The National Heart Foundation has produced some interesting statistics in recent years on the cardiovascular health of Americans, showing that average blood pressure increases with age and that cardiovascular diseases are among the main killers in the United States.
When you think of cardiovascular diseases (which simply means diseases of the heart and blood vessels), think of prevention and rehabilitation rather than being fatalistic and saying, “well you’ve got to go somehow.”
High blood pressure
There are lots of different types of diseases of the blood vessels of the heart and the body, but today I’ll address the problem of hypertension, or high blood pressure.
Hypertension is where a poor diet or lack of exercise has narrowed your blood vessels, which means your heart has to pump harder to force the blood through these narrow blood vessels.
Blood pressure is simply the pressure exerted by the blood against the walls of your blood vessels. The harder the heart pumps, the higher your blood pressure.
Think of all the people with older, blocked water pipes who’ve had problems in the cold weather over the past month. If the water pipes are a bit corroded and narrowed, then the pressure goes up as the water freezes with the cold weather. If your pipes are weak and narrow, then they’ll break at that weak point and the water will spout out.
If your blood vessels are blocked up with excess fatty deposits (called cholesterol plaques) then blood pressure will be forced up, just like the rusty pipes force up pressure on the pipes when they freeze.
Or if your blood vessel walls are weak, due to a sedentary lifestyle, then it’s likely they’ll rupture when your blood pressure goes up.
What to do about the fatty deposits or cholesterol plaques
A change to a low-fat diet will reduce the spread of cholesterol plaques throughout the system of blood vessels in your body, but will only marginally influence those already present.
The best way of decreasing the fatty deposits on the inside of your blood vessels is low-intensity exercise. This will use body fat, including cholesterol, as fuel. If you have lots of spare fat on the inside of your arteries, then why not mobilize them and use them up for energy during exercise?
Blood pressure increases because the effects of a poor lifestyle accumulate with age. Increasing blood pressure is just an indicator of the effects of a poor diet, emotional or social stress, and lack of regular physical activity.
So what do you do if your doctor tells you you have high blood pressure or hypertension? Your doctor will probably put you on medication and tell you to get some exercise. If your doctor does tell you to be active, then be careful about what exercise you choose.
If you have a problem, then you’re most at risk when your blood pressure goes up, which happens when you exercise. However, the adaptations of your body will lead to a lowering of blood pressure when you aren’t exercising.
Some exercises are bad for you if you have hypertension, and could even make your problem worse. Swimming underwater, lifting heavy weights, doing exercises which develop a lot of force but not much movement (called “isometric” exercise), or exercising hard with hydraulic circuit training equipment, will all push up both your systolic and diastolic blood pressure.
Good forms of exercise to reduce hypertension include walking, cycling, low-intensity circuit training with light weights, working out on the aerobic machines at the gym, or low-intensity aerobic exercise classes.
Some general guidelines are to avoid lifting your arms above your shoulders, or moving up and down from a lying position, or putting your head lower than the rest of your body.
If you undertake the right exercise, then it is likely that your diastolic blood pressure will actually fall during exercise, and you’ll also make adaptations that will lead to long-term reductions.