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If you have been reading the health news lately, you will know that around thirty million Americans magically just failed their blood pressure test. As much as I would like to make a political joke, a reference to the stock market, or even a fast food quip here, the reason wasn’t any of those heart palpitating factors.
What happened was that the American Heart Association lowered the measuring stick on what they consider to be healthy blood pressure. As of last week, high blood pressure will now be defined as 130/80 millimeters of mercury or greater. That means a bunch of us may need to be more diligent than we previously were when the measurement was 140/90. That is, if we don’t want to get hounded by our GPs.
The new recommendation is a direct response to the results of a large, federally-funded study called Sprint that was published in 2015 in The New England Journal of Medicine.
Now before you rush off and talk to your doctor about whether X, Y, or Z medication is right for you, I would encourage you to check out the Nutrition Diva episode about the DASH diet and also consider getting active!
Can Exercise Lower Blood Pressure?
Let’s start with this, if your heart can take it easy and not work as hard to pump all your life-giving blood, then the force on your arteries will decrease and that will in turn lower your blood pressure. We all know that consistent physical activity can make your heart stronger so it follows that a stronger heart muscle will pump your blood with less effort.
Also, we’ve know for a long time that simply by getting more movement in your day, you can lower your systolic blood pressure (the top number in a reading) by around 4 to 9 millimeters of mercury and that is as good as some of the most popular blood pressure medications.
If you are one of the lucky ones with blood pressure in the desirable range, even after the changed guidelines, regular workouts can still help prevent your blood pressure from getting out of control as you age.
Another bonus is that regularly “getting your sweat on” can help you maintain a healthy body weight and a healthy ratio of muscle to fat, which is a darn good way to keep your blood pressure under wraps.
What is the catch? Well, the key is to exercise regularly and to keep it up. The Mayo Clinic says that it takes about three months of regular workouts to see a meaningful change in those BP numbers and those changes only last as long as you keep that gym membership active!
How Often Do You Need to Exercise?
The good news is that you do not have to spend hours and hours in the gym every single day. All you need to do is simply get out there and add some moderate physical activities to your day. We’re not talking about anything heroic either. For most of you fit folks out there, this will be a literal brisk walk in the park. You can:
- Mow the lawn
- Shovel the walk
- Or any combination of the above!
The only stipulation that the Department of Health and Human Services recommends is that you aim for at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity most days of the week. Easy, right?
How Hard Do You Need to Exercise?
In a study on how exercise intensity affects blood pressure and heart rate on obese adolescents, after a 6-month intervention systolic, diastolic, and mean BP decreased from both high and low intensity workouts, but waist circumference, heart rate and HRV showed beneficial changes only in the high intensity group. They concluded that aerobic exercise training set at a high intensity compared with the low intensity had additional benefits on abdominal obesity and cardiovascular health beyond the benefits they saw on blood pressure.
A second study in 2009 on exercise intensity and high blood pressure showed that higher and lower intensity training reduced systolic blood pressure to a similar extent, but lower intensity does not alter ambulatory blood pressure. Only the higher intensity training affected the anthropometric characteristics and blood lipids in a beneficial way, which is a super fancy way of saying that it also improved body dimensions, such as height, weight, girth, and body fat composition as well as cholesterol and triglycerides.
So as usual, I would suggest doing both. And it likely will come as no surprise that I also suggest throwing in some good old resistance training.
High Blood Pressure and Weight Lifting
One quick note about weight training and blood pressure. Yes, lifting heavy weights can cause a surprising but temporary increase in blood pressure, depending on how much and how heavy you lift. But don’t be scared off. Weight lifting also bestows some super long-term benefits to blood pressure that definitely outweigh the scary risk of a the temporary spike. I have seen a lot of crazy stuff in the gym but I have never seen someone taking their blood pressure at the squat rack so you will just have to take my word on this one.
Weight lifting can also improve other aspects of your cardiovascular health that will certainly reduce your overall risk. In fact, the Department of Health and Human Services recommends incorporating strength training exercises of all types into your workout regime a couple times per week.
If you need some help getting started on your resistance training regime, a good place to start would be with a protocol called Five by Five.
This workout requires a gym or access to some weights such as barbells or dumbbells. It’s quite simple. With as heavy a weight as you can lift with good form, you do five sets of five reps of:
- Shoulder Press
- Power clean
For some added benefits (like fat loss) make sure, during the 90 to 120 second recovery periods between each set, that you perform some easy mobility exercises or some core exercises. Things like opposite-arm-opposite-leg extensions, planks, side lunges, jumprope, or even some sun salutations (for you Yoga fans out there). I would suggest doing this twice per week.
Other Ways to Lower Blood Pressure
There is a device called Zona Plus that looks like an old-school joystick or that electric razor your dad bought when you turned seventeen. It claims to be the new scientific breakthrough in controlling your blood pressure. The website says that based on a technology used to help fighter pilots, the Zona Plus therapy makes positive physical changes in your body that naturally promote healthy blood pressure. Plus it’s safe to use and completely drug-free and all you need is 12 minutes and a comfortable place to sit.
In that 12 minutes you squeeze the device in one hand for specific amounts of time at specific amounts of pressure. I assume it is acting on the same mechanism that makes isometric handgrip exercise effective.
Two studies conducted at Canada’s McMaster University showed that handgrip exercises can make blood vessels more flexible, can improve blood vessel function, and lower high blood pressure.
Before you jump to the medication, consider alternatives like diet, exercise, meditation, and stress relief interventions.
The subjects in isometric Study #1 performed four, 2-min isometric handgrip squeezes with a 3-minute rest in between the contractions. They specified that the intensity of the contractions should be equal to 30% of the subject’s maximum squeezing effort. They performed the isometric exercises three times per week for a total of eight weeks. Then the subjects in Study #2 performed four contractions of 50% of their maximum squeezing effort and held it for 45 seconds followed by a 1-minute rest. Study #2 went on for 5 days per week for 5 weeks. In Study #1, all eight participants had a significant decline in both systolic and diastolic resting blood pressures. In Study #2, subjects experienced significant mean declines in resting systolic and diastolic pressures but not quite as significant as Study #1.
But hand grip devices, like the Zona Plus, have to be used for five to eight weeks to see good results and are not a substitute for regular aerobic exercise. While they can lower some people’s blood pressure (systolic blood pressure specifically), people who fall in the more serious range of blood pressure are still advised to do some brisk walking, swimming, cycling, or any of the other activities that strengthen your heart, lungs, and bones. If you are really concerned, I would say: why not do both?
Should You Worry About the New Blood Pressure Guidelines?
I am not a doctor and I will certainly not give you medical advice, but if you get beyond the frightening headlines you will see that the new guidelines are “for anyone with a significant risk of heart attack or stroke” and not across the board for the general public. That is important to consider seeing as anyone previously with a “significant risk” was likely already being monitored closely and advised to lower their blood pressure even if they fell close to the new 130/80 measurement.
Also for the study, blood pressure results were averaged between three separate measurements that were taken after five minutes of quietly relaxing in a room. Now, when the heck was the last time your blood pressure was measured that way? In the real world, a blood pressure of 130 may show up as a blood pressure of 150 in a busy clinic, after driving in traffic, and hoofing-it up the street.
I am not poo-pooing these recommendations. After all high blood pressure is second, right behind smoking, as a preventable cause of heart attacks and strokes. But I am saying that reading the fine print is important—especially when the chief recommendation is to, and I quote, “take more drugs or increase the dosages.” You don’t have to be a conspiracy theorist to balk at that statement. Especially when we know that we have alternatives like diet, exercise, meditation, and stress relief interventions to consider first.
So for now, I will see you at the gym—and I’ll bring a blood pressure cuff with me, just in case.