Most of us do our best to keep our blood pressure low to help ward off heart disease, but just how common is hypertension? According to the National Institutes of Health, more than 80 million Americans have been diagnosed with the cardiovascular condition. Finding yourself with a diagnosis can be a cause for concern, especially if you’re the type of guy who once adhered to a serious fitness regimen and are looking to get back in the gym. Fortunately, we’ve got the secrets to effectively and, most importantly, safely training with high blood pressure.
First things first, blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the walls of the arteries as the heart pumps blood. High blood pressure occurs when this force is too high bringing in a reading above 140/90. Health professionals have yet to pin down the exact cause of this condition, but they have tossed around a number of factors, such as heavy smoking or alcohol consumption, imbalanced nutrition, too much sodium, lack of physical activity, stress levels, sleep apnea, and family history.
So here’s the deal with hypertension, it has a tendency to overstretch or injure the blood vessels, putting you at risk of a heart attack or stroke. You could also suffer from heart failure, kidney failure, and peripheral vascular disease, in which narrowed blood vessels reduce blood flow to the limbs. You may think high blood pressure means it’ll spike even more if you’re lifting a heavy bar at the gym, but skipping a fitness routine isn’t the answer. The truth is exercising regularly, along with eating a healthier diet, can help lower blood pressure. It’s pretty simple: Exercise makes the heart stronger, and a stronger heart can pump blood more efficiently, reducing the force on the blood vessels.
Before we get into our three secrets of training with high blood pressure, please check with your doctor that it’s OK to give an exercise routine a go if you’ve been diagnosed.
1. Warm up and cool down
You know how some people go on and on swearing by warming up and cooling down? Well, if you have high blood pressure you should start listening to them. Not only does a five- to 10-minute warm-up prepare ligaments, tendons, and muscles for physical activity, but it also gives the circulatory system fair warning that things are about to get real.
Depending on the chosen fitness plan and exercises of interest, you can warm up with static, active, or ballistic stretches. That last type of stretch will really prepare your ticker for impending changes in heart rate.
As for the cool down, this should also last about five to 10 minutes. If you stop exercising abruptly, your blood pressure will drop just as quickly, which can be extremely dangerous. Plus, a good cool-down keeps the muscles from cramping.
2. Get your heart pumping
Yes, we want your heart to beat a little faster and your lungs to breathe a little harder. But we also want you to know how to properly measure your heart rate. Knowing your resting heart, the number of times your heart beats per minute while you’re in a resting state, is essential. Try to measure it in the morning for the best reading; it should be around 60 to 80 beats per minute.
To get your heart pumping, you’ll need to have a target training rate in mind, which will help gauge progression through your chosen fitness plan. A target training heart rate, according to the American Heart Association, should be within 50 to 85% of your maximum heart rate (roughly calculated as 220 minus your age).
As for your chosen fitness plan, you can go with aerobic exercises, such as jogging, jumping rope, bicycling, or rowing, interspersed with strength training to burn more calories and cut back on the inches around your waist. Or you can adhere to cardio and strength training separately. Aim for 40 minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity three to four times per week, with two days consisting of strength training. With strength training, keep in mind that low increases of blood pressure during the movement will occur, so you’ll want to increase the weight, number of sets, and number of repetitions gradually.
If you begin to feel short of breath, transition into a rest period. If dizziness, weakness, chest pain, or pressure in the neck, arm, or jaw occur, stop the activity completely.
3. Breathe easy
Holding your breath while exercising could be the most dangerous move you make during your fitness routine, especially if you have hypertension as it causes blood pressure to rise further.
When performing strength training movements, be sure to inhale deeply at the beginning of the movement. As you raise the weight and begin to contract the targeted muscle or muscles, be sure to exhale. This will not only help manage blood pressure, but it will also help effectively deliver oxygen throughout the body, keeping you from becoming lightheaded and developing muscle cramps.
When performing straight cardio workouts you should be able exchange brief sentences easily, but not a lengthy conversation. Inhaling deeply through the nose and exhaling through the mouth is the best pattern to follow.
Keep in mind, it takes about one to three months for regular exercise to have an impact on your blood pressure.
Ellen Thompson is a National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) certified personal trainer at Blink Fitness in New York City, where she serves as Head Trainer at the Penn Plaza location. Ellen’s approach to training is that “anything is possible.” Endurance, strength, and stability/agility training are at the core of her fitness programming. She holds a master’s degree in New Media Publishing and Magazine Editing from the prestigious Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.