Move it! That’s one of the best things you can do to lower your blood pressure. Which makes sense, when you think about it: The key to managing hypertension is to get your blood vessels working well and your blood flowing the way it should. And what gets that blood flowing better than exercise?

Aerobic exercise, including walking, jogging, cycling, swimming and other sustained, rhythmic activities, brings the best blood-pressure lowering results, says Gordon Blackburn, PhD, director of the Cardiac Rehabilitation Program at the Cleveland Clinic. The reasons:

  • It gets your heart pumping blood to your muscles. This may cause a slight rise in your systolic pressure — the top number in your blood pressure reading, which measures the pressure in your arteries when your heart contracts and pumps blood. But aerobic exercise also causes a drop in your diastolic pressure, the bottom number, which measures the pressure when your heart relaxes and refills. When you finish your walk or workout, “your systolic pressure comes down and your diastolic pressure remains low, with the net effect that your overall blood pressure is reduced,” says Dr. Blackburn.
  • It burns calories. This helps you control your weight, which is important for managing blood pressure.
  • It makes your heart stronger and more efficient. The heart pumps more blood with each contraction so it doesn’t have to contract as often. This brings down your resting heart rate along with your blood pressure.
  • It gives your blood vessels a healthy workout. The lining of the arteries, called the endothelium, is a major determinant of the relaxation properties of blood vessels. These properties are important in blood pressure regulation. Exercise stimulates this lining to produce antioxidants that have a positive effect on your blood pressure.

QUIZ: Are You Exercising Enough?

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Pace yourself. Get an inexpensive pedometer, see how many steps you take in a day and try to increase the number by 2,000 — roughly a mile — without cutting back on other physical activity. “You want to add to your routine, not substitute,” says Dr. Blackburn.

Work (Out) for Rewards
Make aerobic exercise part of your routine and you may see your blood pressure drop enough to keep you off medication, if you have borderline hypertension, and to keep your dose low if you’re on meds. But these benefits don’t come free. You have to earn them. Here’s how:

Get your heart rate up. Three ways to tell if you’re doing it right:

  • Monitor your pulse. Start with 220 and subtract your age. That’s your peak heart rate. Your goal is to get your heart beating at 60 to 70 percent of that rate. If you’re 40, you’ll aim for 108 to 126 beats a minute.
  • Pay attention to how you feel. Are you sweating? Huffing and puffing? On a scale of 0 to 10, with 0 being “hardly working” and 10 being “pushing yourself to the limit,” where are you? From 3 to 5, you’re in the zone.
  • Take the talk test. If you can’t talk at all, you’re working too hard. If you can sing, you’re going too easy. If you can carry on a conversation without gasping, you’re in the right place. 

Keep your body thrumming at this level for about 30 minutes, at least three times a week. But that’s your goal, not your starting point, says Eduardo Ortiz, MD, MPH, senior medical officer and program director of the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute Hypertension Guideline Program. Your best starting point: Whatever gets you going. Walk around the block each morning, swim a few laps or take a folk-dancing class. You might enjoy it and decide to do more.

MORE: How to Stay Fit Over 40

Stick with it. If you hang in long enough to see benefits and then slack off, your blood pressure will climb back up, says Dr. Blackburn. So find an activity you really like — never mind what anyone else enjoys doing. Ask yourself: Is this something I can see myself doing a year from now? If not, try something else.

by Gini Kopecky Wallace