There has always been a huge focus on high blood pressure or hypertension in our society, with numerous medications out there to treat it, most vascular diseases being linked with hypertension, diets such as the DASH diet being popularised and the renowned role of exercise in reducing blood pressure. But what happens when you want to exercise and you have low blood pressure?
Here’s a quick recap: blood pressure is the force of the blood on the walls of your blood vessels as it circulates around your body. It is an essential indicator used by health practitioners in assessing one’s risk in developing acute and chronic health conditions such as coronary artery disease, stroke, dementia and kidney failure.
For most people, an optimal blood pressure reading is commonly regarded as 120/80 or lower. However, those who have consistent blood pressure measurements of less of 90/60 fall into the category of having low blood pressure, clinically termed as hypotension. If this sounds like something you have, do not fret;
Chronic low blood pressure without any symptoms is usually not a concern and does not need to be treated.
So the short answer is YES. However, there are definitely some things to consider if you have chronically low blood pressure:
Know the symptoms
Like with many other health conditions, the symptoms of hypotension vary on a continuum. Some individuals show little to no symptoms at all (in which case there is no need for concern), while others might have sensations of dizziness when standing up too quickly. This is known as orthostatic hypotension, which is something that we all might have experienced briefly before. But for those who have their blood pressure below the normal healthy range (i.e. less than 90/60), the dizziness may last for longer and they might present with additional or more severe symptoms such as:
- Blurry vision
- Slowing of cognitive process (i.e. brain fog)
- Unusual fatigue
- Irregular pulse
Other situations that may cause a drop in blood pressure include standing in place for a long period of time (e.g. waiting in line for a ride at Disneyland) or allowing oneself to become dehydrated, commonly seen with outdoor exercisers. This all happens because blood circulation in the body is not forceful enough to return adequate blood to the brain or other parts of the body.
Because a sudden change in posture can bring on orthostatic hypotension, it’s wise to refrain from any movements that involve your head being level or below your heart. This includes exercises such as bench press, crunches, bent-over rows, reverse flies and yoga, as well as positions that have you lying down. The best solution is to find substitutes for these exercises and change posture slowly during any head-raising portion of your exercises.
How to design a safe workout
It’s important to take precautions if you have low blood pressure symptoms so that you can have a safe and effective exercise session. Because a sudden change in posture can bring on orthostatic hypotension, it’s wise to refrain from any movements that involve your head being level or below your heart. This includes exercises such as bench press, crunches, bent-over rows, reverse flies and yoga, as well as positions that have you lying down. The best solution is to find substitutes for these exercises and change posture slowly during any head-raising portion of your exercises. It is also key to arrange exercises together so that you minimise instances of getting up and down (i.e. sitting, getting up off the floor and standing), as this may also elicit orthostatic hypotension.
Another significant risk is stopping and standing still immediately after cardio exercises like the treadmill or an elliptical machine. This is because blood pools in the legs, yet your heart needs the contraction of the leg muscles to assist it in pumping blood back to the head after standing cardio exercises. This is one of the main reasons that we advocate for an active, gradual cooldown for our clients after aerobic training.
While these precautions may seem quite straightforward, it may be harder in reality to constantly remember them. In some cases, the symptoms can arise no matter what you do. Hence, there may be times when you would need to just sit down and wait until the symptoms pass. However, if these issues frequently occur and impact not only your ability to exercise, but your daily life as well, consider consulting with your doctor.
Consider what you put into your body
Blood pressure is intimately linked with our food intake, hydration and nutrition. For example, if you have low blood pressure, some doctors may recommend increasing your sodium intake. If you do not drink enough water, your blood pressure may drop. In addition, since the body requires blood to digest food, it may be worth having smaller meals prior to training.
Can exercise help with hypotension?
Now for the golden question. It is a well-known fact that exercise improves blood circulation, so in theory, it can improve blood pressure. Unfortunately, there have not been any significant research out there thus far showing that exercise can offset low blood pressure directly so ultimately, we don’t know yet.
Nonetheless, exercise has the ability to improve health outcomes in hundreds of different chronic conditions, which makes it highly valuable to know how to deal with low blood pressure, so that you can still reap the benefits of exercise safely and effectively.
Written by Jackie Cheung