I often tout the benefits of exercise. From reducing your risk of diabetes to helping you sleep better, exercise improves a wide array of medical conditions. Today, I am going to add one more thing to the already long list of ways exercise improves health. Many of my patients are surprised to learn that exercise can positively affect blood pressure in some surprising ways. If you currently have high blood pressure, or you are predisposed to this condition, you can use exercise to reduce or even eliminate your need for medication.
The Connection Between Exercise and Blood Pressure
Many people relate exercise solely to weight loss, but that is hardly its only benefit. When you are physically active, your muscles are trained to work more efficiently and become stronger. Your heart is a muscle, so as it grows stronger, it is able to pump blood with less effort. This reduces the force exerted on your arteries and lowers your blood pressure.
Exercise also has a positive impact on two key hormones, adrenaline and insulin. When you exercise regularly, the levels of adrenaline when your body is at rest are lowered, reducing your heart rate slightly, as well as lowering your blood pressure.
A similar effect may be achieved by taking beta blockers, but exercise does not come with the side effects of medication. Exercise also reduces insulin levels. This is important because higher than normal insulin causes the kidneys to be less efficient at regulating sodium levels in the body. This, in turn, leads to higher blood pressure.
What Kind of Exercise Works?
The good news is that any physical activity that gets your heart pumping can help reduce blood pressure. Studies show that exercise lowers systolic blood pressure (the top number) by 5 to 10 millimeters of mercury. These numbers are similar to the improvements you would get with medication, except that exercise is completely natural and practically free. Most people who begin an exercise program will see improvements in their blood pressure readings in one to three months. As long as you continue to exercise, you will enjoy benefits.
Patients often ask me if they should join a gym or sign up for a 5K in order to lower their blood pressure. Both ideas are certainly excellent, but nothing so drastic is necessary to begin an effective exercise program. Your goal should be at least 30 minutes of heart-pumping physical activity daily if possible.
Just taking a brisk walk, mowing the lawn, vacuuming the house or light shoveling of snow can be of help. If you can’t carve a 30-minute block of time out of your day, doing shorter bursts of activity is equally beneficial. For example, you can do 10 minutes of yoga before work, take a ten-minute walk around the block at lunch, park your car as far as possible from the mall entrance, and take the stairs several times a day.
Another study suggests a different form of exercise may also help lower blood pressure. Researchers in Canada had people perform handgrip exercises three times a week for eight weeks. At the end of this period, the subjects reduced their systolic blood pressure and their arteries had become more flexible. Adding handgrip exercises to your routine can’t hurt, but the researchers emphasized that they used a specialized gripping device unavailable to consumers. This may account for the impressive results.
I hope the strong evidence that exercise lowers blood pressure has convinced you to change your approach to managing the condition. If you are just starting an exercise program, consult your doctor if you are overweight, smoke, have had a heart attack, suffer with a chronic medical condition, or simply unsure of your physical health. The effort you make to lower your blood pressure or reduce your risk of hypertension as you age will yield big benefits. Better yet, exercise will improve your overall health in countless ways.
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