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Exercise to bring down your blood pressure

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Aerobic exercise can help reduce your blood pressure by up to 10 per cent. GP Dr Alasdair Wright gives you his expert tips on what’s best for bringing your numbers down.

Being diagnosed with high blood pressure can make you anxious about taking exercise but, in the majority of cases, it’s perfectly safe and can actually help lower your blood pressure too.

Lifestyle measures, such as taking more exercise, reducing salt intake and keeping to a healthy weight, can all help lower blood pressure, as can taking medication. Exercise has the added benefits of helping to strengthen your heart muscle and improve fat metabolism. 

Is it always safe to exercise if I have high blood pressure?

Although taking exercise initially raises your blood pressure, your blood pressure soon returns to normal.

In some cases, if your blood pressure is particularly high (above 180/100 - 199/109), you should speak to your doctor or nurse about starting any new exercise, as they may prefer to lower your blood pressure with medication before you start exercising.

The Blood Pressure Association says that, if your blood pressure is 200/110 or above, you should not start any new activity before getting advice from a doctor or nurse.

If you have any doubts, always check with your doctor that it is safe for you to take exercise, particularly if you have other medical conditions. 

What’s the best type of exercise for lowering blood pressure?

“Aerobic exercise – which involves repetitive movement of the limbs and
makes us moderately out of breath – is the most beneficial,” advises Dr Wright: “aerobic exercise includes fast walking, jogging, cycling or swimming, but even mowing the lawn, digging the flower beds and dancing count.“ 

What intensity should I aim for?

Aim to get your heart rate to around 60 per cent of maximum (maximum heart rate is roughly calculated as 220 beats per minute minus your age).

Take it easy for the first few minutes while your body warms up and for the last few minutes as your cardiovascular and respiratory systems wind down. 

How often?

Your target should be 40 minutes to one hour, three or four times a week. Build up gradually and always listen to your body.

“Stop immediately if you feel any pain, excessive breathlessness, nausea or faintness,” says Dr Wright: “it may take a few weeks before you notice the full beneficial blood pressure lowering effects of regular exercise.” 

Any types of exercise to avoid?

“Non-aerobic exercise such as heavy weight lifting is less beneficial and in some cases may be dangerous for those with very high blood pressure because it can put too much strain on the heart and blood vessels,” explains Dr Wright.

Activities such as scuba diving or parachuting can also be dangerous if your blood pressure is not being controlled. The Blood Pressure Association advises that you will need a medical certificate to start or continue either of these activities if you have high blood pressure. 

Six ways to lower your blood pressure with exercise

Vary the type of 'aerobic' exercise so that you work different muscles groups but also to maintain interest and motivation.

Try a mixture of:
 
Fast walking for 40 minutes:
(preferably in a park or on soft ground).
Add in some short inclines to get your heart rate up and moderately out of breath. Keep it interesting by varying your route.
 
Cycling for 40 minutes
Cycling on safe roads or on a stationary exercise bike. Vary the intensity on the exercise bike or add in a few inclines or increase your speed to get your heart rate up.
 
Swimming for 30-40 minutes

Any stroke is fine, provided you work hard enough to get out of breath and raise your heart rate. Once you get fitter, add in a few short bursts of faster swimming to keep your heart rate up.
 
Aerobic exercise classes for 30-40 minutes
Always warm up first to prevent injuries and remember to go at a pace which suits you. Start at the back of the class and don't be frightened to stop – remember that a heart rate of around 60 per cent of maximal is enough to get the blood pressure lowering benefits.
 
Racquet sports for 60 minutes

Gives the same benefit as long as you keep the intensity at a relatively constant level. It is not so easy to maintain a steady increase in heart rate and breathing as there is usually frequent short bursts of more explosive activity. Just rallying with your partner rather than a competitive game is more likely to give you a steady workout.
 
Cross training/rowing for 30 minutes in a gym
This type of exercise can also be beneficial and easily allows a controllable steady level of activity; for instance, some machines allow you to check you are working at the right level.
 
If you want to understand more about high blood pressure, then you can send a question to our panel of experts.

Useful links

British Hypertension Society - www.bhsoc.org
Blood Pressure Association - www.bpassoc.org.uk

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