Can Exercise Really Lower Blood Pressure?

Blood pressure is the pressure exerted by the blood on the arteries and is measured in millimetres of mercury (mm Hg). There are two measures of blood pressure: the systolic blood pressure (SBP) is taken when the heart contracts and the diastolic blood pressure (DBP) is taken when the heart is relaxed. That’s why the systolic pressure is higher than the diastolic pressure. Blood pressure is considered high when it exceeds 140/90mm Hg and optimal blood pressure is 120/80mm Hg. High blood pressure or hypertension, as it’s also known, is a ‘silent killer’. ‘Silent’ because there are no signs unless it’s extremely high and ‘killer’ because it dramatically increases the risk of stroke, heart disease and kidney disease. Alarmingly, over 25% of adults in the UK have hypertension and that figure increases to more than 50% in those older than 60.

I was recently challenged by a client to provide evidence that exercise decreases high blood pressure. I think his exact words were…”where’s the evidence?” At first the question surprised me, but I soon realised he had a valid point. Why embark on a gruelling exercise programme without proof that it will actually fulfill the desired purpose?

So, here’s the evidence:

  • Exercise decreases blood pressure in a staggering 75% of people with hypertension. On average, SBP decreases by 11mm Hg and DBP decreases by 8mm Hg. Now, if you’re thinking that those figures aren’t worth the effort…think again! The risks associated with hypertension are continuous. That means that with each 2mm Hg rise in SBP there’s an associated 7% increase in mortality from heart disease and 10% increase in mortality from stroke. So exercise alone can decrease your risks of dying from heart disease by just under 40% and decrease your risks of dying from stroke by 55%! Worth the effort?
  • All guidelines (NHS, National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence, American College of Sports Medicine, Canadian Hypertension Education Program, Mayo Clinic, etc) include exercise as a cornerstone in the prevention, treatment and management of hypertension.

Now that we know exercise works, here are some specific guidelines on how to go about it:

  • Exercise should be undertaken on most days of the week and can include activities like gardening, household chores, walking, etc
  • Perform primarily endurance exercise supplemented by some resistance work
  • It should last 30mins a day (this can be continuous or accumulated over the day)
  • The intensity should be 40-60% of reserve heart rate (low to moderate intensity exercise is as, if not more, beneficial as high intensity exercise)

What are you waiting for? Jump on that bike! Actually, before you jump on that bike, make sure you get permission from the owner and check with your GP as well. Next week, even more ways to help decrease blood pressure…

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