Exercises To Avoid With High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, can have a big impact on your health.

This condition places more force on the walls of your arteries, causing them to lose their elasticity, and harden over time… which can then lead to serious health risks such as heart disease and stroke. Hypertension also makes your heart work harder to pump blood throughout the body, which may result in some of your organs receiving an inadequate supply of oxygen and nutrients.

However, there is good news. Both medication and lifestyle changes, such as increasing your daily exercise, can help control blood pressure levels naturally. Exercise can also strengthen your heart so that it's under less strain when supplying the rest of your body with blood.

When you have high blood pressure, though, not all exercise is appropriate. Make sure you know what exercises are best, which to avoid, and when you should check in with your doctor.

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Which exercises to avoid if you have high blood pressure?

In general, it's safe to exercise when you have high blood pressure. In fact, it's encouraged, as physical activity can help strengthen your heart and naturally lower blood pressure.

A healthy exercise routine will contain a combination of aerobic, strength training, and stretching exercises. However, those with high blood pressure should focus on gentle to moderate aerobic exercises to help build up their heart health.

You should avoid physical activity that raises your heart rate very quickly. These can include:

  • Weight lifting. Weight lifting can also trigger an effect known as the Valsalva maneuver, which happens when you exert strain and hold your breath. This maneuver has been found to create spikes in blood pressure¹, creating a potentially dangerous situation for those who already have high blood pressure. 

  • Sprinting. Sprinting requires you to use a lot of energy very quickly. That means your heart has to do a lot of work suddenly, which could put a lot of strain on an organ that may already be under stress due to a lack of oxygen and nutrients. 

  • Squash. This is another intense activity to avoid when you have high blood pressure. One study found that squash can increase the risk of arterial rupture², so those with high blood pressure should reconsider squash.

These three activities require you to exert a lot of energy very quickly, spiking your blood pressure. They can increase your risk of heart attack, stroke, and other serious medical emergencies.

Sky diving and SCUBA diving

Those with high blood pressure should also avoid activities such as sky diving and SCUBA diving³.

Skydiving can bring on a sudden spike in blood pressure due to the high dose of adrenaline before and during your jump. SCUBA diving puts you at risk of organ damage, including to the heart and kidneys, which may already be impaired due to hypertension. Before you participate in these activities, it's important to get consent from your doctor. Some organizations may ask you to present a letter from your doctor before you join in.

High-intensity exercise

High-intensity exercises such as high-intensity interval training (HIIT) or strength training should also be avoided unless you have an individualized training program, along with a medical evaluation.

It’s important to keep in mind that your heart rate isn't always a good indication of whether your physical activity is safe. Certain medications prescribed for high blood pressure, especially beta-blockers, will keep your heart rate lower than normal, while your blood pressure may be spiking.

Should you exercise after being diagnosed with high blood pressure?

The answer is yes!

The key to exercising with high blood pressure is to start gradually, increasing intensity over time. This will ensure you’re increasing your heart rate slowly without any sudden spikes, which could result in a heart attack or arterial rupture.

The CDC recommends getting 150 minutes of exercise a week, or 30 minutes a day. If you struggle to get in 30 minutes all at once, break it into more manageable ten-minute sessions throughout the day. Start small, with activities such as walking, swimming, or dancing. It can also be useful to find someone to work out with, as you can keep each other accountable.

If you've always been active, you should be able to continue most of your physical activities even with high blood pressure. But it’s always a good idea to clear any exercise routine with your doctor first.

When to talk to a healthcare professional before exercising

Speak to your doctor before starting a new exercise routine. They can help you set healthy limits and reduce the risk of damage to your heart or other organs, due to high blood pressure.

You should also contact your doctor before exercising if:

  • You have a history of high blood pressure but haven't had treatment for it. Talk to your doctor to make sure your blood pressure is being monitored and to get their approval to start your new exercise routine. They may be able to prescribe medication that can help lower your blood pressure and reduce your risk during exercise.

  • You've previously led a sedentary lifestyle. You may have a sedentary lifestyle if you work at a desk job, watch a lot of television, play video games, or aren't getting much exercise during the week. Being sedentary can put you at an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other severe medical conditions. Your doctor will be able to help you create an exercise plan to gently increase your activity levels so you aren't putting too much additional strain on your organs.

  • Your blood pressure reads 180/120 or higher. These levels put you in the range of a hypertensive crisis, meaning you may be at risk of a medical emergency. Stop your activity, sit quietly, and take your blood pressure reading again. If it remains high, you must contact your doctor right away.

If you are also experiencing chest pains, shortness of breath, lightheadedness, or confusion, you should stop exercising and call 911 right away. This may be a sign that you are experiencing a medical emergency.

How does exercise play a role in managing blood pressure?

Exercise is good for both your physical health and your mental well-being. Getting at least 150 minutes of exercise a week can⁴:

  • Lower your risk of heart disease, diabetes, and certain types of cancers

  • Help you reduce excess weight or maintain a healthy weight

  • Increase your sense of well-being and may help prevent or reduce the intensity of symptoms of anxiety and depression

What’s more, one study found that people getting as little as 30 minutes of exercise a week had reductions in their blood pressure levels⁵. Those who got at least an hour of exercise a week saw the greatest reductions in their blood pressure levels.

Exercise works to lower your blood pressure by making your heart stronger. The stronger your heart is, the easier it is for it to pump blood throughout your body. Because it's easier to move blood around, there is less force placed on the walls of your arteries, which lowers your blood pressure levels. In addition, exercise improves the health of the blood vessel wall⁶.

What about exercise-induced hypertension?

Exercise will naturally raise your blood pressure acutely. In most cases, that's okay, and may even be beneficial. However, some people may experience exercise-induced hypertension⁷.

This is when the blood pressure goes dangerously high (210/110 in men and 190/110 in women) during exercise and then remains at that level even when resting. This can lead to a state of hypertension that will require medical attention.

Which exercises are proven to lower blood pressure?

While some types of exercise need to be evaluated more carefully before being prescribed to people with hypertension, in general, exercising can be very beneficial.

The best exercises for high blood pressure are those that exercise the largest muscle groups of your body, including the arms and legs, as well as moderately raise your heart rate and respiration rate. These exercises can help to strengthen your heart, making it better able to pump blood throughout your body. Exercise will also help the heart deliver nutrients out to the organs, which can be a problem for those with high blood pressure.

For these reasons, moderate aerobic exercise is great for those with high blood pressure. You should try to add 150 minutes of exercise to your routine each week⁸, with activities such as:

  • Riding a bike

  • Taking brisk walks

  • Swimming laps 

  • Playing tennis

  • Going for a jog

  • Dancing to music

  • Digging or weeding your garden

Your pre-workout and post-workout routine are also important when you have high blood pressure. You should ease into any activity that you choose to do with a 5-minute warm-up, to avoid any potentially harmful spikes in heart rate.

A post-workout cool-down routine is especially important if you are on medication for high blood pressure because some medications can make it more likely for your blood pressure to spike if you stop exercising suddenly. 

The lowdown

If you have high blood pressure, you should avoid physical activity that requires sudden bursts of activity or strain as these may increase the risk of arterial rupture, heart attack, or stroke. Activities to avoid include weight lifting, playing squash, and sprinting, as well as skydiving and SCUBA diving.

However, the right exercise is good for blood pressure, because it can help strengthen the heart, reduce excess weight, and help decrease stress levels. Studies have found that even 30 minutes of exercise a week can decrease blood pressure levels!

You should always check with your doctor before starting any new exercise routine, especially if you have a history of high blood pressure. If you experience chest pain, lightheadedness, or confusion during physical activity, call 911.

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