Blood pressure measurement

Have you checked your blood pressure recently? Guidelines from the American College of Cardiology (ACC) and the American Heart Association (AHA) encourage physicians to treat people with systolic blood pressure (SBP) at or over 130 and diastolic blood pressure at or over 80. These criteria mean that half of all adults in the United States would need treatment for hypertension. That often means a prescription for one or more medications. What if exercise for blood pressure control were just as effective as medications?

How Effective Are Medications vs. Exercise for Blood Pressure Control?

Most health professionals encourage their patients to lose weight and exercise more after they receive a diagnosis of hypertension. But implementing such programs are almost always easier said than done.

Doctors rarely have the time or expertise to coach patients in substantive lifestyle changes. Insurance companies rarely reimburse health professionals for such initiatives. If patients are unsuccessful at developing an exercise program that works to lower blood pressure, a prescription is considered the only answer.

We suspect that a lot of health professionals think of medications as the most effective strategy for controlling blood pressure. Moving your body seems like a good idea in general. Can exercise for blood pressure control really compete with drugs?

Data in Support of Exercise for Blood Pressure Control

A new meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (Dec. 18, 2018) compared medications to exercise for blood pressure control. The investigators analyzed 391 randomized controlled trials. The authors report that for people with hypertension, exercise works about as well as commonly prescribed blood pressure medications to lower systolic blood pressure.

Here, in their own words are their conclusions:

“Our analyses that synthesised the results of 391 RCTs [randomized controlled trials] including 39,742 participants showed that individuals receiving medications achieved greater reductions in SBP [systolic blood pressure] than those following structured exercise regimens. However, different types of exercise interventions appeared to be as equally effective as most antihypertensive medications when we limited our analyses to trials in populations with high SBP.”

The researchers note that “Studies comparing the effectiveness of medications and non-medication interventions are rare.” They go on to point out that:

“Pharmaceutical companies, which in recent years have sponsored the majority of clinical studies, currently have little incentive to design studies that compare their products to non-medication alternatives.”

The People’s Pharmacy Perspective:

If exercise is as good as medicine for lowering blood pressure in many patients, it should be encouraged in pragmatic ways. Insurance companies should find ways to help pay for the cost of gym memberships. Health coaches who can motivate people to exercise regularly should be reimbursed just the way doctors and nurses are. And physicians should find ways to incorporate exercise programs into their practice of medicine.

Medications can be helpful for many people with hypertension. But so is exercise. In addition, exercise has a range of positive health benefits above and beyond its ability to help lower high blood pressure.

A Reader Responds:

Trisha shares this experience:

“The doctor I saw became very alarmed at an elevated blood pressure reading in her office (my years of BP documentation meant nothing to her). She prescribed a medication that made me feel terrible. I had a bad reaction and stopped taking it.

“I wrote her a long letter saying I would have more respect for her opinion if she had suggested weight loss, more exercise, meditation, food suggestions, lower salt intake, etc., before jumping straight to pharmaceuticals. She would not entertain those notions, so I switched doctors to one that shares more similar philosophies. Keep up the fight!”

Share your experience in the comment section below. Has exercise made a difference in your blood pressure readings?

British Journal of Sports Medicine, Dec. 18, 2018

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  1. Bob
    South Carolina

    Like so many other senior citizens my BP has also risen. After being on meds to lower the numbers I’ve tried several times to get off the meds and exercise. Unfortunately no matter how much exercise I do or at what intensity did this have any effect on my blood pressure. I still exercise because I know it is good for my overall health. However, exercise didn’t help my BP at all.

  2. Stephen; BA, MA, Ed.S

    Many cardio studies have documented well the importance of relating recommended BP readings to age…. yet many uninformed health professionals still reference the 120/80 and 130/80 for pre-hypertension for everyone without considering age…a gross error and disservice to senior citizens. It has been well documented that for individuals in their 60’s, 70’s and 80’s.. BP readings of 140/90 or less are satisfactory readings. I do seriously wonder why health professionals do this… studies have demonstrated that many of these “professionals “ have invested a great deal of money in buying shares in pharmaceutical companies….hum?

  3. JOANN

    I saw a medical TV show episode that said squeezing a small squeeze ball multiple times in both hands can help lower BP. Is this an exaggeration or close to the truth? (Or do you have to do it a thousand times to get results? I’m tired of the headline-grabbing “trending junk science” that spreads like wildfire until the full truth comes out! Like when a special vitamin or anti-oxidant is found in a food but it turns out you have to eat/drink gallons/truck-loads of the stuff to get the health effect!) Many “Thanks” to People’s Pharmacy’s guidance & advocacy for everything they do to help & fight for the health care consumer! Been following them for 30 years now! And it is one of the few consumer advocate groups I actually trust!

  4. Klara

    I, too, am interested in how to lower blood pressure with exercise. I now take lisinopril for my BP with good results, but would much rather do it by natural means. Do you have a Graedons’ Guide for lowering Blood Pressure through Exercise?

    • Joe Graedon

      Exercise is good regardless of the type. Just walking for 20 to 30 minutes three or four times a week can be beneficial. And yes, we are planning on upgrading our blood pressure guide with more details about exercise! Thanks for the encouragement.

  5. Joanne
    Washington, US

    I have had high blood pressure for years….and for years I’ve been overweight.

    In 2014 I began to take “ownership” of my health, and started exercising regularly (30-60 minutes daily for at least 5 days/week), and also began “watching what I ate.”

    I did lose weight in the beginning (about 20 pounds), but held steady at 190-ish for two more years, and my blood pressure still remained high (145/95-160/100).

    In the middle of 2017, I joined Weight Watchers and began to seriously count calories/points and what I ate. It took me 9 months to lose about 60 pounds and reach my lifetime goal weight.

    In those 5 months, I also continued to exercise, and stopped eating products with added sugars, and now my blood pressure is much lower (ranging from 110/65 to 125/75). I still take a wee bit of medication, but will be seeing my doctor in January to readdress this issue. My two cents…I couldn’t have done this without both exercise AND diet.

  6. Hawk
    Sebring FL

    I have used beet juice, supplementation, and exercise for years to control my blood pressure. In the last couple of years that no longer seems to take care of the situation. My doctor got alarmed at an elevated pressure reading in her office one day at an appointment. So she put me on 2 different meds.

    I have continued to do the beet juice, supplementation and exercise. Even doing all of this I am not seeing the results the Dr wants or what I would like to see. I am wondering if being 75 yrs old has caught up with me (age factor) or if I am doing the wrong exercises (walking average 5000 steps a day and going to the gym 3 days a week and lifting weights for 30 to 45 minutes at a time as well as active in controlling or maintaining my weight as well as working in my garden). Would like for these studies to have outlined what exercises are recommended!

    • Terry Graedon

      This research emphasized aerobic exercise, 10 minutes of warm-up and 35 minutes of jogging, cycling or similar moderate intensity exercise three times a week.

  7. Mary
    Pittsboro, NC

    You talk about exercises to lower blood pressure, but what exercises? Cardio, yoga, strength? And can meditation help?

    • Anne
      Apex, NC

      I was wondering the same thing!

    • Anne
      Apex, NC

      Details on the types of exercise are discussed in the British Journal of Sports Medicine link given in the article.

  8. Barb A.

    I have a genetic disorder which makes my blood pressure spike. It normally reads 134/88 which, to the medical field, is alarming. Recently I went in for sinus infection only to be grilled about my blood pressure! She wanted to put me on a 2nd med which I flatly refused to consider, however since my sinus infection has made me feel tired, etc., I’m unable to go to gym as much. When I m able to work out it’s lower yet they push meds regardless. I wish doctors would stop encouraging drugs and instead find more holistic ways to lower bp. I dread going to the doctor because they focus on that number!

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