Exercise and High Blood Pressure

How to move, for how long, and what workouts to avoid

Medically Reviewed by Elizabeth Klodas, MD, FACC on June 08, 2014
3 min read

Keeping your blood pressure in check isn't just about cutting back on salt. It's also about moving more and committing to a more active life.

If you're new to exercise, you have a lot of options, whether it's hiking with your family, swimming at a local pool, joining a club sports team, trying yoga, or signing up for sessions with a personal trainer. Chances are, you'll find something that will help you get your blood pressure down and may even become your new favorite hobby.

Getting started may be simpler than you think.

If you’re a beginner, start with 10 to 15 minutes. Add 5-minute increments every 2 to 4 weeks. Try to add more time gradually until you reach 30 to 60 minutes a day, 3 to 5 days a week.

“People with lower levels of fitness should start with shorter durations and gradually increase the time,” says Cedric Bryant, PhD, chief science officer at the American Council on Exercise.

The American Heart Association and American Council on Exercise recommend at least 150 minutes a week of exercise. Oregon cardiologist James Beckerman says do what makes sense to you and what you can work into your schedule. “I personally recommend 30 minutes every day, “he says. “It’s easier to remember and less math to do.”

Aerobic exercise could shave five points off your systolic blood pressure (the first, or top, number in your blood pressure reading), and three points off your diastolic blood pressure (the second, or bottom, number).

Activities such as walking, swimming, cycling, and low-impact aerobics should be the core of your exercise program.

But you'll get the payoff doing anything that makes your heart beat a bit faster, whether you're hiking with your dog, walking on a treadmill, going out dancing next weekend, taking a Zumba class. Pick a bunch of things that will keep you interested.

Strength training can be good for your blood pressure, too. But don't lift heavy weights. Learn from a pro what you need to do, and don't hold your breath.

“Always use lower resistances and higher repetitions, and always exhale on muscle exertion,” Bryant says.

Here's why: Blood pressure naturally goes up while you're exercising, but holding your breath and doing more intense resistance training tend to raise blood pressure even further, Beckerman says. If you have high blood pressure readings to begin with, it makes sense to avoid activities that cause big increases in blood pressure.

Talk to your doctors before beginning any new exercise program. They can let you know what, if anything, is off-limits, and whether your medications might affect your workout.

For example, Beckerman says, beta-blockers are sometimes used to treat hypertension, but they can also lower your heart rate and affect your stamina.

The main ingredient for success: being consistent. Start slowly, and stay within your guidelines.

Be patient with yourself as you shift into exercise. “Don't try to conquer the world the first time out,” Bryant says. The goal is to develop a plan, and make it last.