Do you have high blood pressure? You’re in good company! Hypertension is the most common problem primary care physicians see every day! You might say that high blood pressure, along with diabetes, is the “bread and butter” of primary care practice. The guidelines for what constitutes hypertension recently changed, but, in general, consistent blood pressure readings that average 130/80 or higher now meet the criteria for blood pressure that’s too high.
To make the diagnosis of hypertension, it’s best to get readings at home using a reliable device as blood pressure readings you get in a physician’s office aren’t as reliable. Some people have white coat hypertension and experience a rise in blood pressure when they’re in a doctor’s office. But, once you know your blood pressure is higher than it should be, it’s time to take action.
Why should you take even mild hypertension seriously? Over time, the increased force high blood pressure places on your arteries, damages the blood vessel itself. Over time, this damage can lead to serious health complications, including heart attack, stroke, kidney failure, heart failure, visual problems, and damage and blockage to the arteries in the legs and arms.
Too often, the treatment of even mild high blood pressure begins with medications. Yet, there’s evidence that lifestyle changes cam have a significant impact on blood pressure. For some people with mildly elevated blood pressure, lifestyle changes may be enough to bring blood pressure into the normal range.
One lifestyle habit that has the power to lower blood pressure is exercise. In fact, two different types of exercise are beneficial for people with mild hypertension. One is aerobic exercise and the other is mindfulness-based exercise. Let’s look at each.
Lower Blood Pressure: Aerobic Exercise
Aerobic exercise is effective for heart and blood vessel health, as numerous studies show. In response to aerobic exercise, arteries dilate and the resistance to blood flow drops. As a result, blood pressure drops. In fact, research shows that aerobic exercise can lower systolic blood pressure by an average of 4 to 6 mmHg and diastolic blood pressure by an average of 3 mmHg. It’s less clear whether resistance training lowers blood pressure, although some studies suggest it can modestly bring down blood pressure.
Another way aerobic exercise may lower blood pressure is by reducing stress. Some studies show a link between aerobic exercise and reduced anxiety. For some people, anxiety takes its toll on blood pressure readings. When you’re anxious or stressed, your adrenal glands release hormones, like adrenalin and nor-adrenaline that elevate blood pressure. Aerobic exercise creates a greater sense of well-being.
Also, aerobic exercise helps with weight control and blood pressure typically drops as people lose excess body weight. Exercise that increases the heart rate for sustained periods of time also reduces the risk of heart disease in other ways. Aerobic exercise conditions the heart and enables it to pump more blood and oxygen with each heartbeat. In other words, your heart muscle becomes a more efficient pump. So, aerobic exercise is a win for heart and blood vessel health. Plus, you gain more stamina when you do regular aerobic workouts.
Lower Blood Pressure: Mindfulness-Based Exercise
Mindfulness is synonymous with stress relief, so it’s not surprising that mindfulness-based exercise lowers blood pressure. In fact, a meta-analysis of 19 randomized controlled trials looking at mindfulness practices and blood pressure found three types of exercise were linked with lower blood pressure. These are tai chi, yoga, and qigong. All of these forms of exercise were, in the study, linked with a reduction in systolic and diastolic blood pressure. Qigong showed it had the strongest impact on diastolic blood pressure.
Of these forms of mindfulness exercise yoga is one of the most popular, and when you look at heart disease risk as a whole, yoga has substantial health benefits. In fact, a study published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology showed that yoga is comparable to moderate-intensity aerobic exercise for keeping the heart healthy. Yoga exerts this benefit via multiple mechanisms. For one, it helps people make mindful food choices and aids in weight control. Some small studies even show that yoga improves blood glucose control. Then, there’s the stress relief element. We know that stress plays a role in heart disease as well, and yoga helps relax the body and mind.
Can Exercise Help You Avoid Medications?
If you have mild hypertension, you may be able to control it through lifestyle alone, but it’s important to talk to your physician as hypertension is a major risk factor for other health problems. Encouragingly, a large 2007 cross-section study that included more than 100,000 subjects found that subjects who did aerobic exercise consistently were less likely to need blood pressure medications or medications for elevated cholesterol or high blood sugar. However, the participants were runners who exceeded the recommended minimum guidelines for exercise.
The odds of being able to get off blood pressure medications is even higher if you combine exercise with other healthy lifestyle habits. If you’re overweight or obese, get as close to your ideal body weight as possible. Weight loss can lead to a significant drop in blood pressure. In fact, research shows blood pressure drops around 1 mmHg with each pound that you lose.
Research shows a DASH diet, one that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts, seeds, and low-fat dairy can lower blood pressure as well. Also, choose more potassium-rich foods, like fruits and vegetables. Studies show that the amount of potassium you consume relative to sodium has an impact on blood pressure and heart disease risk. Back in Paleolithic times, people consumed a sodium/potassium ratio of around 1 to 16, according to Harvard Health. Today, that ratio is more like 1.36 to 1. The ratio has risen due to the popularity of processed food with lots of added sodium.
Of course, it’s also important to limit alcohol and quit smoking to help lower blood pressure. Take a close look at the medications you’re taking too. Some can impact blood pressure as well.
The Bottom Line
Keep track of your blood pressure. It matters! High blood pressure, due to its impact on blood vessels, is damaging to almost every organ in your body. Check it at home, record the values, and show them to your healthcare practitioner. Then, lead a heart-healthy, blood vessel-friendly lifestyle. It’s that important!
Up-to-Date.com. “Overview of Hypertension in Adults”
IdeaFit.com. “Mindful Movement, Meditation and High Blood Pressure”
Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2007 Nov; 39(11): 1933.
Evid Based Complement Alternat Med. 2013; 2013: 649836. Published online 2013 May 28. doi: 10.1155/2013/649836.
WebMD.com. “Yoga May Help Ease High Blood Pressure, Study Finds”
National Institutes of Health. “Sodium/Potassium Ratio Linked to Cardiovascular Disease Risk”
Harvard Health. “Sodium/potassium ratio important for health”
Harvard Health Publishing. “Reading the new blood pressure guidelines”
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