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Blood Pressure and Exercising: What You Need to Know

Approximately 50 percent of American adults struggle with high blood pressure, which can be extremely dangerous if left untreated. Often called the “silent killer,” high blood pressure usually has few, if any, noticeable symptoms but is a major contributor to some of the leading causes of death, including heart disease and stroke.

High blood pressure is most commonly caused by lifestyle factors like poor diet, excess weight, and low activity level, but the good news is that means that most people have some control over their condition. 

If you’ve been diagnosed with high blood pressure, your doctor has probably recommended that you start exercising in order to bring your blood pressure under control. 

If you are interested in finding ways to manage your high blood pressure, you’ll want to know what causes the condition, how exercise can help lower your blood pressure, and what other lifestyle changes you can make to get your condition under control. 

What is high blood pressure?

The heart pumps blood through the body in order to deliver oxygen to muscles, tissues, and organs. The blood travels to the extremities through blood vessels like veins, arteries, and capillaries, and blood pressure is measured as the force at which blood pushes against the walls of the blood vessels. A healthy heart is important because the heart needs to pump hard enough to send blood to all of the different parts of the body, but lifestyle factors can play a role in the force at which blood is pumped against the walls of the blood vessels.  

A patient is said to have high blood pressure if the blood flows too forcefully through the blood vessels for a prolonged period of time. Although many people don’t experience obvious symptoms of high blood pressure, the condition can cause damage to the walls of the blood vessels and to the heart, contributing to heart attacks, coronary artery disease and stroke. 

When a person’s blood pressure is too high, the heart and blood vessels are forced to work harder to compensate for inefficiencies in delivering the blood to the body.  Additionally, high blood pressure can cause microtears in the walls of the arteries. These microtears cause scar tissue to build up, further narrowing the blood vessels and preventing blood reaching the different areas of the body. As a result, blood pressure increases even further, causing a vicious cycle. 

Can exercise help lower blood pressure?

Exercise is one of the most effective ways for patients to manage their blood pressure without medication. Whether you choose to go for a run or walk, pop in a dance video, or ride your bike around your neighborhood, you can lower your high blood pressure with exercise. 

Exercising regularly helps strengthen your heart, which makes it more efficient at pumping blood throughout the body. When the heart does not have to work as hard, pressure on the arteries decreases, lowering your blood pressure. According to the American Heart Association, people who do not engage in physical activity are more likely to suffer from health problems like stroke and heart attack, while those who do report benefits such as reduced blood pressure, lower weight, and less stress. 

Is it safe to exercise if you have high blood pressure?

It’s not only safe to exercise if you have high blood pressure, in most cases, it is unsafe not to exercise. Increasing your activity level is one of the best things you can do for your health and it is one of the most effective ways to lower your blood pressure. 

However, it is always a good idea to check with your doctor before beginning a fitness routine. If you have not been physically active in a long time, it may feel strange to exercise at first. It’s important to know that breathing harder, sweating, and feeling your heart rate increase are all normal experiences when you’re exercising. 

However, extreme shortness of breath, a racing heart, or irregular heartbeat are signs that you may be pushing too hard. 

Start with moderate forms of exercise, like walking around the neighborhood, and gradually increase the duration and intensity of your workouts as your body adjusts.

How much exercise should I get?

The American Heart Association recommends that people who are otherwise healthy get at least 150 minutes per week of moderately intense physical activity, such as brisk walking. People who are engaging in more vigorous forms of exercise such as doing a cardio dance video can get 75 minutes per week of exercise. 

It’s important to spread out your physical activity throughout the week, so do not do all 150 or 75 minutes on just one or two days of the week. An easy way to get in 150 minutes per week of moderate activity is to take 30 minute brisk walks 5 days of the week. 

It’s also beneficial to incorporate strength training at least twice per week, as building muscle can help you burn more calories and lose weight, and weight loss corresponds to lower blood pressure in people who are currently overweight or obese. 

Does blood pressure increase during exercise?

Some people have the misconception that it is dangerous to exercise if you have high blood pressure because exercise can cause  your blood pressure to spike. While it is true that your blood pressure increases as you exercise, the effects are temporary and subside after exercise. 

An increase in blood pressure occurs during exercise because your heart begins to pump faster and harder in order to supply blood to the muscles, which are hard at work during exercise. Systolic blood pressure, or the top number in your blood pressure reading, commonly rises to between 160 and 220 mm Hg during exercise. 

It’s best to talk to your doctor about what a safe upper limit for your systolic blood pressure should be during exercise, but in general, it’s a good idea to stop exercising if your systolic blood pressure increases past 200 mm Hg. Your blood pressure should return to normal within a few hours of finishing exercise, and over the long term, your blood pressure readings will be lower as a result of regular exercise.

How do I ensure my safety while exercising with high blood pressure?

If you’re worried about exercising with high blood pressure, there are some strategies you can adopt to ensure that you stay safe. 

Remember, exercising is one of the best things you can do to lower your blood pressure, but it’s important to go about it in the right way. 

If you are currently sedentary, talk to your doctor before becoming more physically active and ask if there are any specific guidelines you should follow based on your existing medical conditions. When you’re given clearance to begin exercising, choose moderate activities like walking, cycling, or swimming, and gradually increase the length and intensity of your workouts

It’s important to exercise regularly throughout the week, so try to get some activity in each day, even if it is just 20 to 30 minutes of walking. Allow your body ample time to warm up in order to prevent injuries and slowly increase your blood pressure. 

It’s also very important that you cool down gradually, so make sure that you don’t stop exercising abruptly. For example, if you’re doing a workout video at home, don’t skip the cooldown – work through the stretches and gradual reduction of pace in the video. If you are out for a walk in the neighborhood, slowly reduce your pace as you get closer to your house, allowing your heart rate and blood pressure time to return to normal.

What other steps can I take to lower my blood pressure?

As noted previously, high blood pressure is heavily influenced by lifestyle factors. If you have high blood pressure, consider taking the following actions to get your blood pressure under control:

  • Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet with lean protein sources, whole grains, and fruits and vegetables.
  • Avoid sodium-heavy foods, particularly processed foods.
  • If you are overweight or obese, work on losing your excess weight. Weight loss of just five to ten pounds has been shown to have a noticeable effect on blood pressure.
  • Reduce sources of stress in your life where possible.
  • Practice good sleep hygiene and work on getting an adequate amount of sleep each night.
  • Practice mindfulness or meditation exercises to help you lower your stress levels during the day and keep your blood pressure in check during stressful situations.
  • Talk to your doctor about blood pressure medication if you have made all of the necessary lifestyle changes but are not able to get your blood pressure under control.