Mythbusting 3 “facts” about Blood Pressure and Exercise
Blood pressure is a key measurement that healthcare providers and patients can track to get an idea of cardiovascular health. The American College of Cardiology estimates that 46% of adult Americans have elevated resting blood pressure, which is called hypertension.1 While this gives us a good idea of how common this issue is, it does not speak to how serious its consequences can be. Hypertension considerably increases your risk of experiencing several life-threatening problems including heart failure, heart attacks, stroke, and even abdominal aortic aneurysms. Furthermore, the more severe your hypertension is (i.e., the higher your values are past ‘normal’) and the longer your blood pressure has been chronically elevated, the more these risks increase. All this highlights the importance of why this is something we want to monitor if we are trying to achieve a long, healthy life!
Blood Pressure Basics
There are numerous factors that can affect your resting blood pressure from moment to moment, including sleep, caffeine, alcohol, Atlanta traffic, sitting in the waiting room at your doctor’s office for 50 minutes… the list goes on. That is why it is crucial to measure blood pressure at several different points in time to get a good estimation of what your usual blood pressure looks like. While I’m not going to get into all of the different things to consider when trying to measure your blood pressure (Barbell Medicine does a good job describing the steps here,) the values we’re looking at are your systolic pressure (this is the pressure in your blood vessels when your heart muscle has contracted) over your diastolic pressure (the pressure in your blood vessels when the heart is relaxed). Below are cut-off values from the American Heart Association for determining if your blood pressure values are normal, elevated, or considered hypertensive:
While there is a great deal more that can be said about understanding all of the different factors that go into measuring and classifying high blood pressure, I know you probably started this blog to get to the juicy stuff: the myth-busting! So let’s get started with myth #1!
Myth #1: “It is unsafe for me to lift weights if I have high blood pressure.”
This myth is incredibly common, and at face value makes sense; “if I already have elevated blood pressure, won’t lifting weights just increase the pressure since my muscles are working so hard?” Well, yes, and no. While it is true that blood pressure will increase when straining against a heavy weight, this change is absolutely normal. The more important question to ask is, “how do we know if this increase is safe or not?” Thanks to the American Heart Association, we have some guidelines we can follow to make sure you are staying safe lifting weights with hypertension. As long as your resting blood pressure has a top number below 160 and bottom number below 100, you are good to go! Lifting weights is perfectly safe and beneficial. If either of those numbers are higher than that, then it is recommended that you see a medical professional before you start weight training. However, if your resting values are >180 on top or >110 on the bottom, then we need to get that blood pressure under control before we start tackling the weights.
Myth #2: “I just need to do more cardio exercise to control my blood pressure.”
So, you’re ready to start making some changes to try and manage your blood pressure - that’s great! This is where a lot of people get things wrong, and start doing JUST cardio to reduce their blood pressure. While cardiovascular exercise is fantastic and is important to do, lifting weights can also play a big role in managing blood pressure! In a study reviewing 391 experiments comparing blood pressure-lowering medications to different types of exercises, researchers
found that exercise was just as effective in lowering systolic blood pressure as medications were! If that isn’t surprising enough, the same study separated the studies based on what type of exercise was performed - ‘cardio’ training, resistance training, and combined resistance training and cardio. Resistance training alone decreased systolic blood pressure by 7.8 mmHg on average, and cardio lowered systolic blood pressure by ~8.7mmHg! So, while there was a small increase in benefit for cardio, both were very close in their effectiveness. If you combined both cardio and weight training, the improvement was even more substantial: on average, patients training both with cardio and weight training saw a decrease in SBP by 13.5mmHg! That’s such a substantial improvement that it would move someone from stage 2 hypertension back to stage 1! So, if you’re really looking to do the most to manage your blood pressure without medicine, you should be crushing your cardio AND the weights! (One great option is my Strength Foundations class (click here to sign up!) on Monday morning to learn HOW to hit the weights :)
Myth #3: “Everyone can ‘cure’ their high blood pressure by exercising more and changing their dietary pattern!”
Let me be very clear on this myth: engaging in healthy habits such as exercising and eating well can absolutely have a positive effect on your high blood pressure. HOWEVER, genetics and family history also play a role in the development of hypertension, and these things cannot be ‘lifestyled’ away. This may sound strange coming from your friendly neighborhood physical therapist, but some people WILL NEED medication to manage this problem, and that is OKAY. If you are already doing everything you can from an exercise and nutrition perspective to manage this condition but still aren’t seeing any changes, you and your doctor may come to the decision to use medication as well. This does not mean that you ‘failed’ conservative management through exercise and dietary modifications. Rather, you may have some other health conditions or genetic factors that predispose you to hypertension and make it challenging to correct with lifestyle changes alone.
Did any of these busted myths surprise you? Have you struggled with managing your blood pressure? Reach out to our team and we can help you get on the right track!
Thanks for reading!
Jesse Brown PT, DPT
Along with his education as a Doctor of Physical Therapy, Jesse brings an extensive background in exercise to the clinic. With experience across all different types of weight training, including Olympic-style weightlifting, CrossFit, and powerlifting, you can be sure that Jesse has the expertise to help you get where you want to go!
When he’s not helping individuals in the clinic, Jesse can be found practicing what he preaches - lifting the bar. He is an avid weightlifter, competing and refereeing locally through USA Weightlifting.
Disclaimer: This blog is for informational and educational purposes only. None of this information should serve as medical advice. Please see your physician or other qualified healthcare professional if you have any of the conditions discussed above. There are inherent risks and benefits associated with initiating a physical activity regiment; consult your physician prior to starting an exercise program.