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By Geoff Bowling Exercise Physiology Lecturer at Ucen

Hypertension is a term used to describe elevated blood pressure. This is the pressure your blood vessels experience when blood is pumped from the heart and is classified as a reading above 140/90, where the 140 represents the Systolic pressure and the 90 represents the Diastolic pressure.

Hypertension is very common, and it has been estimated that in England 32% of men and 30% of women, aged 16 years or over, have hypertension.

Hypertension is considered a risk factor for myocardial infarction (heart attack) and a stroke.  There may be no symptoms for hypertension and you may be hypertensive and not know it.

Various factors can increase your risk of developing hypertension. Some you cannot do anything about i.e. age, family history and ethnicity. However, there are numerous lifestyle factors that you can do something about such as: nutrition, stress reduction and the focus of this blog, physical activity and exercise.

The good news is that exercise and physical activity have been shown to help reduce blood pressure.  Regular aerobic exercise can lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure by 5-10 mmHg. Resistance training is also beneficial in reducing blood pressure, if appropriate guidelines are followed.

Exercise does not have to be hard or take up too much time to have an impact. Studies led by Linda Pescatello, a leading expert on exercise and hypertension, found no difference in the blood pressure reduction from exercise at lower intensity (40% of your maximal oxygen capacity) than exercise at a higher intensity (70% of your maximal oxygen capacity). For many people a brisk walk would be enough.

In a study led by Margaux Guidry it was found that exercise lasting 15 minutes at a lower intensity was comparable in blood pressure lowering impact as harder exercise lasting 30 minutes.

Exercise encourages your blood vessels to widen (largely due to your body releasing a substance called Nitric Oxide). This effect lasts for a significant amount of time after exercise, potentially a temporary reduction lasting 12 hours.

Therefore, a 15 minute brisk walk in your lunch break could result in your blood pressure being lower for the rest of your work day at your desk.

Even if exercise does not reduce your blood pressure it can decrease your risk of the health problems. In a large scale study led by Peter Kokkinos it found that for every 1 MET increase in fitness (1 MET equals the amount of oxygen you consume at rest) there was a 13% decrease risk of premature death in those with hypertension.

Key points

“Know your numbers”

There are rarely any external signs or symptoms for hypertension so get your blood pressure measured. This could be done at a health centre or encouraged in the work place.

If you are physically active you are less likely to develop hypertension.

Exercise does not have to be to be hard or take a long time to be beneficial. A brisk 15 minute walk can lead to a temporary drop in blood pressure that can last for hours afterwards. Try and do this 2-3 times a day and on most days of the week so that you get consistent benefits.

Even if exercise cannot lower your blood pressure being active and increasing your physical fitness will reduce your risks of health problems associated with hypertension.

If you do have hypertension and want to exercise consider the following:

  • Warm up and cool down for longer and more gradually
  • Limit exercises where the load is above your head or the level of your heart for an extended period of time.
  • Take part in cardiovascular exercise that focuses on the lower body (larger blood vessels)
  • Avoid getting up and getting down too quickly and frequently especially if your hypertension medication causes orthostatic hypotension (a drop in blood pressure when you change posture)
  • Resistance training has many benefits but avoid using a weight where you might have to strain to lift the weight any further. Excessive strain can encourage the Valsalva manoeuvre where you shut your wind pipe to stiffen your body and experience a blood pressure overshoot when the tension is released.

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