Activity and sports

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Answers to the most common questions about being more active and which sports are safe with high blood pressure.

Activity and sports

How much activity is needed to lower my blood pressure?

To affect your blood pressure and to get the maximum benefit from it you need to be doing at least 30 minutes of moderate activity five times a week.  This means doing something that makes you slightly out of breath and warm – brisk walking, swimming, cycling and gardening for example.  If you have not done much physical activity for a while, or have other medical conditions, you may need to build up to this gradually.  You can be active for 15 minutes twice a day or for ten minutes three times a day if you wish.

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Are there any sports or activities I should avoid?

You should aim to work at a level you feel is light to moderate, not hard or very hard.  Think carefully about how the activity feels, for example, how hot you feel, how hard you are breathing and how tired your muscles are.  If you cannot hold a conversation whilst you are exercising, then you are working too hard!

You should not do the following, as they can raise your blood pressure to dangerous levels for a short period of time:

  • Lift heavy weights without supervision from a qualified exercise trainer
  • Vigorous short bursts of exercise like boxing or squash

If you are interested in scuba diving and have high blood pressure there are some restrictions. These will depend on the level of your blood pressure and any medications that you are taking.  You will need to be passed to dive by a diving medical specialist.

Other sports and activities, which might involve speed and changes in atmospheric pressure, may also require a medical certificate, for example parachuting and motor racing.  If you are in any doubt, contact the governing body for the activity you want to try.

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Why are we told not to do exercises such as weight lifting?

Our bodies react differently to different types of exercise. There are two main types of physical activity: aerobic (or dynamic) and isometric (or static) exercise.

Aerobic exercise is very good for our heart and blood vessels as it gives them a good workout, helping them to become more flexible and efficient. The heart pumps the blood harder, raising blood pressure, but the blood flows into a large number of muscles, giving more space for the blood to flow in so the blood pressure does not rise by very much. In fact regular aerobic activities will help to lower your blood pressure over time. Examples of aerobic exercises are anything that uses a large number of muscles in repeated and rhythmic movements, such as swimming, cycling and brisk walking.

Isometric exercises build muscle but such exercises can raise blood pressure during the exercise, e.g. during weight lifting. In some cases the changes in blood pressure can be rapid and large and this can put extra unwanted strain on the heart and blood vessels. This is because this form of activity involves the sustained contraction of just one set of muscles. So the heart beats harder, but only a small number of muscles are being used. Because of this, there is less space available for the blood to flow in. This results in a rapid rise in blood pressure and extra strain on the heart and blood vessels. Examples of isometric exercise are weight lifting and press ups.

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