Exercise is often pointed out to remedy hypertension. However, there is a much more complex relationship between both. The type of exercise you do matters, and often, certain activities can contribute to causing hypertension as others contribute to lowering blood pressure.
Here, we’ll look at blood pressure, how exercise and bodybuilding activities can affect it, and how you can strike a balance to ensure that you continuously stay healthy.
What is blood pressure?
The heart is a highly efficient machine, pumping blood throughout the body to aid various cellular activities. Pumped blood is carried through vessels known as arteries that travel to extremes in the body.
For blood to get to all body parts, including the extremes, there has to be pressure against which the heart pumps. Thus, blood pressure is defined as the pressure required to push blood through the circulatory system. It is the force the blood exerts on the arteries as it flows through the body. This force must be within a range that ensures that blood efficiently flows to where needed but does not put too much pressure on the vessel to weaken it.
The blood pressure is determined by many factors, including; how much blood is pumped, how fast the heart is pumping, and how much resistance is in the vessels. The resistance in the vessel is, in turn, determined by its diameter. Think of a water pump, pumping water through a pipe. If it has to pump 20L of water through a 15cm pipe, it’ll do so at high pressure than when it has to pump the same 20L through a 30cm pipe. Similarly, it’ll pump at high pressures when it has to pump 20L than when it has to pump 10L.
Normal blood pressure is essential in ensuring that every cell in the body gets oxygen and other essential nutrients required for optimal performance. If blood pressure becomes too high or too low, it can cause damage to other organs and pose severe problems for an individual.
Systolic vs. diastolic blood pressure
If you’ve ever had your blood pressure checked, you will notice there are two values given – a top value which is typically higher and a bottom value which is usually lower. This top value is known as your systolic pressure, and the bottom is known as your diastolic pressure. Both values are really important but represent different facets of your blood pressure.
To understand the difference between systole and diastole, you first have to understand how the heart works. The heart is made up of four chambers – two ventricles (right and left) and two atria (right and left). Two major vessels, the arteries and veins and minor vessels known as capillaries, complete your circulatory system.
For the heart to pump blood, the ventricles contract (or squeeze) forcing blood through the arteries. The systolic pressure measures the force of blood against the arteries during this phase. In other words, it is a contraction pressure.
Pumped blood traverses the entire body through the arteries and then moves to the veins to return back to the heart. As the blood enters the heart, the atria contract to push the blood down, while the ventricles relax to fill up maximally. The diastole measures this force of blood against the arteries during this phase. It is a relaxation pressure since it measures the pressure at a time when the heart “rests” between beats.
Both the systolic and diastolic pressures are equally important in determining heart health status. However, a high systolic value might indicate a higher risk for heart problems.
Blood pressure regulation
Blood pressure falling too high or too low can lead to serious consequences. Thus, the body keeps the blood pressure regulated through complex interconnected mechanisms.
As noted, blood pressure is determined by how much blood the heart has to pump, how fast it pumps and the size of the vessel through which it pumps. All of these are regulated through two major systems – the sympathetic nervous system and the Renin-Angiotensin-Aldosterone System (RAAS).
The sympathetic system through the release of epinephrine and norepinephrine, stimulate receptors in the cardiac muscles that increase the heart’s rate of pumping. Epinephrine and norepinephrine also act on the blood vessels, causing them to constrict, thus, increasing blood pressure. The sympathetic system also acts on the kidneys causing sodium and water retention, which increases blood volume and in effect blood pressure.
The sympathetic system works through a negative feedback mechanism wherein it increases its activities when the blood pressure drops too low and decreases its activities when the blood pressure is high. This system is maintained at a baseline that ensures that the blood pressure is always within the normal range.
The kidneys “house” the RAAS system. Like the sympathetic system, this system works through negative feedback to increase sodium and water retention when the blood pressure is low. The RAAS system also causes the release of renin which activates the hormone angiotensin that causes the blood vessels to constrict.
If there is a problem with any of these systems, then the blood pressure may become high or low.
High blood pressure
Hypertension is a chronic condition wherein the force exerted by pumped blood against the vessels is too high. This puts a strain on the vessels, resulting in serious cardiovascular risk and possible organ damage.
The American Heart Association (AHA) classifies blood pressure using the following table;
When a person is hypertensive, they may not show any symptoms, thus why hypertension is called the silent killer. Hypertensive crises may have more severe symptoms such as blurred vision, headaches, breathlessness and nose bleeds.
Uncontrolled hypertension over a long period can have damning consequences for a person. It increases a person’s risk of stroke, cardiac arrests, kidney failure etc.
Hypertension may have various primary and secondary causes like high blood cholesterol, hyperthyroidism or kidney diseases.
Measures for lowering blood pressure
When a person is diagnosed with hypertension, they may be placed on antihypertensive medications that regulate the failing mechanisms in their body. They will also be recommended to make lifestyle changes that help lower their blood pressure.
The following measures are recommended for lowering blood pressure;
- Reduction in salt intake
- Increase in water intake
- Smoking cessation
- Alcohol reduction
- Eating more vegetables and fruits
- Reducing carbs
- Limit stress and improve sleep
- Shed weight
- Exercise regularly.
- Using supplements that lower cholesterol levels in the body. Cholesterol buildup is a major risk factor for hypertension. Thus, cholesterol-lowering supplements can help mitigate this risk.
Effect of exercise on blood pressure
As you grow older, your risk of hypertension increases. However, regular exercise can help reduce this risk, while also lowering your blood pressure if it is already high.
When you exercise, your blood pressure rises acutely, but this effect is temporary, and your blood pressure returns to normal eventually. As you exercise more regularly, your systolic blood pressure reduces by about 6 mmHg, and your diastolic pressure reduces by about 12 mmHg. Exercise also reduces cardiovascular risk and causes beneficial cardiac remodeling.
Regular physical activity makes your heart stronger, allowing it to pump more blood with less effort. This reduces the force against your arteries, and in effect, your blood pressure. Aerobic exercises like swimming, cycling and brisk walks are most recommended for lowering blood pressure. However, stretches and strength training exercises may also be beneficial for blood pressure.
Effect of bodybuilding on blood pressure
The effect of bodybuilding on blood pressure is a bit tricky. In otherwise healthy persons, research shows that consistent bodybuilding efforts, much like aerobic exercises help lower blood pressure. Similar to aerobic exercises, bodybuilding reshapes the heart and makes it stronger, allowing it to pump more blood with less effort. Besides this effect, bodybuilding also helps reduce hypertension by stimulating muscle growth. Research shows that people with greater muscle mass than fat have a better ability to excrete sodium. Sodium excretion plays a big role in blood pressure regulation, meaning that people who bodybuild consistently will have lower risks of hypertension and cardiovascular accidents compared to those who do not.
On the other hand, bodybuilding might be detrimental to parsons with pre-workout hypertension. Strength training exercises like bodybuilding are anaerobic. These exercises put intense strain on the muscles and require that you hold your breath to generate more power. These actions can cause already high blood pressure to spike to dangerous levels that may pose severe risks for the bodybuilder. If your blood pressure is already approaching crisis levels (180/110), then you should not bodybuild. You should also not attempt to lift heavy objects if you have uncontrolled high blood pressure since that can cause dangerous blood pressure spikes.
Exercises to Lower Blood Pressure
Aerobic exercises are generally recommended for lowering blood pressure. They help you return to your ideal weight and make your heart stronger to pump blood at lower pressures. Here are some of the easiest aerobic exercises to help maintain normal blood pressure.
- Brisk walks: 30 minutes of brisk walks a day at least 5 times a day effectively reduces blood pressure
- Biking or stationary cycling 30 minutes per day at least 5 times a day
- Swimming as regularly as possible
Maintaining a balance
While aerobic exercises are guaranteed to be beneficial for blood pressure, you may have some concerns with bodybuilding and blood pressure. Thus, you need to strike a balance in your training routines to ensure that you get the most physical benefit without any detriment to your heart health.
When strength training, it is essential that you start small, and then work your way up till you reach a routine that is optimal for you. Your routine should be tailored to your needs and should not exert so much stress that it adds unnecessary “load” to your heart. If you have pre-workout high blood pressure, stick to lifting lighter weights, and if your blood pressure is in crisis regions, then avoid lifting weights altogether.
Always ensure that you monitor your blood pressure throughout your routine. Luckily, you can do this through portable arm or wrist blood pressure monitors. Monitoring your blood pressure will help you judge how efficiently you’re working out, and warn you when your routine starts to affect your blood pressure.
Exercising and bodybuilding increase blood pressure temporarily. These activities may help prevent hypertension and normalize high blood pressure in already diagnosed individuals. However, high-intensity bodybuilding may be detrimental to blood pressure, especially in those already diagnosed with hypertension.
Ensure that you start your workouts light and optimize your routines to suit your needs. COnsult with your doctor before starting any heavy lifting activities to ensure that your blood pressure is right for it. Importantly, ensure that you monitor your blood pressure when engaging in any exercise or weight training.