Facts About Blood Pressure

Dr. Westcott
After the more relaxed pace of summertime living we are now into the faster and busier daily schedule of school, work, and a variety of extracurricular activities. For many of us, the more hectic lifestyle is associated with greater psychological stress and the potential for higher blood pressure readings. While this is not necessarily the case, it is probably a good idea to have your blood pressure checked at some point during the fall season. Whether your blood pressure is assessed by a physician, nurse, health care professional or family member, the procedure provides the following information.

Systolic Blood Pressure: This is the high pressure phase of blood circulation, experienced every time the heart muscle (left ventricle) contracts and pumps blood through the arteries.

Diastolic Blood Pressure: This is the low pressure phase of blood circulation, experienced throughout the heart’s rest period between contractions.

Under normal resting conditions, the blood pressure against the artery walls is about 120 mm Hg when the heart muscle contracts (systole), and about 80 mm Hg when the heart muscle relaxes between beats (diastole) resting systolic readings above 140 mm Hg or diastolic readings above 90 mm Hg are typically considered hypertensive, indicating that the pressure of the blood against the artery walls is higher than desirable and may pose a health risk if it remains at these levels.

In case you wonder what the person on the other end of the stethoscope is listening to, the sounds correspond to the following components of blood circulation. When the air pressure cuff, called a sphygmomanometer, is pumped above the systolic blood pressure level there is no sound because the blood cannot pass the pressure point and the heart beats cannot be heard. As the air in the cuff is slowly released, the systolic pressure in the arteries exceeds the pressure in the cuff and the heart beats are heard through the stethoscope. The pressure at which the heart beat sound is first heard represents your systolic blood pressure.

As the air in the cuff is further reduced, there comes a point where the diastolic pressure in the arteries also exceeds the pressure in the cuff and the heart beats can no longer be heard through the stethoscope. The pressure at which the heart beat sound is last heard represents your diastolic blood pressure.

Assessing resting blood pressure is really an ingenious yet relatively simple procedure that provides valuable information about our circulatory system and cardiovascular condition. Knowing our resting blood pressure parameters is important, but if the numbers are consistently elevated we should take appropriate action.

Step one is to consult with your personal physician and abide by his/her advice. This may require taking specific types of medication to help bring your blood pressure into the desired range. Most likely, your doctor will prescribe some lifestyle changes such as eating a more nutritious diet that emphasizes vegetables, fruits and grains, and calls for fewer fats, high sodium and processed foods. Another recommendation will undoubtedly be to participate in a regular exercise program, such as walking or cycling.

For the record, strength training has also been shown to have beneficial effects on resting blood pressure, and a combined program of strength and endurance exercise may be the best approach. In our study of almost 800 adults and seniors who did 25 minutes each of strength and endurance activity, two or three days a week, for eight weeks, we found significant improvements in resting blood pressure. In fact, the participants in the 60 to 80 year age range reduced their systolic pressure by about 6 mm Hg and their diastolic pressure by about 4 mm Hg. At the same time, the exercisers added about 2.5 pounds of muscle and lost about 4.5 pounds of fat, for a better body composition that can also assist in blood pressure regulation.

A further advantage of exercise is in the area of stress reduction. Adding regular exercise to your lifestyle is an excellent means to release tension and use energy in a purposeful and productive manner.

Studies also indicate that people who begin an exercise program tend to eat a more healthful diet, and therefore receive double benefits from becoming more physically active. Of course, the same exercise programs that are useful for reducing hypertension, may also be helpful for maintaining desirable blood pressure levels throughout the adult and senior years. Although you should certainly consult with your physician regarding an appropriate exercise program for lowering hypertension, the following training protocol should be effective for healthy adults and seniors with respect to cardiovascular conditioning. However, even if you have no blood pressure problems, it is a good idea to check with your medical professional before beginning an exercise program.

Training Principles

1. Be sure to warm-up for 3 to 5 minutes before engaging in your exercise activities.

2. Keep your aerobic exercise at an appropriate intensity, typically about 70 percent of your maximum heart rate. This generally corresponds to an effort level at which you are breathing moderately hard but can talk in short sentences.

3. Do your strength training repetitions at a slow movement speed and through a full movement range.

4. Use a resistance that enables you to perform between 8 to 12 controlled repetitions. When 12 repetitions can be completed in proper form, increase the resistance by 5 percent or less.

5. Be sure to cool-down for 3 to 5 minutes at the conclusion of your exercise sessions.

6. Train 3 nonconsecutive days per week.

Exercise Protocol

1. Perform 20 to 30 minutes of walking, stationary cycling, stepping, or other large muscle aerobic activity in one of the following manners.

    A. Continuous training: After a progressive start, maintain a steady effort level until the last few minutes of activity, then gradually decrease the exercise intensity.

    B. Interval training: Starting at an easy effort level, alternate 3 to 5 minute intervals of higher and lower intensity exercise, for example, you could do the first 3 minutes of stationary cycling at Level 2, the next 3 minutes at Level 4,
    the next 3 minutes at Level 2, and so on throughout the training session.

2. Perform one set each of the following machine or free-weight exercises for your major muscle groups.

Machine Exercise Free-Weight Exercise Muscle Groups

Leg Press Dumbbell Squat Quadriceps
Bench Press Dumbbell Bench Press Chest
Front Shoulders
Seated Row Dumbbell Bent Row Upper Back
Rear Shoulders
Lateral Raise Dumbbell Lateral Raise Shoulders
Triceps Extension Dumbbell Triceps Extension Triceps
Biceps Curl Dumbbell Curl Biceps
Abdominal Curl Trunk Curl Abdominals
Low Back Extension Trunk Extension Lower Back

This basic exercise program should require no more than 40 to 60 minutes for completion, and can be beneficial for attaining and maintaining desirable blood pressure levels, as well as better body composition, improved musculoskeletal fitness, and enhanced cardiovascular fitness.

Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., is Fitness Research Director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA., and author of several fitness books, including Building Strength and Stamina, and Strength Training Past 50.

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Written by Wayne L. Westcott PhD

Explore Wellness in 2021