Department of Health and Human Services recommends is that you aim for at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity most days of the week. Easy, right?
If you can’t see yourself doing that much exercise all at once, don’t forget about the movement snacks that I bring up on a very regular basis – or remember, you can always just go for a freakin walk 😉
How Hard Do You Need to Exercise?
In a study on how exercise intensity affects blood pressure and heart rate on obese adolescents, after a 6-month intervention systolic, diastolic, and mean BP decreased from both high and low-intensity workouts, but waist circumference, heart rate and HRV showed beneficial changes only in the high-intensity group. They concluded that aerobic exercise training set at a high intensity compared with the low intensity had additional benefits on abdominal obesity and cardiovascular health beyond the benefits they saw on blood pressure.
A second study in 2009 on exercise intensity and high blood pressure showed that higher and lower intensity training reduced systolic blood pressure to a similar extent, but the lower intensity does not alter ambulatory blood pressure. Only the higher intensity training affected the anthropometric characteristics and blood lipids in a beneficial way, which is a super fancy way of saying that it also improved body dimensions, such as height, weight, girth, and body fat composition as well as cholesterol and triglycerides.
So as usual, I would suggest doing both. And it likely will come as no surprise that I also suggest throwing in some good old resistance training.
High Blood Pressure and Weight Lifting
One quick note about weight training and blood pressure. Yes, lifting heavy weights can cause a surprising but temporary increase in blood pressure, depending on how much and how heavy you lift. But don’t be scared off. Weight lifting also bestows some super long-term benefits to blood pressure that definitely outweigh the scary risk of a the temporary spike. I have seen a lot of crazy stuff in the gym but I have never seen someone taking their blood pressure at the squat rack so you will just have to take my word on this one.
Weight lifting can also improve other aspects of your cardiovascular health that will certainly reduce your overall risk. In fact, the Department of Health and Human Services recommends incorporating strength training exercises of all types into your workout regime a couple of times per week.
If you need some help getting started on your resistance training regime, check out some of my past podcast episodes – but a good place to start would be with a protocol called Five by Five.
This workout requires a gym or access to some resistance bands or barbells or dumbbells. It’s quite simple. With as heavy a weight as you can lift with good form, you do five sets of five reps of:
- Shoulder Press
- Row (seated or bent over)
For some added benefits (like turning this into a bit of a cardio workout) make sure, during the 90 to 120-second recovery periods between each set, that you perform some easy mobility exercises, some core exercises or even some sun salutations (for you Yoga fans out there). I would suggest doing this twice per week.
Other Intersting Ways to Lower Blood Pressure
A study published in the National Library of Medicine showed that “Meditation techniques appear to produce small yet meaningful reductions in blood pressure either as monotherapy or in conjunction with traditional pharmacotherapy.” And simply being active in the great outdoors (or Green Exercise) has also been shown to lower blood pressure. Which are two of the major reasons that I go for a walk on the beach, while practicing mindful breathing techniques, every morning (before I go for a nice cold water swim).
Also, two studies conducted at Canada’s McMaster University showed that handgrip exercises can make blood vessels more flexible, can improve blood vessel function, and lower high blood pressure.
The subjects in isometric Study #1 performed four, 2-min isometric handgrip squeezes with a 3-minute rest in between the contractions. They specified that the intensity of the contractions should be equal to 30% of the subject’s maximum squeezing effort. They performed the isometric exercises three times per week for a total of eight weeks. Then the subjects in Study #2 performed four contractions of 50% of their maximum squeezing effort and held it for 45 seconds followed by a 1-minute rest. Study #2 went on for 5 days per week for 5 weeks. In Study #1, all eight participants had a significant decline in both systolic and diastolic resting blood pressures. In Study #2, subjects experienced significant mean declines in resting systolic and diastolic pressures but not quite as significant as in Study #1.
But handgrip workouts have to be used for five to eight weeks to see good results — and are not a substitute for regular aerobic exercise. While they can lower some people’s blood pressure (systolic blood pressure specifically), people who fall in the more serious range of blood pressure are still advised to do some brisk walking, swimming, cycling, or any of the other activities that strengthen your heart, lungs, and bones. Even if you aren’t really concerned, I would say: why not do both? Just to be safe and to be a more well-rounded mover.
Should You Worry About Blood Pressure Guidelines?
I am not a doctor and I will certainly not give you medical advice, but if you get beyond the frightening headlines you will see that the new guidelines are “for anyone with a significant risk of heart attack or stroke” and not across the board for every single member of the general public. That is important to consider seeing as anyone previously with a “significant risk” was likely already being monitored closely and advised to lower their blood pressure even if they fell close to the new 130/80 measurement. So don’t let the headlines themselves raise your blood pressure!
Also for the Sprint study, blood pressure results were averaged between three separate measurements that were taken after five minutes of quietly relaxing in a room. Now, when the heck was the last time your blood pressure was measured that way? In the real world, a blood pressure of 130 may show up as a blood pressure of 150 in a busy doctor’s office, after driving in traffic, and hoofing-it up the street.
I am not poo-pooing these recommendations. After all high blood pressure is second, right behind smoking, as a preventable cause of heart attacks and strokes. But I am saying that reading the fine print is important—especially when the chief recommendation is to, and I quote, “take more drugs or increase the dosages.” You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to balk at that statement. Especially when we know that we have alternatives like diet, exercise, meditation, and stress relief interventions to consider first.
So for now, I will see you at the beach, gazing out at the horizon, doing some deep breathing.