Exercise has been called the “drug-free way to lower blood pressure” if you have hypertension. Lack of physical activity can increase your risk for a heart attack or stroke, and can also contribute to obesity. A regular exercise habit helps to control weight, stress, and helps to improve your blood pressure profile.
Understanding your blood pressure numbers
According to the American College of Sports Medicine, more than half of people over the age of 60 have hypertension. Certain groups such as African-Americans and women have even higher rates. High blood pressure is also referred to as a silent disease, because most people do not experience symptoms until blood pressure readings are quite high, or persist for sustained periods of time. Normal blood pressure is a reading below 120/80. (Blood pressure guidelines were updated in November 2017.)
Systolic blood pressure measures the pressure in the arteries when the heart beats (heart muscle contraction).
Diastolic blood pressure measures the pressure in the arteries between heartbeats, when the heart muscle is resting and then filling again with blood.
How exercise lowers blood pressure
To have normal blood pressure, you need to have a strong heart and a relaxed circulatory system. A relaxed circulatory system is associated with normal blood pressure. This allows your heart to pump blood more efficiently and with less work.
Intentionally being more physically active will help to lower your systolic blood pressure – the top number in the blood pressure reading. Exercise can also help you avoid blood pressure medication later in life, since aging is a major risk factor for hypertension.
Which exercises are best for improving high blood pressure?
Aerobic exercise, which helps to raise your heart rate and over time, strengthen your heart, should be the core element of a workout program designed to optimize blood pressure and cardiac health. But you don’t need to run a marathon. Just 30 minutes of heart-pumping exercise a day seems to be the best formula for lowering blood pressure or maintaining a healthy blood pressure. Any physical activity that results in sustained periods of an elevated heart rate and faster, deeper breathing is considered “aerobic” activity, including:
- Household chores like manually mowing the lawn, raking leaves, gardening, scrubbing the floor
- Brisk walking, jogging, running, swimming, biking, dancing, rowing
- Climbing stairs
- Using a treadmill, elliptical, stationary bike, or other aerobic gym equipment
- Aerobic classes like Zumba, kickboxing
- Weight training that involves very short rests between sets of exercise repetitions can also keep heart rate elevated
How to start a fitness routine
If you decide to begin exercising, check with your doctor first to be clear on safe practices, especially if you have elevated blood pressure or hypertension. Your doctor may have to adjust the levels or timing of certain medications. Typically, medications prescribed for heart problems and high blood pressure, such as beta-blockers or calcium-channel blockers, lower or slow heart rate, so you need to understand what heart rate goals to set for your personal exercise regimen.
You also should consider wearing some kind of heart rate monitor or tracker, especially if your doctor would like you to target a specific heart rate. The tracker will show if you are exercising too vigorously, which you may need to avoid if you have a history of a heart attack or other cardiac problems. Cardiac rehabilitation can provide a safe environment where you can receive appropriate exercise instruction.
Best timing of exercise to lower blood pressure
Morning workouts or short workouts during daytime hours are best, because exercising close to bedtime can interfere with sleep, and poor sleep is actually a risk factor for hypertension. Morning workouts also seem to provide sustained blood pressure benefits throughout the day. If evening is the only time you can work out, however, that’s better than no workout at all. Consistent timing works best for people taking blood pressure medications.
Research seems to suggest that blood pressure control and response is better if you spread your physical activity throughout the day. Even standing up periodically can help to improve blood pressure. A small study conducted at Arizona State University of 11 healthy people with prehypertension, published in the December 2012 issue of Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise showed that three 10-minute walks during the day were more helpful in preventing blood pressure spikes than one 30-minute exercise effort, and had longer-lasting results. The study also showed that the intensity of these workouts was less important than sustaining an elevated heart rate throughout each 10-minute interval for reducing night time blood pressure. Adding more short bursts of exercise throughout the day does seem to provide more blood pressure control.
It’s important to understand that when you perform aerobic exercise, your body requires more oxygen, so your blood pressure, specifically the systolic pressure (upper number) will increase during exercise. One indicator that you may be at risk of developing hypertension is if your blood pressure remains elevated for a period of time after you finish an aerobic workout. Having a home blood pressure reading machine is a good idea if you face this risk or have any stage of hypertension.
A final note
See if you qualify for a cardiac rehabilitation program if you are diagnosed with hypertension. Experienced health professionals can guide your initial workouts and develop a workout program with heart-rate goals you can then meet on your own. Even a single session with an experienced personal trainer can help you to understand what your exercise limitations and goals should be.
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Known as The HealthGal, expert contributor Amy Hendel is a popular medical and lifestyle reporter, nutrition and fitness expert, columnist, and brand ambassador, as well as a health coach. Trained as a physician assistant, she maintains a health coach private practice in New York and Los Angeles. Author of The Four Habits of Healthy Families, you can find her on Twitter @HealthGal1103 and on Facebook at TheHealthGal. Her personal mantra is “Fix it first with food, fitness, and lifestyle.”