Why Exercise Is Medicine Part I – High Blood Pressure
This week’s post begins a series that I will be doing over the next month or so on the topic, “Why Exercise Is Medicine.” As you will see, exercise is medicine for many different chronic diseases, even though it isn’t always considered during the treatment of these diseases.
I begin today by discussing why exercise is medicine for high blood pressure. This is certainly not an exhaustive article on high blood pressure, or how it is effected by exercise, but it should give you a better understanding of the topic.
Feel free to leave any comments at the bottom of the post, or share if you like it. Enjoy!
One of our guiding principles at the UMedGym is that exercise is medicine. Being a “Medical Gym” dictates that we have something to offer to the medical community, and that offering is an education to each of our members and to the surrounding community that exercise is medicine. What’s more, we not only attempt to educate, but we also provide the results by way of our exercise programs to demonstrate that exercise has a larger impact on our bodies than simply taking a medication.
The fact is that the amount of medications being prescribed and taken for things like high blood pressure, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and high cholesterol is off the charts. I’m sure the pharmaceutical companies are on board with this, and many doctors regularly prescribe such medications, knowing that it is the path of least resistance for their patients.
While medications are important to manage symptoms in the short-term, they are not a long-term solution as they often come with multiple side-effects that result in the need for additional medications to counteract these effects. Before long it becomes a never-ending cycle of managing symptoms.
On the other hand, exercise works to manage and ultimately reverse the root cause of many diseases, rather than just dealing with the symptoms. The problem is that exercise is not as easy as taking a medication. It requires consistent work and a long-term commitment in order to pay off. But the results are well worth the effort.
I understand that it can be challenging to dedicate yourself to an exercise program when you don’t know why you are doing it or what the full benefits are, and that’s the reason why I am writing this article. I want to help you understand what happens in your body when you exercise, and what the physiological payoff is. My hope is that this will help motivate you to stick with exercise for the long-term and see the benefits.
The majority of people look at exercise on a more superficial level. In other words, they think about exercising because they want to lose some weight, look better, or at least feel like they are in better shape. While exercise is great at helping with all of these challenges, it reaches far deeper than simply what can be seen on the surface.
Muscle and fat are easy to see on a person, and exercise certainly helps alter the ratio of these two tissues in the body. However, the internal effects of exercise, such as how it works on the heart, lungs, blood vessels, hormones, bones, cartilage, and much more are of even greater importance to overall health.
With that in mind, let’s dive into the subject of today’s post, which is why exercise is medicine for high blood pressure.
What Is High Blood Pressure?
High blood pressure, also referred to as hypertension, occurs when the pressure of blood in your blood vessels becomes too high. You can think of this as similar to the pressure of water pushing out against a hose. Ideally, blood pressure will not be too low so that adequate blood is delivered throughout the body, but also not too high, so that the walls of the arteries and various blood vessels throughout the body are not damaged.
Blood pressure is measured by determining the systolic and diastolic blood pressures. Systolic blood pressure is the pressure when the heart contracts (called systole), while diastolic blood pressure is the pressure when the heart rests between beats and refills with blood (called diastole).
A blood pressure that is measured as 120/80 mm HG (millimeters of mercury) or below is considered normal. If your systolic pressure (the top number) is between 120-139 mm HG, or if your diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number) is between 80-90 mm HG (or both) you are deemed prehypertensive, or at risk for high blood pressure. Finally, if you have a chronic blood pressure of 140 or higher systolic and/or 90 or higher diastolic, you have high blood pressure.
I’m not going to go into great detail about the consequences of high blood pressure, but suffice it to say that it puts you at a higher risk of having a stroke or heart attack. It also puts you at risk of having heart or kidney failure, as these two organs receive a large amount of blood flow, and can be damaged by high pressure, or by blood backing up in the arteries due to high pressure.
Additionally, like excessively high water pressure flowing through a hose, high blood pressure puts the arteries and other blood vessels throughout your body at risk of rupture or disease. Needless to say, your body needs well-functioning blood vessels in order to be healthy, so high blood pressure can have a large impact, not only on your health, but also on how you function on a daily basis.
What Causes High Blood Pressure?
The direct causes of high blood pressure can be many and varied. Often causes include a combination of genetic and lifestyle factors that lead to elevated blood pressure. The bottom line is that one way or another the blood vessels are receiving increased pressure, and there are a few mechanisms that can cause this:
Imbalances of the hormones that regulate blood pressure, which can cause constricted (i.e. narrowed) blood vessels and increased resistance to flow.
Increased sympathetic nervous system activity, which can also cause constriction of blood vessels and increased resistance to flow.
Impaired kidney function, which can cause increased fluid retention, leading to increased fluid volumes travelling through the blood vessels, and thus higher blood pressure.
A weakened heart, which can cause an inability to efficiently pump blood all the way through the system, causing fluid back up in the body.
Changes in blood vessel structure and function, including a loss of elasticity and stiffening/hardening of vessels, leading to increased pressure due to lack of expansion.
In short, the two biggest reasons that high blood pressure occurs are either a chronic constriction in the blood vessels, making it more difficult for blood to pass through them, or a chronic increase in fluid that must pass through the blood vessels…or both.
Thus, in order to decrease blood pressure, we must find a way to either decrease the amount of fluid that must flow through the system or increase the space that the fluid has to flow through. Fortunately, exercise can help regulate both of these factors! Who knew??
So, now that we know a little bit more about why high blood pressure occurs, let’s talk more specifically about how exercise can be of benefit to high blood pressure.
Exercise and High Blood Pressure
The Effect of Exercise on Your Blood Vessels
Exercise causes a generalized sympathetic response in the body. Your sympathetic nervous system is the side of the nervous system that heightens arousal throughout the body, sometimes referred to as the “fight or flight” response.
This means that exercise causes an increased heart rate and strength of each heart beat, increased body temperature, and yes, even increased blood pressure. You might be wondering how exercise can positively affect high blood pressure if exercise itself causes an increase in blood pressure?
The answer lies in the long-term response to exercise versus the immediate response. The acute spike in blood flow through the arteries may cause an acute spike in blood pressure, but the long-term effect is that it trains your blood vessels to be more compliant or more flexible.
If you think about how an old rubber band becomes stiff and loses elasticity when it is not used for two years, that is similar to what happens with your blood vessels if you never force them to stretch and respond to increased blood flow above resting rates. Similar to how your muscles will become less elastic and stretchy when they are immobilized, your blood vessels lose their natural elastic properties if they are not challenged.
Exercise, then is medicine for treating blood vessels that have become rigid and inflexible, inhibiting the flow of blood through them. Starting an exercise routine at a gradual pace and then regularly progressing intensity will increase the compliance of your heart and blood vessels, and that will help decrease blood pressure over time.
It is important to point out, however, that a leisurely stroll to get your 10,000 steps is not going to cause this adaptation. While there is nothing wrong with a goal of 10,000 steps per day, and it certainly has its benefits, a dedicated exercise session in which you elevate your heart rate and blood flow will have a more beneficial effect on blood pressure.
The Effect of Exercise on Your Nervous and Endocrine Systems
Your autonomic nervous system is made up of two parts: the sympathetic and parasympathetic sides. As I mentioned, the sympathetic nervous system heightens arousal, while the parasympathetic side decreases arousal. If your sympathetic nervous system over-dominates, then it can lead to increased blood pressure.
However, exercise can help regulate these two systems and turn off the sympathetic state.
While exercise causes an acute sympathetic response in the body, the long-term effects of exercise work to regulate the autonomic nervous system. For those people who are chronically stressed and sympathetic dominant in their daily lives, with increased heart rates and blood pressures, exercise can help them to release that stress and move into a more restful, parasympathetic state in their daily lives.
Part of the way in which this happens is by the release of endorphins during and after exercise and the regulation of hormones within the body. So, not only will exercise help to regulate hormonal levels in the body, but it can also help regulate your mood on a day-to-day basis!
The Effect of Exercise on Fluid Retention
Speaking of hormones, exercise can also help to regulate hormones involved with kidney function and fluid retention. Fluid is regulated in the body by a complex hormonal system along with proper functioning of the kidneys, which retain or filter out the necessary amount of water. This allows us to have some leeway with how much fluid we consume or lose, while still maintaining necessary hydration levels.
As I mentioned above, however, when excessive fluid is retained, it can lead to high blood pressure. Exercise is a great way to positively affect fluid balance within the body by helping to regulate hormonal and kidney function.
Aside from affecting the fluid balance via the kidneys and hormones, exercise also helps affect fluid balance simply by its inherent movement and the pumping action of the muscles.
The legs are of particular importance when it comes to fluid retention. When you are sedentary, fluid tends to pool in the lower legs and feet due to gravity. However, using the muscles in a repetitive manner during exercise, will act as a pump to help return blood to the heart, and move it efficiently through the system.
This will help fluids move through the body, be filtered out effectively, and prevent pooling in the extremities.
The Effect of Exercise on Your Heart
Finally, one of the most important pieces in the body when it comes to blood pressure is the organ that pumps all of the blood. When the heart is working optimally, it will efficiently and powerfully pump blood through the body, and not allow for fluid to back up.
However, if the heart is too weak or inefficient, it can struggle to pump blood efficiently through the body, and fluid can back up in the blood vessels (as it did in the plumbing pipes in my basement recently, but that’s a story for another day…).
Needless to say, exercise is the only way to strengthen your heart and help it to pump blood efficiently.
As you can see, exercise is a powerful way to help keep each system in your body that affects blood pressure functioning optimally. Whether it’s the kidneys, blood vessels, heart, hormones, or nervous system, exercise can make a huge difference in how these different systems and organs function.
Now, taking medications can work to reduce blood pressure by controlling the symptoms. For example, Angiotensin II Receptor Blockers can be used to block the hormone Angiotensin II, which causes blood vessels to constrict. Doing this allows blood pressure to drop by forcing blood vessels to dilate and enlarge. The only problem is that your body is now reliant on this medication.
Additionally, having blood vessels that are artificially dilated all the time can have an impact on your daily function as there may not always be optimal resistance to blood flow, and blood pressure could drop too low. Thus you can see the challenge with being overly reliant on medications, especially on a long-term basis.
Instead, focus on using exercise to help regulate the body’s hormonal levels and the functioning of the heart and blood vessels. It may take longer and be more work, but the payoff is worth it if your body is functioning the way it’s supposed to all on its own.
I am not condemning the use of medications, because they do have their place for preventing life threatening diseases, especially in the short-term. But long-term reliance on a medication to control your symptoms is not the best way to help your body function properly.
Exercise is medicine for high blood pressure for many reasons, and it can help your body regulate its cardiovascular system properly. It may take time, effort, and proper exercise prescription, but the payoff is well worth it.
Your heart will thank you!
Stay tuned for Part II of “Why Exercise Is Medicine” coming soon! If you liked what you read, feel free to leave a comment below or share this article!