Does Exercise Lower Blood Pressure?

Written by Dr. Joseph Mercola Fact Checked

exercise for high blood pressure

Story at-a-glance -

  • Nitric Oxide Dump, demonstrated in this video and other high-intensity exercises are exercises you should do to help normalize your blood pressure by triggering production of nitric oxide in your body
  • In the U.S., an estimated 1 in 3 has high blood pressure (hypertension); another 1 in 3 have prehypertension, A blood pressure reading of 120/80 millimeters of mercury (mmHg) is considered healthy
  • Inactivity and blood pressure are closely related. Inactive individuals have a 30 to 50 percent greater risk for high blood pressure than their active counterparts
  • The key to affect your blood pressure is to do aerobic activity that raises your heart rate, making your heart beat faster and increase blood flow. Strength training has also been shown to lower blood pressure
  • Research suggests improving your handgrip strength may be most effective of all, even more effective than conventional endurance and strength training programs

In the U.S., an estimated 1 in 3 has high blood pressure (hypertension); another 1 in 3 has prehypertension.1 A blood pressure reading of 120/80 millimeters of mercury (mmHg) is considered healthy.

High blood pressure is typically considered anything over 140/90 mmHg, although updated guidelines2 from the American Heart Association now have 130/80 mmHg as the cutoff for a diagnosis of hypertension. Elevated systolic pressure (the top or high number) is a risk factor for cardiovascular disease, stroke and dementia.3

While drugs are typically the first-line treatment for hypertension, they’re associated with a number of problematic side effects. For example, research4 published in 2017 found hydrochlorothiazide — one of the most popular drugs used worldwide to treat high blood pressure — raises the risk of skin cancer sevenfold.

Diuretics, also commonly prescribed for high blood pressure, have the side effect of leaching both sodium and potassium out of your body, and maintaining a healthy sodium-to-potassium ratio is really important for the normalization of your blood pressure.5

Potassium is also needed for proper muscle movement, including the contractions of your heart, and if your level gets depleted it can trigger muscle cramps and heart problems. So, what can you do beside popping a daily pill? The good news is exercise can go a long way toward normalizing your blood pressure.6,7,8

Increasing Insulin Sensitivity Is the First Line of Treatment for High Blood Pressure

Over 80 percent of the U.S. population are insulin resistant and this metabolic dysfunction causes a boatload of problems, such as an increased risk of obesity and diabetes. There are many well-reported links between obesity and high blood pressure.9 Most, but certainly not all, those with hypertension are overweight, and in those circumstances losing weight is associated with lowering of their blood pressure.

So, if you have high blood pressure your first strategy is to regain your metabolic flexibility and be able to burn fat as a primary fuel once again. This will not only decrease your insulin resistance and help optimize your weight, but also radically decrease your risk of heart disease, cancer and neurodegenerative diseases.10

Exercise Is Another Potent Therapy for High Blood Pressure

Inactivity and blood pressure are also closely related — so closely that exercise is actually considered a first line of treatment by several health authorities, including the World Health Organization, the International Society of Hypertension and the U.S. Joint National Committee on Detection, Evaluation and Treatment of High Blood Pressure, just to name a few.11

Research shows inactive individuals have a 30 to 50 percent greater risk for high blood pressure than their active counterparts.12 As noted in a literature review13 on exercise and hypertension, published in Australian Family Physician:

“An evidence based literature analysis by the American College of Sports Medicine indicates that an isolated exercise session (acute effect) lowers BP [blood pressure] an average of 5 to 7 mmHg … [T]he average BP reduction with regular endurance exercise for hypertensives not normalized by drug therapy in the literature review is 7.4/5.8mmHg …

Depending upon the degree the patient's BP has been normalized by drug therapy, regular aerobic exercise significantly reduces BP the equivalent of 1 class of antihypertensive medication (chronic effect) … Overall, resistance training has a favorable chronic effect on resting BP, but the magnitude of the BP reductions are less than those reported for an aerobic based exercise program …

For most hypertensive patients, exercise is quite safe. Caution is required for those over 50 years of age, and those with established cardiovascular disease (CVD) (or at high CVD risk) and in these patients, the advice of a clinical exercise physiologist is recommended.”

Try These Exercises to Lower Your Blood Pressure

The key to affect your blood pressure is to do physical activity that raises your heart rate, making your heart beat faster and increase blood flow. This is also known as cardiovascular or aerobic exercise.

As you might guess, just about any physical movement can achieve this, depending on your current state of fitness. Even yard work can be a cardiovascular exercise. Raking and mulching, for example, takes some effort and will get your heart pumping. Other aerobic exercises include:

Brisk walking and/or running — Research14 published in 2013 found moderate-intensity brisk walking produced similar reductions in blood pressure as vigorous-intensity running.

Swimming and/or water aerobics — In one study,15 adults aged 50 and over who swam three to four times a week for 12 weeks improved their vascular function and reduced their systolic blood pressure by an average of nine points.

Bicycling — A 2016 study16 showed that people in their 40s through 60s who bicycled to and from work were less likely to have high blood pressure, high cholesterol and/or prediabetes. After 10 years of follow-up, bicycle commuters had an 11 percent lower risk for hypertension than nonbikers.

Weightlifting and/or body weight exercises — A small 2012 study,17 which included middle-aged men diagnosed with high blood pressure who had previously exercised less than two hours a week and were not using antihypertensive medication, showed that after weight training for 45 to 60 minutes (three sets of 12 repetitions for each of seven exercises), systolic blood pressure was reduced by an average of 22 mmHg and diastolic pressure by an average of 8 mmHg.

Skiing

Skating

Rowing

Dancing

Sports such as tennis, soccer and ultimate Frisbee

Isometric Handgrip Training Lowers Blood Pressure in Older Adults

Isometric handgrip exercises have also been shown to have a positive impact on blood pressure in older adults. For a quick demonstration of a simple handgrip exercise method, see the video above. Interestingly, a 2013 systematic review18 concluded improving your handgrip strength was even more effective for lowering systolic blood pressure than conventional endurance and strength training programs.

Other studies19,20 have also confirmed the benefit of both handgrip and leg extension exercises on blood pressure. As noted in one of them:21

“Isometric resistance training lowers [systolic blood pressure], [diastolic blood pressure], and mean arterial pressure. The magnitude of effect is larger than that previously reported in dynamic aerobic or resistance training. Our data suggest that this form of training has the potential to produce significant and clinically meaningful blood pressure reductions and could serve as an adjunctive exercise modality.”

Boosting Your Nitric Oxide Level Helps Lower Blood Pressure

Another excellent exercise is the Nitric Oxide Dump, demonstrated in this video. This and other high-intensity exercises help normalize your blood pressure by triggering production of nitric oxide in your body. It involves just four movements — squats, alternating arm raises, nonjumping jacks and shoulder presses — which are done in repetitions of 10, with four sets each. In total, it takes just three to four minutes. Ideally, you’d do these exercises three times a day, a few hours apart.

Nitric oxide is a soluble gas stored in your endothelium (the lining of your blood vessels) and acts as an important signaling molecule throughout your body. Along with promoting healthy endothelial function, nitric oxide also supports heart health by helping your veins and arteries dilate, which promotes healthy blood flow.

Nitric oxide also plays a protective role in your mitochondrial health, the energy storehouse of your cells, responsible for the utilization of energy for all metabolic functions. Even your skeletal muscle, which is made up of only about 1 percent to 2 percent mitochondria, depend on these energy powerhouses to fuel your daily movements.

When you exercise and your muscles ache, it’s because you’ve run out of oxygen, which your body compensates for by releasing nitric oxide. But here’s the secret that’s not widely known: When you exercise, it takes only about 90 seconds for your blood vessels to run out of stored nitric oxide and begin the process of making more.

This is why working major muscle groups for as little as 90 seconds can be so effective.22 You can also take advantage of the nitric oxide-boosting power of vegetable nitrates, which serve as precursors for nitric oxide. Arugula is the highest source but fermented beet powder can have up to 500 percent greater concentration of nitrates.

How Much Exercise Do You Need to Help Normalize Your Blood Pressure?

As a general recommendation, aim for moderate-intensity activity 30 minutes a day, at least five days a week.23 The higher the intensity of your exercise, the lower the frequency needs to be, so if you’re doing more vigorous aerobic activity, you can get away with doing just three days a week. In addition to that, it’s recommended to perform some sort of muscle strengthening exercise two days a week.

If you have high blood pressure, chances are you’re not exercising enough at present. If that’s the case, start slow and build your way up. For example, start taking a walk a few times a week, and increase the frequency as you start feeling more able. Over time, also step up the intensity, and be sure to add some form of strength training — especially if you’re insulin resistant — as well as isometric handgrip exercises, which can easily be done while watching TV or otherwise relaxing.

I also recommend training yourself to breathe through your nose when exercising, as mouth breathing during exercise can raise your heart rate and blood pressure, sometimes resulting in fatigue and dizziness. To learn more about this, please refer to my previous article on the Buteyko breathing method.

Source: American Heart Association

Other Lifestyle Strategies for Lowering Your Blood Pressure

Aside from exercise, here are several additional suggestions that can help lower your blood pressure naturally.

Optimize your vitamin D level — Vitamin D deficiency is associated with both arterial stiffness and hypertension.24 For optimal health, maintain a vitamin D level between 60 and 80 nanograms per milliliter year-round.

Mind your sodium to potassium ratio — According to Dr. Lawrence Appel, lead researcher on the DASH diet and director of the Welch Center for Prevention, Epidemiology and Clinical Research at Johns Hopkins, your diet as a whole is the key to controlling hypertension — not salt reduction alone.

He believes a major part of the equation is this balance of minerals — i.e., most people need less sodium and more potassium, calcium and magnesium. According to Appel,25 "Higher levels of potassium blunt the effects of sodium. If you can't reduce or won't reduce sodium, adding potassium may help. But doing both is better."

Indeed, maintaining a proper potassium to sodium ratio in your diet is very important, and hypertension is but one of many side effects of an imbalance. A processed food diet virtually guarantees you’ll have a lopsided ratio of too much sodium to potassium. Making the switch from processed foods to whole foods will automatically improve your ratios.

Intermittent and partial fastingIntermittent fasting is one of the most effective ways I’ve found to normalize your insulin/leptin sensitivity, which is a root cause of hypertension. My new book, Keto Fasting which goes into great detail about partial fasting comes out next spring.

Walk barefoot — Going barefoot will help you ground to the earth. Experiments show that walking barefoot outside (also referred to as Earthing or grounding) improves blood viscosity and blood flow, which help regulate blood pressure. So, do yourself a favor and ditch your shoes now and then.

Grounding also calms your sympathetic nervous system, which supports your heart rate variability. This in turn promotes homeostatis, or balance, in your autonomic nervous system. In essence, anytime you improve heart rate variability, you're improving your entire body and all of its functions.

Address your stress — The connection between stress and hypertension is well documented, yet still does not receive the emphasis it deserves. In fact, it has been shown that people with heart dis­ease can lower their risk of subsequent cardiac events by over 70 percent simply by learning to manage their stress.

Suppressed negative emotions such as fear, anger and sadness can severely limit your ability to cope with the unavoidable every day stresses of life. It's not the stressful events themselves that are harmful, but your lack of ability to cope.

The good news is strategies exist to quickly and effectively transform your suppressed, negative emotions and relieve stress. My preferred method is the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT), an easy to learn, easy to use technique for releasing negative emotions. EFT combines visualization with calm, relaxed breathing, while employing gentle tapping to "reprogram" deeply seated emotional patterns.

Essential oils — A number of essential oils can also be helpful, including lavender, ylang-ylang, marjoram, bergamot, rose, frankincense, rosemary, lemon balm and clary sage. In one study,26 scientists found exposure to essential oil for one hour effectively reduced stress as measured by a reduction in the participants’ heart rate and blood pressure.

The effect was only temporary, however. In another, similar study,27 inhalation of a blend of lavender, ylang-ylang, neroli and marjoram essential oils was associated with a reduction in blood pressure and cortisol secretion, which is often elevated during stress.