08 Feb How Exercise Can Lower Your Blood Pressure
Most people probably know that blood pressure is a vital, yet basic, metric of our general health. Odds are, you’ve had your blood pressure taken at least once in your life. But apart from knowing that blood pressure is something your doctor will inevitably check when you pop in for a check-up, what do you actually know about blood pressure?
Let’s take a look at what causes high blood pressure, and how exercise can help to manage it.
What exactly is blood pressure?
In a nutshell, blood pressure is your basic indicator of how your “blood plumbing” is working. If we think of our blood vessels, arteries and veins as our internal pipe system, then a blood pressure measure is basically an indication of how well the blood is getting transported around through the system and how the system is functioning. Blood pressure is gauged and measured by essentially “feeling and listening” to your arteries and thus gathering an insight at how hard the blood is flowing and pressing against out arterial walls.
Blood pressure peaks when the heart muscle contracts and pumps blood, a cycle called systole. It falls when the heart relaxes and refills with blood, a cycle called diastole. Systole is the top number and diastole is the bottom number. It is displayed as two numbers, e.g 120/80 mmHg.
So, what should your blood pressure be? An optimal blood pressure level is a reading under 120/80 mmHg. Readings over 120/80mmHg and up to 139/89mmHg are in the normal to high range. Your doctor will advise what your ideal blood pressure should be based on your circumstances.
What causes high blood pressure?
Any abnormalities in your blood pressure reading can be indicative of problems with your pipelines (arteries and veins), blood volume or the heart itself. Some of the most common causes of abnormal blood pressure include:
- Arterial narrowing via small or large obstructions in the arteries and/or veins. This causes a bottle neck and pressure inevitably builds.
- Arterial stiffening – harder/inflexible pipes
- Abnormal heart rhythms (weird beating). If your heart beats too fast, pressure builds because blood is getting thrust into the system quicker than it can be circulated.
- Blood volume levels. Sheer higher volume will also naturally raise pressure.
- Heart stroke volumes – the ‘size and strength’ of each heartbeat
There are a lot of factors that increase your risk of developing high blood pressure, including:
A regular poor diet of high salt, high fat, high calorie foods puts you at risk of hypertension. High cholesterol can cause plaque build-up within the artery walls (atherosclerosis), causing narrowing of the arteries. High salt diets can cause fluid retention in the food, which in turn increases the blood volume.
Being inactive or doing only irregular exercise will have bearing on the robustness and function of your heart and internal pipework. Inflexible and less pliable arteries are usually indicative of poor cardiovascular conditioning due to low exercise levels.
There’s an endless list of chemicals in a single cigarette, but carbon monoxide and nicotine both have profound effects in terms of contributing to hypertension by way of arterial plaque deposits and arterial hardening. Nicotine also has both acute and chronic elevations in blood pressure, causing an overall general rise in blood pressure over time.
4. Body weight
Being overweight (BMI >25) or obese (BMI >30) puts you at greater general risk of HT, mainly due to the sheer stress on the circulatory system to supply a larger physical body.
5. Lifestyle and Stress
Stress lifts your blood pressure. If you’re constantly stressed and unable to relax, then that chronic elevation of BP can have lasting problems.
Unfortunately, there are just some things that we cannot control. Yes, your genetics can put you at a higher risk factor for HT, but that doesn’t mean you should give up!. Despite any genetic predispositions you may have for HT, watching your diet and exercising regularly is still critical in attenuating your risk.
How can exercise help?
Exercise helps to build a more resilient cardiac system to help “buffer” against or resist hypertensive adaptations. If we think of our heart and circulatory system as one big muscle, then exercise strengthens that muscle, making it more resistant to hypertension. Exercise also helps to manage weight, reducing the strain placed on the cardiovascular system.
What types of exercise are best?
My first port of call would be steady state cardiovascular exercise. Things like long walks, bike rides, hikes, swims and jogging are all good places to start. Longer, slow, steady, rhythmic exercise which elevates the heart rate nicely but not overwhelmingly. You can literally start straight away! If you’ve got a pair of sneakers, you’re ready to go. Some handy rules of thumb to go by…
Aim for 10,000 steps a day
Buy a $5 pedometer from Kmart or download one to your smart phone and aim to accumulate 10,000 steps daily. If 10,000 is a little out of reach to start with, then start with 5,000 and gradually build up.
Work towards the WHO Physical Activity Requirements:
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends that everyone aim to meet the following exercise guidelines:
- 150 min of moderate intensity exercise per week, OR 75min of vigorous intensity exercise per week, with aerobic exercise done in at least 10min bouts
- 2 x full body muscle strengthening activities per week (weight training)
It’s important to remember that these are general guidelines for most people to aim for good health. It doesn’t mean you can necessarily jump straight to that amount of exercise straight away – especially if never have exercised before or for a long time or have significant health issues.
Always check with your GP and an Accredited Exercise Physiologist (AEP) before getting started. An AEP will be able to prescribe exercise that is safe, effective, and suited to your individual needs. To find an AEP near you, click here.
Nicholas is an Accredited Exercise Physiologist and owner of Clinical Strength Exercise Physiology.