How exercise can improve your blood pressure
If you have it, this article concerns your least favorite subject. The ever-looming elephant in many of our rooms—high blood pressure.
The medical condition known as high blood pressure (HBP), or hypertension, is simply when the long-term force of blood against one’s artery walls is consistently too high. Commonly referred to as the silent killer, high blood pressure takes approximately 500,000 American lives each year and costs the US over $131 billion each year.
High blood pressure is “silent” because most people remain asymptomatic—never knowing they have it unless and until they check their blood pressure regularly. Quite dangerously, many of those who suffer from high blood pressure do not take this ailment seriously, as the short-term effects are often minimal.
However, the long-term damage can be detrimental. If left untreated, high blood pressure can cause the heart muscle to thicken and become weak. Furthermore, untreated high blood pressure can lead to atherosclerosis, the buildup of plaque in the arteries. “Clogged” arteries brought about by high blood pressure can hinder the body’s ability to transport blood and oxygen, leading to strokes, heart failure and even dementia.
Controlling your risk factors
Here’s the good news: many aspects of high blood pressure are controllable. High blood pressure is associated with many modifiable and non-modifiable risk factors. Modifiable risk factors (things that you can control) concern lifestyle choices, including smoking, excess alcohol, poor diet, obesity and physical inactivity. Non-modifiable risk factors (things out of your control) include family history, gender, age and race.
Both modifiable and non-modifiable risk factors contribute to high blood pressure. Accordingly, it is imperative to control what you can control, and make healthy lifestyle choices that will prevent (or at least mitigate) high blood pressure.
The most common and often primary treatment for high blood pressure relies on blood pressure regulating medication. However, lifestyle changes and non-pharmacological strategies are often relied upon and required to lower blood pressure. These non-pharmacological strategies include:
- Reducing salt intake
- Reducing alcohol consumption
- Smoking cessation
- Stress management
- Weight loss
- Diet changes
- Regular physical activity
The power of exercise
Research concerning the effects of regular physical activity in promoting a reduction in resting blood pressure levels is well established. Regular physical activity is shown to have both acute and chronic effects on blood pressure.
During exercise, blood pressure will naturally elevate due to the body’s increased circulation of blood throughout the body. For the most part (and while done with the consultation of a doctor), this short-term increase in blood pressure is inconsequential.
After physical activity or exercise, the body is subject to a powerful physiological effect called post-exercise hypotension (PEH). Studies of PEH establish that exercise can lower your blood pressure between -2mmHg and -12mmHg for a duration of four to 16 hours. This variable range in magnitude is due to unique individual responses to exercise and the intensity (or duration) of the activity.
Regular exercise is also shown to have chronic effects on blood pressure health. Over time, regular physical activity can reduce resting blood pressure and decrease arterial stiffness. Furthermore, such activity can lead to a decrease in many cardiovascular risk factors and diseases, including obesity, diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease and stroke.
The FIIT Principle
According to the American College of Sports Medicine, the recommendations for exercise should be individualized and based off the FIIT principle. The FIIT principle stands for: Frequency, Intensity, Time and Type.
Experts recommend some form of aerobic exercise on most days, if not each day of the week. As discussed above, this daily exercise is intended to maximize the benefits stemming from post-exercise hypotension.
Intensity should be based on your cardiovascular risk factors, exercise history and stage of hypertension. Those with multiple risk factors, little to no experience with exercise or at stage 2 hypertension will need clearance from a doctor before engaging in moderate or high-intensity exercise.
Generally, guidelines recommend that adults with hypertension engage in moderate-intensity aerobic exercise. In moderate-intensity exercise, you should be able to talk to your neighbor but unable to sing a song.
The recommended amount of active time is around 30 minutes a day with at least 150 minutes a week.
There are many beneficial types of exercise, so it is important to select a mode that is enjoyable and easy to adhere to. Moderate-intensity aerobic exercise could include activities such as fast walking, dancing or biking. Most research on hypertension has been done on aerobic exercise. However, a well-rounded exercise program includes both aerobic and strength training exercises.
Strength training is recommended on two to three non-consecutive days a week at about moderate intensity (not to exceed 80% of maximal intensity). Weights should be lifted around two to four sets for eight to 12 repetitions, focusing on main muscle groups, such as the chest, back, core and legs.
Keeping a log can be a great way to detect and monitor blood pressure changes from exercise. This can be done at each doctor’s visit or with a home blood pressure cuff. As discussed above, exercise can have immediate and lasting effects on blood pressure, so taking your blood pressure before exercise and after a sufficient five to 10-minute cool-down is ideal. A log can be beneficial to share with a doctor as well as a fitness professional so that they are able to adjust care plans and fitness programs if needed.
In sum, your blood pressure is determined by both modifiable and non-modifiable factors. While non-modifiable factors are out of your control, careful attention to the modifiable factors can yield lasting effects on your blood pressure health. As discussed above, regular exercise can be the most practical and rewarding way to prevent and improve high blood pressure both immediately and over time.
Always talk to your doctor before making any major changes to your exercise routine.
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