Sure, medication can treat high blood pressure, but to what extent can we simply lower our blood pressure through exercise?
If you have been reading the health news lately, you will know that around thirty million Americans magically just failed their blood pressure test. As much as I would like to make a political joke, a reference to the stock market, or even a fast food quip here, the reason wasn’t any of those heart palpitating factors.
What happened was that the American Heart Association lowered the measuring stick on what they consider to be healthy blood pressure. As of last week, high blood pressure will now be defined as 130/80 millimeters of mercury or greater. That means a bunch of us may need to be more diligent than we previously were when the measurement was 140/90. That is, if we don’t want to get hounded by our GPs.
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.
Now before you rush off and talk to your doctor about whether X, Y, or Z medication is right for you, I would encourage you to check out the Nutrition Diva episode about the DASH diet and also consider getting active!
Can Exercise Lower Blood Pressure?
Let’s start with this, 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.
Also, we’ve know 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 millimeters of mercury and that is as good as some of the most popular blood pressure medications.
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.
Another bonus is that regularly "getting your 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.
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 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 10-Minute Workouts I bring up on a very regular basis and also take a look at my article about Making Time To Exercise.
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 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.