As a cyclist, you might be pretty familiar with stats like resting heart rate, heart rate variability, max heart rate, and even your heart rate training zones. But what about your blood pressure? The numbers you get at the doctor can be a major indicator for your health, particularly your cardiovascular health.
“High blood pressure is the most common cardiovascular problem I see in athletes,” says Larry Creswell, M.D., heart surgeon and former writer of the Athlete’s Heart Blog. That’s because it’s so common in the general population, active or not.
Nearly one-half of American adults, about 116 million people, have high blood pressure or are taking medication for high blood pressure. And of those, only about one quarter have it under control.
The problem: There aren’t really any symptoms, so you can walk around with it for years and have no clue—until you have a heart attack or stroke. That’s why doctors call high blood pressure the “silent killer.”
You might be thinking, I’m active though, and doesn’t exercise lower blood pressure? It is true that as someone who works out often, you’re less likely to drift up into the danger zone, but you’re not immune, Creswell says. “Exercise generally leads to lower blood pressure. Physically active people have a 50 percent lower risk for developing hypertension than inactive people, but some people will still develop it despite getting regular exercise,” he says.
Here’s what to know about high blood pressure and how exercise affects your numbers.
What is high blood pressure?
Blood pressure is the force of your blood pushing against the blood vessel walls as your heart beats. It’s measured in millimeters of mercury (mmHg). Blood pressure is actually two numbers. The top number, the systolic pressure, represents the amount of pressure in your blood vessels when your heart beats. The bottom number, the diastolic pressure, represents the amount of pressure in your vessels when your heart rests between beats.
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Normal systolic blood pressure is less than 120 mmHg, and normal diastolic blood pressure is less than 80 mmHg—so overall, you want your numbers below 120/80. The American Heart Association (AHA) defines elevated blood pressure as systolic pressure between 120 and 129, while diastolic pressure is still less than 80. A person is considered hypertensive (or has high blood pressure), when those numbers reach 130 to 139 over 80 to 89.
Your doctor’s office will measure your blood pressure as a matter of course during routine checkups (some dentist offices even perform the service these days). But you also can measure it on your own pretty easily. Many pharmacies, grocery stores, and big box stores like Target have automated blood pressure machines that you can use for free.
If you know you have elevated or high blood pressure, it’s worth buying a portable blood pressure monitor you can use at home, Creswell says. They’re super easy to use—just wrap the cuff around your arm, follow the directions, and push a button—and you can get a reliable home blood pressure monitor for about $30.
Age, genes, gender (men are generally at higher risk), and ethnicity all factor into your risk for high blood pressure, but diet, exercise, and lifestyle can have a big impact.
Does exercise lower blood pressure?
A strong heart and supple, healthy arteries help you maintain normal blood pressure. Exercise helps a lot on that front, as it helps to increase the efficiency of the heart.
Aerobic exercise and strength training (or even better, a combo of the two) can reduce your blood pressure numbers. According to the Mayo Clinic, while exactly how much exercise lowers blood pressure is up for debate, diastolic numbers may drop by 4 to 12 mmHg and systolic by 3 to 6 mmHg when you start to pick up your activity level.
According to the American College of Cardiology (ACC) and the AHA, the most important thing for people to keep in mind when it comes to lifestyle factors and blood pressure is to avoid sedentary behavior. These organizations also stick with the recommendation that adults do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity per week. But higher amounts (more than 300 minutes of moderate activity and 150 of vigorous) can lower heart risks even more.
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Too slammed to carve out larger chunks of time? You can still help keep your blood pressure levels healthy by squeezing in short five- to 10-minute bouts of activity.
Also, while research supports performing vigorous exercise to improve blood pressure and heart health, other studies look at isometric training—in which you hold a muscle contraction for a period of time, like you do in a plank—in particular for helping to improve blood pressure numbers. For example, a research review published last year in Hypertension Research demonstrated that sedentary participants who did this form of exercise two to three days a week saw significant, positive changes in their blood pressure. It worked almost as well as blood pressure medications.
Another systematic review and meta-analysis from May this year found that both isometric training and vigorous activity (specifically, high-intensity interval training or HIIT) are effective in managing resting blood pressure, but isometrics seem superior for blood pressure, specifically, while HIIT offers wider physiological benefits and greater reductions in resting heart rate.
Adding some mindful, meditative form of cross-training can be also helpful if you’re chronically stressed. A study published in 2017 that reviewed the impact of Tai Chi on more than 1,600 adults found that those who practiced the meditative form of moderate exercise reduced their systolic blood pressure by an average of 15.5 mmHg and their diastolic pressure by an average of 10.7 mmHg compared to their peers who didn’t exercise at all. If Tai Chi isn’t your thing, yoga, Pilates, and swimming also count as meditative forms of cross-training.
What should you do if exercise isn’t enough to lower blood pressure?
As you’ve heard a million times, you can’t out-exercise a bad diet. That’s especially true regarding heart health. Too much booze—that’s two drinks a day for men; one daily for women—especially binge drinking, can raise your blood pressure, as can too much salt if you’re sodium sensitive (an easy way to check is dramatically reducing sodium for a week or so and seeing if your blood pressure declines).
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Eating a Mediterranean-style diet rich in fruits and vegetables, olive oil, nuts, fish, and whole grains, and low in processed foods and red meat can be particularly helpful for lowering diastolic blood pressure, research shows.
If your genetic hand isn’t exactly all aces, you might find yourself with elevated blood pressure despite your best diet and exercise habits. If that’s the case, your doctor can help you bring it down with medication.
Some meds can make exercise harder or interfere with your training, so work carefully with your doctor to find the right drug and dosage that works best for you, Creswell says. “There are a variety of medications available, and it’s an art and science to find the right one for each person,” he adds.
“Beta blockers lower blood pressure as well as heart rate and exercise capacity and are often bothersome for athletes,” Creswell says. Generally speaking, athletes should also avoid diuretics, because they can cause dehydration and raise your risk of heat-related illness. “ACE-inhibitors and calcium channel blockers are probably the most prescribed choices in the athletic population,” he adds.
The bottom line on lowering blood pressure
Exercise can lower blood pressure—potentially as much as some medications. That said, if you have a history of heart disease, high blood pressure, or other heart-related issues, work with your doctor to find the best solution that’s customized for you. If not, regular exercise three to four times per week will keep your blood pressure in a healthy range and provide you with numerous additional health benefits.