High blood pressure has been called a silent disease because there are often no apparent symptoms. This medical condition could be undetected for years and silently contribute to other medical conditions such as heart disease, stroke, and dementia. Even if you only have ‘white coat hypertension’, it is a sign that stress raises your blood pressure and silently strains systems in your body.
Exercise is known to help, but only if you are doing it correctly and regularly. That can seem overwhelming so even thinking about exercising can raise your blood pressure!
Let’s take a whole person science-based approach to look at exercising to manage blood pressure control* in a way that builds lasting motivation to exercise regularly.
Exercising regularly for reducing high blood pressure starts with a mindset
To exercise regularly, the place to start is how you think about exercise. Take a moment to notice what comes to mind when you think about exercising with high blood pressure. You may be up against a strong family history of high blood pressure or have other health conditions or a long history of struggle with making exercise a habit. Many factors can lead to a mindset that you can’t exercise or that you don’t have time or energy. Concerns about getting injured or having a heart attack may also play a role in putting it off.
This article is written to help you develop and strengthen the kind of mindset about exercising for that has been shown to lead to lasting motivation. If exercising regularly has been a struggle, let’s think about exercising with high blood pressure in a whole new way.
How exercise helps when you to manage high blood pressure
What is high blood pressure?
Blood pressure is the pressure of blood against the walls of your blood vessel walls. Two parts of your cardiovascular system affect blood pressure:
Your Heart. The force with which blood is pumped from your heart puts pressure on blood vessel walls. This varies depending on the strength of your heart as well as whether you are moving or still. When you are moving, your heart not only pumps faster, it pumps stronger. Think of an untied balloon filled with air. The more air you put in the balloon, the more forcefully it will fly around the room when you let it go. The more of your body that is moving, the more blood that is circulated back to the heart and pumped out again. The more blood that fills the heart with each beat, the more forcefully it contracts, the more pressure that blood puts on the blood vessel walls.
Your blood vessels. Blood vessels can tighten and relax to help control where blood is sent in your body. When you move, blood vessels relax, especially in moving muscles to allow for more blood flow to bring oxygen and fuel to moving muscles. When you exercise, your body releases nitric oxide. This chemical helps blood vessels relax to compensate for the higher pressure from the stronger heartbeat (described above). This greater elasticity of your blood vessels is how your body compensates for the stronger pressure of your blood through the vessels from the stronger heartbeat. It’s just one of the amazing ways your body adapts so you function well when you move .
The difference between elevated blood pressure during exercise and stress.
Your blood pressure goes up during times of stress because your heart is pumping faster and stronger and at the same time your blood vessels are more stiff. This causes higher pressure on the walls of your blood vessels. Over time, this pressure on the walls can wear down the smooth, slippery lining in your blood vessels, increasing the chances plaque will stick to the walls. This process is called atherosclerosis and is what can lead to heart attack or stroke.
When you move your body, your blood pressure goes up, but it is because your heart is pumping stronger (and getting stronger in the process), while your blood vessels are relaxing. This rise in your blood pressure does not cause wear and tear on your vessel walls because at the same time the walls are more elastic, not stiff as when you are under stress. This combination helps prevent, rather than lead to, the buildup of ‘stuff’ on the walls of your blood vessels.
Lasting effects of stress versus exercise
When you don’t move your body, blood pressure is lowered because your heart is not pumping as hard and your blood vessels are relaxed. But the state of your mind changes your body. Stress prepares you for movement but if that stressor does not require you to move to take care of it, blood pressure stays elevated for longer than it needs to.
Exercise that is not stress-producing lowers blood pressure for up to 22 hours after just one single moderate-intensity bout. This helps to reduce the wearing down of your artery walls because your blood vessels are more relaxed, helping you manage high blood pressure for almost a whole day.
Mindfulness and exercising with high blood pressure
Since stress is strongly connected to high blood pressure, combining it with exercise elevates its ability to help lower it. Even though blood pressure is called a silent disease, mindfulness allows you to tap into the subtle cues your body sends that your blood pressure is rising too high. It also helps you stay aware when competitiveness or other attitudes are making exercise more stress-producing than stress-reducing. Using mindfulness with exercise allows you to pay attention, to listen to and trust your body, which improves your ability to exercise at the just-right level to strengthen your body without causing blood pressure to rise in a way that strains your body.
How to exercise regularly for better blood pressure control
When you think of exercise as your tool to lower blood pressure in the moments of your day you need it most, you have an incredible ‘medication’ at your disposal, one that helps you manage blood pressure and with positive side effects that leave you feeling and functioning better now and in the future.
Exercise is really three medications in one. Each type of exercise has unique ways of helping regulate blood pressure. Knowing how to use each of them, and using the skill of mindfulness, gives you a greater sense of control over your blood pressure and confidence you can use exercise to help you feel and function the best you can every day.
Stamina: is the ability of your body to move for extended periods of time without getting tired and needing to stop. Cardiovascular exercise such as walking, swimming, biking, and dancing are what build stamina. Cardio is often thought of as getting your heart rate up, but cardio is about much more than your heart. This is one of the best types of exercise for generating nitric oxide to relax your blood vessels. This type of exercise is also excellent for added protection from the health concerns that come from having high blood pressure such as cardiovascular disease, stroke, and dementia. When you are exercising well, stamina-building exercise is done in a way that reduces stress, improves brain function, and makes you feel better mentally and physically every day.
Strength: We used to believe that because blood pressure went up during weight-lifting-type exercises, strength training was something to avoid if you had high blood pressure. Thanks to more research and a better understanding of how the body changes with strength training, we know it is a type of exercise that helps regulate blood pressure. There are certainly considerations such as
Breathing throughout the entire exercise and avoiding breath holding.
Keeping a looser grip on the weights because a tight grip can increase blood pressure.
Slow gradual progression to give the body time to adapt.
Contrary to popular belief, there is absolutely no evidence that muscle soreness leads to greater gains from strength training. Soreness is simply a sign you did too much too soon, and is more likely to cause a setback rather than faster results. When you know how to move smart, strength training feels good from day one.
Mobility: Mobility builds freedom of movement through exercises like stretching and balance. When your body is free to move, it is more likely to move often, helping that movement system keep stress lower and blood vessels relaxed in more moments of your day. What many people don’t know is that stretching causes a slight muscle contraction, which gives your body what it has prepared for in a stress response. Mobility exercises work best as mindful movement breaks in your day so you can lower stress levels before they build up, helping you keep blood pressure in a more desirable range. The bonus is you have a way to feel better in your body and calmer in your mind when you need it most.
Summary Exercise, when done in a way that lowers stress and can be done regularly, activates your body’s natural blood pressure management systems, giving you a great resource for keeping your blood pressure at a level that keeps your body healthy and your mind functioning well.
*Important Note: This article provides general information about exercising with high blood pressure. The specifics about how much is enough and the timing of exercise when you have high blood pressure is very individual. Exercising WELL is the way to have a clinical exercise physiologist as part of your care team. Along with your health care providers, I can help you decide the way to use exercise to help control high blood pressure. Click the button below to learn more about the Exercising WELL online program and coaching. If you have specific questions, please feel free to contact me.
Suhr F, Gehlert S, Grau M, Bloch W. Skeletal muscle function during exercise-fine-tuning of diverse subsystems by nitric oxide. Int J Mol Sci. 2013;14(4):7109-7139. Published 2013 Mar 28. doi:10.3390/ijms14047109