Want to Lower Your Blood Pressure

Want to lower your blood pressure? A new study pinpoints exactly what kind of exercise is best for easing blood pressure, and it doesn’t involve running on the treadmill or pumping iron at the gym.

Instead, the study reveals that static isometric exercises like wall sits (also known as wall squats) and planks — which engage muscles without movement — are best for lowering blood pressure.

The new analysis, a systematic review of 270 studies, published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine (BJSM)confirms that many types of exercise — including aerobic activity, weight training and high-intensity interval training – help to lower blood pressure, but it found that isometric exercises offer the biggest benefit.

Of the exercises examined, the wall sit was the most effective, the study found.

It’s long been known that physical activity has blood pressure benefits, but the review is important because doctors often recommend heart-healthy activities like walking, running and cycling as their top choices for patients with hypertension.

But isometric exercises are almost twice as effective at lowering blood pressure compared with just doing cardio, the study shows. Study author Jamie O’Driscoll, a researcher in cardiovascular physiology at Christ Canterbury Church University, says he and his colleagues launched the BJSM review because they have seen the blood pressure benefits of isometric exercise firsthand, and they wanted “to draw together the evidence for the wider audience.”

“These findings provide a comprehensive data-driven framework to support the development of new exercise guideline recommendations for the prevention and treatment of arterial hypertension,” he and his coauthors wrote in the review.

What are static isometric exercises?

To perform a static isometric exercise, you hold your body in one position until your muscles tire. Examples include wall sits, planks and side planks, glute bridges and heel raises.

Isometric exercises are a great option for older adults because they are low-impact and don’t require any special equipment, says Meredith Dobrosielski, an exercise physiologist and clinical research coordinator in the division of geriatric medicine at Johns Hopkins University.

“It’s an easily accessible form of exercise that you can do pretty much anywhere,” Dobrosielski says. “You don’t need to go to a gym. … You don’t have to spend a lot of time doing it. … You just need your body. And the benefits are great.”

But that doesn’t mean static isometric exercises are easy.

Kerry Stewart, director of clinical and research exercise physiology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, says holding your muscles in a contracted position requires you to “work very hard.”

“That may be one of the reasons why it provides benefit,” he adds.

Why is isometric exercise best for blood pressure?

When you do any type of exercise, your blood pressure temporarily increases because your heart pumps harder, moving your blood through your arteries more forcefully. If you exercise repetitively, your heart gets stronger, so it can pump blood with less effort, and that can help your resting blood pressure to drop.

Isometric exercise may offer an extra benefit because when you hold a muscle contraction, you restrict blood flow to those muscles, Stewart says. Then, when you stop the exercise, “you get a big surge of blood” to the area, he explains. That extra blood flow stimulates the lining of your arteries to produce nitric oxide, which causes the blood vessels to relax and widen, which ultimately reduces blood pressure, he says.

Stewart says he wouldn’t recommend doing only isometric exercises, but instead adding them into a program of physical activity that also includes aerobic and resistance training.

“Combined training seems to provide not only a benefit for blood pressure control, but also for overall health,” he says. “That’s where you get the biggest bang for your buck.”

How to get started with isometric exercise

If you have been diagnosed with high blood pressure or other cardiovascular issues, talk to your health care provider before starting an exercise program.

The BJSM study found that just three sessions a week of isometric exercise can lead to a significant reduction in blood pressure. Doing wall sits, for example, lowered systolic blood pressure by 10 mmHg and diastolic pressure by 5 mmHg, the study found.

The isometric exercise programs analyzed in the study commonly had participants do each exercise four times, with a break in between, holding the position for up to two minutes.

Dobrosielski, who works with older adults, says if you haven’t done isometric exercises before, holding a position for 20 to 30 seconds is a good starting point. It’s normal for your body to start to shake as your muscle tires, she says. “You can build up to more time,” she says.

How to do a wall sit

Ready to try a wall sit yourself? Start with these steps:

  1. Stand with your back against a wall, feet hip-width apart, and place your feet one or two steps away from the wall. Keep your arms at your sides.
  2. Keeping your back flat against the wall, bend your knees until you hit an angle that you can hold for at least 30 seconds. (Study author O’Driscoll notes that your thighs do not have to be at 90 degrees to benefit from this activity.)
  3. Hold the position by pressing your back against the wall.
  4. Relax the pose by standing. Repeat for a total of four wall sits, with short breaks in between.

More Static Exercises to Try

Glute bridge

Strengthens the glutes, hips, hamstrings and core

Lie on your back with your arms at your sides, knees bent and feet planted on the ground. Push your heels into the ground and tuck your tailbone. Then squeeze your glutes, raise your hips toward the ceiling and hold.

Wall plank

Works the shoulders, arms and core

Place your hands on a wall at shoulder height. Then take a step back, tucking in your glutes as your body weight shifts into your arms. Focus on your core muscles by thinking of pulling your belly button into your spine. For a greater challenge, do the same exercise but place your elbows and forearms on the wall.

Heel raise

Strengthens calf muscles, improves ankle stability and boosts overall lower body strength

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, keeping a chair or wall in front of you for balance. Raise your heels off the ground and hold.