It's estimated that 1.13 billion people worldwide have hypertension (high blood pressure). In 2019, it accounted for 10.8 million deaths, and worldwide it is the leading risk factor for mortality.
In the US, roughly half of all adults have hypertension or are taking blood pressure medication to control it. In those over the age of 50, 65% are said to have above-normal blood pressure.
In addition to an increased risk of heart disease and stroke, untreated hypertension is now associated with a higher risk of COVID-19 and more severe symptoms.
Fortunately, there are many natural ways to reduce blood pressure. Diet and supplements play a big role. However, in this article I want to focus specifically on two exercises that help lower blood pressure safely and effectively.
By “exercise,” I don’t mean having to go to the gym and work up a heavy sweat for an hour. Rather, these movements can be done in the comfort of your own home and require just a few minutes a day. Even better, both can be performed by people who have mobility restrictions or who aren’t able to do traditional aerobic or strength exercises.
High-Resistance Inspiratory Muscle Strength Training
You could describe high-resistance inspiratory muscle strength training (IMST) as strength training for your breathing muscles.
Inspiratory muscle strength training was originally developed in the 1980s to wean people off ventilation devices used for sleep apnea. It was successful in this regard and yielded another unexpected side effect: After six weeks, those using IMST saw a drop in their systolic blood pressure (the top number in a blood pressure reading) by 12 points. That was twice the amount you might expect to see in someone doing aerobic exercise.
Inspiratory muscle strength training utilizes a small handheld device called an inspiratory muscle trainer. These devices provide resistance to normal breathing that has been described as “sucking through a straw that sucks back.” In a nutshell, it forces you to inhale harder to get air into your lungs. In the process, it strengthens your diaphragm and other muscles associated with breathing.
Inspiratory muscle trainers are readily available online. There are many different types and prices, but I’ve personally found that they all work about the same. I’ve tried several, but the one I’ve been using for years costs about $20 and it works just fine.
Using the device is simple. Hold your nose shut. Then take 30 vigorous breaths through the device within a five-minute period. I would suggest doing this at least once a day, six to seven days a week. As your breathing muscles strengthen, you can gradually adjust the device to make breathing increasingly more difficult. That’s pretty much the entire protocol.
While the original study found a 12-point drop in systolic blood pressure, a subsequent study reported around a 9-point drop. This is still very significant. It exceeds the benefits you’d expect to see by walking 30 minutes a day, five days a week for six weeks.
Along with lowering blood pressure and strengthening your breathing muscles, inspiratory muscle strength training improves the health of blood vessels by increasing nitric oxide, which stimulates the expansion of arteries and prevents the buildup of artery-clogging plaque.
Researchers are still trying to figure out exactly how inspiratory muscle strength training helps decrease blood pressure, but suspect it’s related to this boost in nitric oxide production. Nitric oxide allows the arteries to expand and relax, lowering restriction and improving blood flow. It also reduces oxidative stress and inflammation in arteries, which can lead to cardiovascular disease. The improvement in blood flow and arterial health has been shown to improve cognitive function and also increase exercise tolerance time.
I don’t recommend that inspiratory muscle strength training replace regular exercise because that is still important for blood pressure and every other aspect of health and well-being. But it is so easy to incorporate into your daily routine, and simple enough that everyone can do it.
Isometric Resistance Training
The second exercise to help lower blood pressure is isometric resistance training.
Isometric resistance training is a form of strength training, but it is a little different than traditional strength training.
During traditional strength training, the muscles shorten and lengthen. Take the bicep curl, for example. You hold a weight in your hand, extend your arm down, then bend your arm back up, bringing the weight to your shoulder. With every repetition of this movement, your bicep muscle shortens and lengthens. You get a similar effect with other traditional strength training exercises like squats and pushups.
But with isometric resistance training, the muscle produces force but doesn’t change in length. Take the bicep example again. Instead of moving the weights up and down as you would with a traditional bicep curl, an isometric exercise for the biceps would entail bending your arms at a 90-degree angle and holding the weights still in that position for as long as possible. So, you aren’t moving (and your muscles are shortening and lengthening), but eventually your arms will start shaking and those muscles are still getting a workout.
In the past, isometric resistance training wasn’t recommended for the management of high blood pressure due to the sometimes considerable rise in blood pressure that occurs when doing it.
But recently, researchers in Australia wanted to test the safety of isometric resistance training for individuals with high blood pressure. In Australia, the hypertension situation looks even worse than in the US. Over one-third of the population age 18 and older has high blood pressure, and half of these individuals don’t even know it.
The researchers found that not only was isometric resistance training very safe, it also resulted in very meaningful reductions in blood pressure—reductions that were almost comparable to those seen with the use of blood pressure medications (typically a 6-point drop in systolic pressure). Keep in mind that a 5-point reduction in systolic blood pressure is associated with a decline in the risk of death due to stroke by 14%, due to coronary heart disease by 9%, and due to all causes by 7%.
Additionally, isometric resistance training is very time efficient. It requires only about 12 minutes a day, two or three days a week to achieve beneficial results. And like IMST, it can easily be done by those with mobility problems or other issues that prevent them from walking, cycling, or doing traditional strength training. Even in older adults, isometric resistance training is not associated with any increased risks or adverse events.
Here are a few different isometric exercises you can try to lower your blood pressure.
- Plank Bridge. Get into a pushup position. Place your forearms on the floor with your elbows at a 90-degree angle positioned under your chest. Raise your body so your weight is balanced on your forearms and your toes. Hold this position for at least 10 seconds and repeat four or five times.
- Isometric Grip. Making a fist and squeezing it tightly for 60 to 90 seconds (repeat three or four times) is an effective isometric exercise for lowering blood pressure. You can also squeeze a tennis ball or some other soft object.
- Isometric Biceps Exercise. If you don’t have weights, here is another isometric bicep exercise you can try. Place your hands, with your palms up, under a desk or table top that is too heavy to lift. Press against the top while keeping your elbows tight against your ribs. Push up with your palms against the table/desk and hold that upward pressure for 10 seconds. Repeat this exercise four or five times.
- Isometric Pushup. An isometric pushup is where you pause at the bottom of a pushup, with your chest about 2 inches from the floor. Hold that position for 10 seconds and repeat four or five times.
Millions of people are currently taking medication to control their high blood pressure. Not only do these medications have side effects that often must be counteracted with additional drugs, but it can take weeks or months to find the right medication and/or dosage. And in most circumstances, the recommendation is to take these medications for life.
Diet, exercise, and specific supplements are very safe, inexpensive, and effective ways to reverse hypertension.
Unfortunately, most people feel they don’t have the ability, money, or time to devote to conventional exercises. But with techniques like inspiratory muscle strength training and isometric resistance training, this is no longer a valid excuse.
Never discontinue medication without talking to your doctor first, and be sure to consult with him/her before starting these or any other exercise.