High blood pressure – “the silent killer” – is a large concern for many people worldwide. WHO estimates that high blood pressure affects ~40% of the world population (1). With this as such a widespread problem, there is a great need to help people lower and maintain their blood pressure.
Exercise is often cited as a good way to bring blood pressure down to manageable levels, but what kind of exercise is best?
Endurance exercise is the mode of choice for many people with high blood pressure. Recently, however, there has been more evidence suggesting that resistance training, and specifically isometric resistance training (holding a muscle contraction in one place for a given length of time), might be a more effective way to reduce blood pressure long-term (2).
People with high blood pressure are often concerned about performing resistance training exercises. This is a valid concern as the strain required to perform a contraction against resistance tends to raise your blood pressure in that moment (but not long-term). While caution should always be taken to ensure that you are only performing exercises you are physically prepared for and can perform properly and safely, isometric resistance training is something you should begin adding to your exercise routine.
A common isometric exercise used to lower blood pressure is the isometric handgrip exercise using a handgrip dynamometer (see http://www.topendsports.com/testing/tests/handgrip.htm). While specific instructions vary, the basic process is to squeeze the handgrip dynamometer at a submaximal intensity for ~2-3 minutes, rest, and repeat 3 or 4 times for each arm. Perform the exercises 3-5 times a week. Studies with individuals performing isometric exercises for 8 weeks or longer demonstrated greater reductions in resting blood pressure than studies lasting less than 8 weeks (3), so make sure you stick with it to maintain better control over your blood pressure.
Many studies have found profound reductions in blood pressure through the use of isometric exercises. One meta-analysis reported that in less than 10 weeks, individuals in a variety of studies saw decreases in systolic blood pressure of ~10mmHg and decreases in diastolic blood pressure of ~7mmHg. The individuals were performing the isometric exercises for less than 20 minutes, 3 times a week, for a grand total of ~1 hour a week (4). Talk about a great return on your investment!! Isometric exercise has been seen in many cases to have more substantial reductions in blood pressure than endurance and/or dynamic resistance exercises (5).
So if you’re struggling to manage your blood pressure, I suggest teaming up with a trainer and trying isometric exercise.
2. Cornelissen, V. A., & Smart, N. A. (2013). Exercise training for blood pressure: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of the American Heart Association, 2(1), e004473.
3. Inder, J. D., Carlson, D. J., Dieberg, G., McFarlane, J. R., Hess, N. C., & Smart, N. A. (2015). Isometric exercise training for blood pressure management: a systematic review and meta-analysis to optimize benefit. Hypertension Research.
4. Owen, A., Wiles, J., Swaine, I. (2010). Effect of isometric exercise on resting blood pressure. Journal of Human Hypertension.
5. Cornelissen, V. A., & Smart, N. A. (2013). Exercise training for blood pressure: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of the American Heart Association, 2(1), e004473.