Can exercise target the causes of high blood pressure? Majed Al Hamad shares

Young woman using a fitness watch

If you have high blood pressure then you can take some simple, effective steps to tackle the problem through exercise. You don’t have to turn yourself into a super athlete to tackle the causes of high blood pressure and be healthier and happier.

High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, puts your body, especially your heart, blood vessels and major organs, under stress. Exercise can help you manage this by tackling some of the underlying causes.

These include stress, lack of sleep, being overweight and a poor diet. Exercise can help with all of them.

Build your heart’s strength

Blood pressure is expressed as two numbers: systolic and diastolic. Systolic is the pressure as your heart beats, and diastolic the pressure as it rests. An example of a healthy reading is 110 / 70, in which 110 is the systolic pressure and 70 the diastolic.

When that systolic number is too high – anything above 140 – the heart and arteries are working harder than necessary. Every beat has to push the blood as fast as possible to ensure enough blood gets around your body, so your arteries are under too much pressure.

You can help this by improving the strength of your heart, because a strong heart can pump more blood more steadily and with less effort, which reduces the pressure on your arteries.

Your heart is a highly specialised muscle, and like most muscles it gets stronger with good exercise. In particular, you should aim to include cardiovascular exercise in your workout to raise your heart rate in a controlled way.

This helps to make your heart stronger and more efficient. The positive impact for people with high blood pressure can be startling, reducing that systolic blood pressure by an average of between four and nine. This can as good as or better than the effect of some medications.

Exercise helps deal with stress

When you experience emotional stress, your body reacts just like it would to physical danger, by releasing hormones which make your heart beat faster, your breathing speed up, and your muscles tense up ready for action. If this happens repeatedly, your body can suffer long-term damage.

Exercise is a great way to tackle emotional stress as one of the causes of high blood pressure, because it releases hormones like endorphins, which help your muscles to relax and your breathing slow down.

Exercising also provides a mental focus away from the causes of your stress, giving you the opportunity to get perspective and reduce the likelihood of your body triggering that fight-or-flight response.

You will sleep better if you exercise

Researchers believe lack of sleep is a major contributor to high blood pressure, although the reasons aren’t yet fully understood. It may be because sleep is a time when your body regulates stress hormones.

Getting less than six hours’ sleep does seem to be linked with increased risk of high blood pressure, whereas getting seven to eight hours a night may play a role in treatment and prevention.

If you have problems sleeping, exercise may be a good way to help. Different types of exercise cause your body to respond in different ways, but the general effect is usually to help you sleep.

Strength exercises deliberately cause microscopic tears in muscle fibres, which heal stronger and bigger. Your body needs more sleep to allow this repair to happen.

Cardiovascular exercise works your heart and lungs in particular, and this has been found to help with insomnia. Less dynamic exercise, like yoga and tai chi, can help you to sleep by calming you mentally and working your muscles through their combinations of strength, flexibility and balance work.

Diet is one of the causes of high blood pressure 

A good personal trainer will always want to talk to you about diet, and this is particularly good news if you are exercising to tackle high blood pressure.

When you exercise your body will need some mix of lots of fresh fruit and vegetables, healthy carbohydrates and lean protein, a diet which will also help bring your blood pressure down.

For example, on a good exercise plan you should eat fewer packaged meals and less fast food, both of which are often full of salt. Excessive salt intake is a leading cause of high blood pressure. 

Another dietary cause of hypertension is too much alcohol, which will also hamper your exercise.

Reducing weight helps reduce blood pressure

One of the major advantages of exercising for many people is that it can help them reduce their weight. Increased physical activity and improved diet should help your body reduce the amount of fat it stores.

This means your heart and lungs do not have to work as hard to get blood around the body, so your blood pressure should come down.

This is part of a virtuous circle for people who get stressed about their weight. The physical activity helps reduce stress, encourages them to eat more healthily and reduces their weight. 

Take care when exercising with high blood pressure 

If you are considering exercising to tackle hypertension, then you should still be cautious. If your blood pressure is very high (above 200 / 110), then you should consult a doctor before starting a new exercise regime.

When you exercise your blood pressure will increase but then should come down again when you stop. This will happen more quickly as you get fitter, and your resting blood pressure should come down.

But if you have very high blood pressure, exercising could cause you new problems. This just means you need to be sensible and talk with your doctor first, and always tell your personal trainer if you have or have had blood pressure of more than 140 / 90. They should measure it for anyone starting a new training plan, but you can’t be too careful.

Overall, exercise is a vital part of maintaining a safe and healthy blood pressure. It can reduce your stress levels, improve your diet, help you to lose weight and strengthen your heart.
Majed Alhamad is an accomplished personal trainer who inspires his clients to pursue their fitness and health goals. Read more at his blog