If you have high blood pressure, your doctor might recommend getting more exercise. While medication can help manage your blood pressure, exercise is an excellent way to help lower your blood pressure by making your heart stronger and maintaining a healthy weight.
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Clinical exercise physiologist Laura Gray, ACSM-CEP, MS, explains why exercise is good for those who have high blood pressure, what activities to try and how to stay motivated.
Is exercise good for high blood pressure?
Exercise, in general, can help manage your blood pressure. If you have high blood pressure, exercise can even help lower it. How? Exercising regularly helps manage your weight, keeps your heart healthy and decreases stress.
Additionally, working exercise into your lifestyle, along with eating a healthy diet, can help lower your blood pressure and prevent more serious medical conditions.
“High blood pressure can lead to stroke, heart attack, heart failure and even kidney issues,” says Gray.
So, if you’re ready to lace up your sneakers, make sure to keep a few things in mind.
“You have to be mindful of your breathing,” she advises. Make sure you’re not holding your breath while working out or doing a breathing method called the Valsalva maneuver, which is where you hold your breath during weightlifting, for example.
“Focusing on breath control will help eliminate a significant elevation in blood pressure,” says Gray.
Another thing to be mindful of is incorporating a 5- to 10-minute warmup and cool down. For example, you can ride a bike, walk on the treadmill or elliptical, walk around a track or take a stroll around your neighborhood to warm up or cool down.
“By warming up and cooling down, you can also avoid a drastic change in blood pressure,” says Gray. “It allows your body to acclimate to exercise by allowing a gradual increase in heart rate and breathing at the start of the activity. And as soon as you stop exercising, if you don’t cool down, it can lead to lower blood pressure. Your heart is still beating faster and your blood vessels are dilated, and this can lead to venous pooling in your legs. So it’s important to cool down to prevent hypotension.”
How much exercise do you need to do?
It’s recommended that you get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week. But that 150 minutes can be broken up into more manageable chunks throughout the week.
“You can start your exercise in 10-minute increments if you’re just getting started back into an exercise routine,” recommends Gray.
And consistency is key. It may take one to three months before you notice any difference in your blood pressure.
You also want to make sure you’re working out hard enough. For moderate-intensity exercise, you want to aim for about 50% of your max heart rate. Another simple way to figure out if you need to push yourself a little more is the talk test.
“If you’re on a treadmill or walking, you’d only be able to get out a few words,” says Gray. “You definitely wouldn’t be able to sing or easily have a full conversation.”
Best exercises to lower blood pressure
As you perform cardio and strength training, it helps strengthen your heart, which means your heart can pump more blood with less effort.
Here are some forms of exercise that are great for helping lower your blood pressure:
- Aerobic classes. Sign up for classes like aqua aerobics, Zumba and a functional fitness class. When in doubt, ask your gym or rec center what classes they offer that fit your needs.
- Brisk walking. You’ll have to walk faster than you normally walk to elevate your heart and breathing rate.
- Cycling. Riding your bike does count if it’s done for at least 10 minutes and you’re actively pedaling. A beginner cycling class could also be a great way to get a workout scheduled into your routine.
- Dancing. Dance classes like Zumba are a good workout. Any dancing counts if it incorporates full body movement and elevates the heart rate.
- Gardening or other yardwork. This can include mowing the lawn and raking leaves. Aim for 30 to 45 minutes of yardwork.
- Hiking. If you’re new to hiking, stay on beginner’s trails at first. Have a goal to work up to more difficult paths.
- Running or jogging. The talk test can be used for jogging or running to make sure you’re starting at a good pace. You can alternate jogging and running with walking, too. Start off at shorter distances and slower speeds and slowly work up to longer distances or faster speeds.
- Swimming. Most people are familiar with the freestyle stroke, so it might be the easiest stroke for beginner swimmers. If that stroke is too difficult, aqua jogging can be a good starting point for someone getting used to exercising in the pool. Using equipment like a pool noodle or an aqua jogging belt to add extra buoyancy while jogging can also be helpful.
“When you reduce your weight, you can actually reduce your blood pressure by 5 to 7 millimeters of mercury, which is how blood pressure is measured,” explains Gray.
After working out, you can also focus on a few breathing methods that help lower your blood pressure. Gray recommends the pursed-lip breathing method.
“You just breathe in through your nose for 2 seconds and then out through your mouth, kind of like you’re blowing a whistle, for 4 seconds,” says Gray. “Doing that can help reset the body.”
Are there any activities to avoid?
Yes, at least at first, says Gray.
As you start out on your fitness journey, you need to take it slowly and work toward a goal.
“For someone with high blood pressure, high intensity might be a little bit tough,” says Gray. “It can be something you do eventually, but I wouldn’t start with that if you’re just starting exercise.”
You should also be careful when it comes to sprinting, climbing stairs or weightlifting. Those forms of exercise involve intense movements in a short period of time, which can raise your blood pressure too quickly and put too much stress on your heart.
“Weight training can get a little tricky because some people tend to hold their breath,” says Gray. “So as long as you’re breathing properly, weight training can be incorporated.”
Gray recommends talking to your doctor before starting any form of exercise.
“With high blood pressure, many people are on medications,” says Gray. “That medication can change your heart rate and blood pressure response to exercise.”
How to stay motivated
Starting an exercise routine can be scary. But Gray has some tips to help you stay motivated and on the right track toward your health goals.
- Break it up. As Gray mentions, don’t think you have to hit 150 minutes a week in one workout session. “Exercise can be done throughout the day,” says Gray. “You can do 10 minutes here, 10 minutes there.”
- Pick an activity you love. Don’t like running? Then don’t. If you enjoy swimming or dancing, then do those activities instead.
- But don’t be afraid to mix it up. Trying out different activities not only keeps it fun for you, but also helps prevent overuse or injury, and works different muscle groups.
- Find a time that works best for you. If you’re a morning person, try to get your workout in then. If you’re more of a night owl, hit the gym in the evening.
- Manage your expectations. When you’re starting out, setting small goals like working out three days a week will pay off more than aiming for working out five days a week. “If you go from zero to five days a week, you’re going to get burned out and it will be harder,” says Gray.
- Find a friend. Exercising with a family member or a friend can provide extra motivation to show up and work hard. “You can also use it as social interaction,” notes Gray.
- Check your heart rate and blood pressure. With high blood pressure, you’ll want to be careful how quickly you raise both your heart rate and blood pressure. Your blood pressure will rise during exercise and will typically drop post-workout. “Your doctor can help you understand those changes and what to watch for,” says Gray.
- Stop if you’re in pain. Sure, there’s different types of pain, but if it’s muscle soreness, Gray suggests taking a break to let those muscles relax. But if you’re experiencing chest pain, stop and seek medical attention.
Don’t forget about being consistent with your workouts — aiming for those 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise a week — by making your exercise plan a regular part of your life, says Gray.
“In order to keep up a lifestyle and see those true lifestyle changes, you want to make sure you have that planned exercise rather than just physical activity,” she says.