Alongside eating healthily, limiting alcohol and reducing the sodium in your diet, maintaining an active lifestyle is one of the best things you can do to safeguard your health. The NHS recommendation for adults is at least 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, such as brisk walking, jogging, cycling or swimming, every week.
There’s also a proven link between exercise and reduced blood pressure. Regular physical activity makes the heart stronger, and a stronger heart can pump more blood with less effort. This decreases the force on the arteries, lowering blood pressure. A recent study found that just 30 minutes of exercise in the morning could lower blood pressure for that day as effectively as medication.
So is all exercise safe for people with high blood pressure? The short answer is no, not quite. There are some forms of exercise you should definitely avoid. For others, it depends on the intensity of the exercise and your current fitness and blood pressure levels, among other factors.
Let’s take a look at three separate activity types and the ways in which they could be dangerous or harmful to those with high blood pressure.
We already know that moderate-intensity cardiovascular or aerobic exercise is encouraged for anyone looking to achieve or maintain a healthy blood pressure reading. But while you might be able to safely build up the intensity of your chosen exercise in time, it’s really important not to push yourself too hard, too soon.
During any type of exercise, our muscles require more oxygen and both our blood pressure and heart rate increases to meet the demand. This is normal and will only present a risk if your resting blood pressure is very high, or if you carry out intense exercise for a short period of time. This causes your blood pressure to rise quickly, putting excess strain on your heart. Examples of exercises to avoid with high blood pressure include sprinting, running upstairs and playing squash.
Confused about how hard you should be working? Listen to your body and think about your breathing – you should still be able to hold a conversation.
Similarly, whether you’re planning to lift weights at the gym or boxes of books during a house move, it’s important not to over-exert yourself. There’s evidence that ‘strength training can help lower your blood pressure if you do it consistently’, says Dr Deepak Bhatt, a cardiologist and Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. However, people with high blood pressure, should be cautious about lifting very heavy weights, as the sudden, intense effort can cause blood pressure to spike. Even more so, if you find yourself holding your breath as you lift.
‘During strength training exercises, be sure to exhale as you lift, push, or pull, and inhale as you release. Counting out loud as you lift and release can help you remember to keep breathing’, advises Dr Bhatt.
It may go without saying, but if you’ve always been a thrill-seeker, where leisure activity is concerned, then a diagnosis of high blood pressure might cause you to rethink. Extreme sports such as scuba diving, skydiving and parachuting can be dangerous if your blood pressure is not under control. Dr Mike Knapton, Associate Medical Director at the British Heart Foundation, says: ‘Diving can have significant effects on the body, including increasing blood pressure, which could pose a risk when diving, or a risk to your health in general.’
Again, every individual is different, so the best approach is to consult your doctor to find out what they consider safe for you.
While no form of exercise is totally off-limits to those with hypertension, the suitability of any activity depends on many factors, including fitness, blood pressure level, general health and medication.
But there are several things you can do to stay within safe limits. Talk to your doctor before beginning any new form of exercise, especially if you’re not very active currently, have very high blood pressure or are taking medication to control it. Start slowly, with beginner-level classes or plans like Couch to 5K, and up the intensity gradually. And always take time to warm up before exercise and cool down afterwards.
As long as it’s done sensibly and consistently, exercise is one of the very best things you can do to lower high blood pressure and take control of your health.