Walking is one of the best forms of exercise for lowering a raised blood pressure. What’s more, walking is easy, free, convenient and you can move at your own pace without having to shell out for a gym membership, personal trainer or even any special equipment (though a pair of good walking shoes is a worthwhile investment).
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Walking lowers blood pressure
The results from 54 studies, involving 2,419 people with and without hypertension, concluding that aerobic exercise such as brisk walking lowered blood pressure by an average of 3.84/2.58 mmHg. Another analysis involving 1,346 people confirmed these results, showing significant blood pressure reductions of 4.6/2.3 mmHg in those taking part in regular aerobic exercise.
In studies that concentrated on people with hypertension, aerobic exercise such as walking was found to lower blood pressure by between 5/1 mmHg and 10/6 mmHg.
Researchers then assessed the benefits of different intensities of exercise on blood pressure, in over 33,000 runners and almost 16,000 walkers who were followed for 6 years.
They found that equivalent doses of running (a vigorous exercise) and walking (a moderate exercise) produced equivalent reductions in the risks of developing hypertension (and also lowered risks of developing high cholesterol, diabetes or heart disease) based on the amount of energy expended. So, rather than running for, say 20 minutes, three times a week, you could expend half the energy and walk briskly for 40 minutes, three times a week, to achieve similar benefits.
In a study involving unfit, obese older men with hypertension, a single 45 minute session of moderate intensity aerobic exercise (walking on a treadmill) significantly reduced blood pressure compared with a day when they did not exercise. Average systolic blood pressure was between 6 mmHg and 13 mmHg lower for the first 16 hours after brisk walking, while diastolic blood pressure was lower for 12 hours after exercising. Overall, their average systolic and diastolic blood pressures remained significantly lower by 7.4/3.6 mmHg for 24 hours after exercise.
How does walking lower blood pressure?
Regular exercise stimulates muscle cells to burn more glucose and fat, and increases their oxygen requirement. As a result, more blood is sent to your muscles, so that pressure elsewhere in the circulation is reduced. This also decreases the work load of the heart. While blood pressure may increase during intense exercise, it comes down quickly afterwards.
As you get more fit, the rise in blood pressure that occurs during physical activity or periods of emotional stress is also reduced. Another factor is that breathing more deeply (to get more oxygen) stimulates blood pressure receptors in the chest which also brings down blood pressure in the same way as deep breathing exercises.
The improvements in glucose control and cholesterol balance also have long-term benefits in reducing hardening and furring up of the arteries (atherosclerosis) and unwanted blood clots. Exercise also promotes relaxation by stimulating the release of opium-like endorphins in the brain.
How much exercise do you need?
A study involving 207 people with untreated hypertension assessed the benefits of different durations and frequency of exercise, from none, to 30 to 60 minutes, 61 to 90 minutes, 91 to 120 minutes, or more than 120 minutes per week, over an 8 week period. The exercise was carried out in fitness centres, and included a brief warm-up period, aerobic exercise (including walking), followed by conditioning exercises (eg sit-ups and stretching).
In the control group, who did no exercise, blood pressure remained high. In the other groups, the greatest reduction in blood pressure was seen in those exercising for 61 to 90 minutes per week, or more.
Regular exercise, on most days, is best to maintain the benefits. A good target to aim for is to take 10,000 paces per day. A study involving postmenopausal woman with hypertension found that waking nearly 10,000 steps per day reduced their systolic blood pressure by 6mmHg after 12 weeks
As well as brisk walking, activities such as gardening and dancing are effective as are swimming or cycling for heart health. Any activity that leaves you feeling warm and slightly out of breath is doing you good. You can even take plenty of rests. Heart specialists in Australia, who studied the effects of exercise in 500 males found those who stopped to rest during their treadmill sessions were just as fit at the end of the year as those who jogged or walked continuously for 30 minutes.
In fact, the benefits of regular exercise on overall health are so great, it lowers the risk of premature death from coronary heart disease by more than 40%, and the risk of age-related death from all causes by around a quarter – even if exercise is not started until middle age.
An ongoing study is currently looking at whether regular walking could protect against stroke in seniors, in a program called Worth the Walk as the expectation is that lowering blood pressure could reduce the risk.
My easy walking plan
Step 1: Buy a simple pedometer or an activity tracker, and assess the number of paces you walk per day, on average, over the course of a week. To get the average, add up the number of steps over the 7 days, and divide by 7.
Step 2: Increase the number of paces you take during the next week by 10%. To do this, take the average number of paces you walked per day last week, and multiply this figure by 1.1 (round the result up or down to the nearest 5 steps). For example, if the average number of paces you walked per day, last week, was 3,505 you multiply this by 1.1 to obtain your new target of 3,855 paces per day.
Step 3: Increase your target number of paces per day, over each following week by another 10% (multiply the last target by 1.1) until you reach the ‘magic’ target of 10,000.
Here’s an example based on someone who is relatively sedentary, and who walked around 3,500 steps per day, on average. They increased their step count by 10% per week and it only took 12 weeks to reach their goal step target and lower their blood pressure.
Daily paces target
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