Can I really lower my blood pressure through exercise?
Yes. There’s now a lot of scientific research showing that doing more exercise lowers blood pressure. If you’re not very physically active, then gradually increasing your activity levels is vital to improving the health of your heart and circulatory system, and to lowering your blood pressure. Even if you’re already quite active, getting a bit more exercise can still help lower your blood pressure.
How to lower blood pressure through exercise
1. Aerobic (or ‘cardio’) exercise
photo by Kula Rock on flickr.com
There are three main kinds of exercise which lower blood pressure. The first is aerobic exercise or ‘cardio’. This is what you usually think of as ‘exercise’ – physical activity that gets your heart and lungs working harder. In other words, exercise that gets your heart pumping and makes you a little out of breath.
There’s no avoiding it. You’re going to have to exert yourself if you want to lower blood pressure through exercise. It’s the proven way to get your heart fitter and your circulatory system more resilient. And to get your blood pressure down.
This is one of the few areas in which there’s a strong consensus among the medical community, health authorities and alternative health practitioners. They broadly agree that you need to get at least half an hour’s aerobic exercise most days to bring your blood pressure down this way. And to stave off potential related problems like heart disease, stroke, obesity and diabetes.
You don’t necessarily need to do this half-an-hour-a-day all at once though. You could get three ten-minute stints of exercise in, three times a day, for example. Even if you’re busy, that’s still do-able. Three ten-minute walks. A few jogs up and down the stairs to and from work, or your home. A bike-ride to the shops to get your milk and papers. A quick dance around the room before you go out the door or when you get in. Even a stint of gardening, or even cleaning. And sex is good exercise too.
What is aerobic exercise? Think flexibly!
The key thing here is that exercise doesn’t have to be EXERCISE. Exercise doesn’t have to involve getting into lycra and going to the gym or yoga studio. It doesn’t have to involve jogging or treadmills or weights or step classes (or whatever the latest fad is). Exercise can be things you have to do anyway, with a twist.
Getting more exercise through doing things you have to do anyway is by far the easiest way to get more exercise. Being realistic, how many of us are going to make time to start doing something totallly new? If you can, that’s brilliant. However, you’re more likely to stick with increased exercise if you can find a way to incorporate it into your daily routine.
Easy examples are walking to work instead of driving. Or walking up the stairs instead of taking the lift or elevator. (Read more here about how walking is actually an excellent way to reduce blood pressure.) You could cycle to the pub after work instead of driving (as long as you don’t drink so much you can’t cycle home). If you have to clean the house, do it more energetically. To loud music.
And if you’re really not going to get around to being more active on your own, then find a way to do it socially. If you live in Scotland or the Maritimes, find a good ceileidh and fling yourself around the room. If you’re in North America, get into square dancing. Or throw yourself into a moshpit. Go clubbing. Join the Ramblers or another hiking or biking group. Take dance lessons. You can find almost anything these days – tango, salsa, even pole dancing. Don’t just watch ‘Strictly’ – go and do it!
How does aerobic exercise lower blood pressure?
You can lower blood pressure through exercise very effectively because exercise affects blood pressure in several ways.
Physical benefits of exercise for blood pressure
Firstly, it strengthens your heart and lungs. This is vital to good health anyway, but especially important for healthy blood pressure. The stronger your heart is, the more efficiently it can pump blood with less force, and with lower blood pressure as a result.
Exercise also improves the way your body processes and regulates sugar – which is pretty crucial since too much sugar is a major factor in the increase in high blood pressure, diabetes and obesity in modern Western societies. (Read more here about sugar and blood pressure.)
Regular exercise also, obviously, helps you lose weight, which can also be vital for quite a lot of people in lowering their blood pressure. Being overweight on its own is likely to increase your blood pressure, and losing weight to reduce it.
Psychological benefits of exercise for blood pressure
Perhaps the biggest exercise benefit for many, these days, is that exercise helps reduce stress. Doing exercise helps ‘use up’ any stress hormones that are running around in your body, so it can help you mitigate episodes of stress. However, exercising regularly also helps you become more resilient to stress, so that you’re less prone to stress and less negatively affected by it when it does come.
This is for various reasons. However, the most well-understood one is that exercising causes the production and release of ‘happy hormones’. Exercise raises your levels of hormones like endorphins and serotonin which contribute to a postive mood, cheerfulness and a general sense of being well. All of which feeds back into your blood pressure. The more relaxed and at ease you are mentally, the lower your blood pressure is likely to be.
2. Strength (or ‘resistance’) training
In addition to aerobic exercise, both the American Heart Association and the UK National Health Service (NHS) now recommend adding in a couple of sessions of strength training per week to lower blood pressure.
Strength training (sometimes called resistance training) refers to exercises designed specifically to build muscle strength, such as weight lifting and using exercise machines, or exercises using your own body weight, such as sit-ups and push-ups, Pilates, and some forms of yoga.
For a while, this was considered to lower blood pressure much less than aerobic exercise. However, a 2016 analysis of 64 studies, involving over 2000 people, found that resistance training could lower blood pressure as much as aerobic exercise in some people with high blood pressure. Many researchers thus now consider it worth doing in addition to aerobic exercise.
How to do strength exercises for lower blood pressure
The UK NHS recommendation for optimal health is to do strength exercises which work all the major muscles, such as legs, hips, back, abdomen, chest, shoulders and arms. The American Heart Association suggests it should be moderate to high intensity strength exercise.
How much and what kind of strength training you should do depends to some extent on your existing health and fitness. As such, it’s advisable to consult a doctor or health or exercise professional about this. You can also see the Step 5 online resource page for more information on strength training.
One advantage of strength training is that it can be tailored to your specific bodily needs, and so it can be a very useful means of exercising if you have limited mobility in some way.
Aerobic exercise versus strength training? You can do both!
Remember, it’s not a choice between aerobic or strength exercise – both can help lower blood pressure. If you can, do both – aerobic exercise most days, and strength training at least a couple of days a week.
If you do start doing some strength training, don’t neglect your aerobic exercise though – it’s vital for healthy blood pressure. There is considerably more evidence for the beneficial effects of aerobic exercise for blood pressure and heart health than there is for strength training.
Also, aerobic exercise has numerous other health benefits discussed earlier, including psychological benefits which can positively affect blood pressure.
Conveniently, some activities combine both aerobic exercise and muscle-strengthening, such as aerobics, circuit training, running, and team sports like football, rugby, hockey and netball, and even garden or yard work like digging or shovelling. So if you do any of these, it’s a win-win situation.
3. Isometric exercise
But what about the other way to lower blood pressure through exercise? Well, those of you who aren’t physically mobile or don’t like to be will like this one. You can lower blood pressure through exercise which doesn’t even require getting up from the sofa.
Lower blood pressure through exercise while sitting comfortably… really?
That’s right. Isometric handgrip exercises are now being shown to be very helpful for lowering blood pressure. And they do literally just involve gripping something with your hand on and off for about fifteen minutes.
All you need is a squeezy stress-ball, although it’s sometimes more effective to use hand-gripper deviceLower blood pressure through exercise while sitting comfortably… really? You can read all about this here: handgrip exercises for lower blood pressure
One thing to note though is that handgrip exercises affect blood pressure in a different way to aerobic exercise. And only aerobic exercise works to increase the fitness of the heart and lower blood pressure that way. So handgrip exercises are not a subsitute for ‘normal’ aerobic exercise. They are a good supplement though. And of course, if you’re not able to be active in the usual ways, handgrip exercises are very useful.
As with aerobic exercise, the key to lower blood pressure through handgrip exercise is to do it regularly. At least five days a week. (You might also want to do them standing up since it’s actually not that healthy to be sitting down a lot – more on this just below.)
Lower blood pressure through exercise by doing it regularly…
The reason we’ve emphasised incorporating exercise into your daily routines is not just because that’s the easiest way to get more exercise. It’s also because that’s the most effective way to keep getting exercise.
To really get the physical and psychological benefits of exercise you need to exercise regularly. This applies to both aerobic exercise and hand grip exercises. This way the benefits will not only be sustained but actually deepened. The key to lowering blood pressure through exercise is to do it regularly. A little bit of exercise often is better than a big stint very occasionally.
Chair from justarmchairs.co.uk
…And don’t sit down so much
There’s also a growing body of research which suggests that sitting down a lot is pretty bad for your health, and specifically for your blood pressure. You can read more about it in our article here: How sitting affects blood pressure
Basically, there are two things to try to avoid: one is sitting down a lot in general, and the other is sitting down uninterrupted for long periods. The first one can be harder to deal with – if you have a seated job, and have to drive or sit on the bus or train to work, then it can be difficult to sit less. If possible, you can create or get a desk you can stand at all or some of the time.
Breaking up long periods of sitting is easier to do. Even just standing up every half hour or so, even just for a couple of minutes, can help. See our article for more suggestions and other resources.
So as well as exercising often, just try to be active as much as you can. Even gentle movement helps – and it looks like almost anything is better than sitting!
PLEASE NOTE: Exercise can initially raise your blood pressure
Most types of exercise will initially raise your blood pressure somewhat, as you start doing them. However, the overall effect of doing these exercises regularly is to lower blood pressure. If you have extremely high blood pressure, then check with a doctor before doing more exercise than you usually do, just to make sure that this initial increase in blood pressure won’t be problematic for you.
My experience of lowering blood pressure through exercise
The only way to really see the benefits of exercise for your blood pressure is to try it for yourself. I’ve certainly found that it’s possible to lower blood pressure through exercise. And I was already quite active.
It helps that I live in Wales, a mountainous country with plenty of hiking opportunities. So I have been hiking up on the mountains a few times a week over the past couple of months.
This morning I took a hike up the mountain on the other side of the valley and ejoyed the sun and blustery wind. I noticed two things:
- I don’t find it as tiring as a did, say, a month ago. My heart and lungs are adjusting to my new climbing hobby.
- After getting back home and taking a 20 minute rest, I monitored my blood pressure, expecting it to be high after such exertion. To my pleasant surprise my blood pressure was quite low (for me).
It would seem that exercising my heart and lungs is contributing to lowering my blood pressure. OK, maybe that’s not shocking groundbreaking news, but I had always considered myself quite fit previously. Yet there’s clearly room for improvement! Continued hikes are now on the agenda. Another piece of the jigsaw.
What if I can’t lower my blood pressure enough through exercise?
What if doing aerobic exercise, and even adding in handgrip exercise, isn’t enough to lower your blood pressure? Or it’s lowering it to some extent, but not enough? If that’s the case, then you probably need to look at your diet and/or your stress levels too.
Don’t stop exercising, because it is undeniably good for your blood pressure, not to mention your general health and mental well-being. But do think about what you’re eating and drinking. And if you’re prone to stress, then consider taking measures to reduce that. Meditation, yoga, and simple slow breathing exercises can be excellent for this.
This might seem a lot to take on. After all, there are a wide variety of foods and drinks out there so how do you know what’s best for your blood pressure? And are you seriously going to be able to reduce your stress levels with some breathing exercises? And how will you make the time for all this?
To make it easier, we’ve written a guide to lowering your blood pressure through diet, exercise and stress reduction:
Lower Your Blood Pressure Naturally – The Complete 9 Step Guide
As the title (imaginatively!) suggests, the guide takes a holistic approach to lowering blood pressure. It covers what you’re eating and drinking, useful supplements you might want to take, different kinds of exercise you can do, and various approaches to relaxation and stress reduction.
To keep it simple, the guide is laid out in nine easy-to-follow steps. You just follow the advice for each step at your own pace. Take it a week at a time or a month at a time – whatever suits you. And you’ll be on your way to lower blood pressure and better health in general.
I should also mention that not only is the guide easy to follow but it’s also enjoyable to follow. Lowering your blood pressure doesn’t have to be a life of denial. As such, the guide includes lots of tasty food and drink suggestions, and useful tips and insights on lifestyle changes. Little things that – put together – can make a big difference. And you can still eat chocolate and drink wine (or beer or fine whisky).
Just click on the picture above for more information and/or to order it!
And all the best with lowering your blood pressure!
Post by Simon and Alison