For the most part, yes.

In fact, physical activity is crucial in helping to lower blood pressure in those with hypertension.

But exercise can be undertaken to varying degrees of intensity, and some people - particularly those with very high blood pressure - might need to proceed with caution when embarking on an activity programme.

With the help of Professor Graham MacGregor, Chair of Blood Pressure UK, in this post we’ll examine the connection between exercise and blood pressure, and how people looking to lower theirs can use physical activity to do so safely.

Exercise and blood pressure: how are they linked?

In short, blood pressure is an indicator of how much force the heart needs to beat with in order to get blood moving around the body. A blood pressure reading is given as two numbers: systolic (the pressure during a heartbeat) over diastolic (the pressure between beats). Someone with two consecutive readings higher than 140/90 is categorised as having high blood pressure, and is at increased risk of heart disease and stroke.

Inactivity is often a contributing factor in high blood pressure. So, when treating hypertension, a doctor may well encourage someone who leads a sedentary lifestyle to try and raise their activity levels.

The heart is a muscle, and aerobic exercise helps to keep it healthy and functioning normally. When someone exercises, their heart will beat faster and with more force; and when they stop, their heart rate will return to normal. Over time, if someone with high blood pressure continues to exercise regularly, their resting heart rate (when not active) will gradually decrease, because their heart will become stronger and more efficient at pumping blood. This means that their heart won’t have to pump with as much force, and their blood pressure will lower.

Is any one type of exercise better for blood pressure than another?

Because certain types of exercise can exponentially raise blood pressure, it’s important for people with hypertension to concentrate on those activities that will help them.

‘Different kinds of exercise have different effects on your body.’ Professor MacGregor explains. ‘If you have high blood pressure, you should try to focus on activities that will help your heart and blood vessels. Aerobic exercise is the type that helps your heart the most.’

Moderate intensity aerobic (or cardiovascular) exercise include activities such as jogging, swimming and dancing.

Brisk walking also falls into this category, and is a helpful activity for people with high blood pressure (who aren’t currently active enough) to start with. It doesn’t require a gym membership or any specialist equipment, apart from a good, sturdy pair of trainers. Brisk walking works the heart and lungs, and is beneficial for blood pressure and circulation; but as a weight bearing exercise it also helps muscle and bone health.

Certain exercises, Professor MacGregor goes on to say, are not as helpful (or as safe) for those with high blood pressure.

‘For example, you should not do any activity that is very intensive for short periods of time.’

Sprinting and lifting heavy weights are examples of this.

‘These kinds of exercises may quickly raise your blood pressure, and put unwanted strain on your heart and blood vessels.’ Professor MacGregor adds.

Someone who has high blood pressure and wants to incorporate strength training into their routine can do so by performing simple repetition exercises with lighter weights (using 1kg or 2kg dumbbells for example); but should stay away from heavier weights, at least until their blood pressure is under control.

When might exercise be unsafe for someone with high blood pressure?

The heart will need to work harder during physical activity, in order to get blood and oxygen to the muscles being worked. As such, exercise can temporarily increase blood pressure and heart rate, which is why some people with high blood pressure will need to be careful about the exercise they do.

Those with hypertension who want to lower their blood pressure through exercise then should speak to their doctor before starting, to ensure that the activities they intend to undertake are the most suitable. In some cases, a healthcare professional may want to use medication to try and bring blood pressure under control before recommending exercise.

Professor MacGregor advises that those with very high blood pressure should not start a new activity without first speaking to their doctor.

Every individual is different, but Blood Pressure UK recommends that those whose blood pressure is:

  • between 140/90 and 179/99 should be able to safely increase activity levels on their own
  • between 180/100 and 199/109 should consult a doctor first
  • over 200/110 should not undertake any new activity, and speak to their doctor for advice.

How much exercise should someone with high blood pressure do?

Following the guidelines for adults set out by the NHS (150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week) is a good foundation for lowering blood pressure.

So for someone brisk walking, half an hour a day, five days a week is a good place to start and gradually build up from. Someone might then increase this to an hour a day, and then later try a portion of their walking regime into a slow jog.

As Professor MacGregor explains:

‘An adult should have 30 minutes of moderate exercise five times a week. Moderate exercise should be enough to make you feel warmer and breathe harder, but you should still be able to talk without panting between words.’

If you’re training with a partner, they can help you determine how intense your current activity level is by initiating a ‘talk test’, and vice versa. Someone performing moderate intensity exercise will still be able to hold a conversation (whereas someone performing vigorous exercise won’t).

‘The main thing is to be active,’ Professor MacGregor adds, ‘whether it’s walking more and not using the car for short journeys, taking the stairs and not the lift or getting off the bus one stop earlier. Remember, you can take further action yourself to lower your blood pressure by eating less salt, more fruit and vegetables and being a healthy weight.’

You can find more information on exercising with high blood pressure, as well as a range of other helpful resources, over on the Blood Pressure UK website.