This Type of Exercise Can Help Lower Blood Pressure—and It's Not Cardio

Though cardio can also help with lowering blood pressure, this type of heart-healthy exercise might be even better for your ticker.

An image of an athletic woman flexing on a designed background
Photo: Getty Images / Luis Alvarez

Similar to the chicken-and-egg debate, the cardio versus strength training debate can get heated—both when you're discussing heart health and weight loss or maintenance.

Most doctors and researchers agree with the weekly physical activity recommendations from the World Health Organization and the American Heart Association, which include a mix of both:

  • 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise per week
  • 2 days of full-body strength training per week

But a mounting body of research is proving that resistance training might be even better for your heart than many forms of cardio. The latest nugget of evidence comes by way of an Australian study published in the August 12 edition of the journal Hypertension Research. In addition to aerobic and dynamic resistance exercise (such as lunges or bicep curls), static strength training —known as isometric resistance training (IRT)—can effectively lower blood pressure.

As a refresher, blood pressure is important for all of us to have checked at least every two years because hypertension (or a blood pressure 130/80 mm Hg or above, per the AHA criteria) is one of the most common medical conditions in the United States. An estimated 45% of U.S. adults have the diagnosis, according to the latest data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The higher the blood pressure over normal, the greater the risk for heart attack or stroke, the CDC adds.

So what is IRT, exactly? It's a style of strength training in which the muscles are challenged via a force, but without changing length. Think: A plank pose, a wall sit or holding a static lunge. As you may have noticed in those activity recommendations, IRT is not called out as part of the plan. This is likely because in decades past, trainers worried that the static nature of the moves, especially when performed at a high intensity, might cause blood pressure to jump too high during exercise (as the participant strains to hold the position for a long time).

But the University of New South Wales Sydney lead study authors Harrison Hansford and Matthew Jones, Ph.D., who are both accredited exercise physiologists, found in this study that IRT is more than safe for the heart. It's actually stellar at improving heart health.

"We found that IRT was very safe and caused meaningful changes in blood pressure—almost as much as what you'd expect to see with blood pressure-lowering medications," Jones tells UNSW Sydney Newsroom. "It's possible we would see the same effects simply by asking participants to make a fist and squeeze it at a certain intensity for the prescribed amount of time."

Since lack of time and feeling too tired are two of the most common reasons why many of us say we can't hit that movement mark, Jones says this research is a promising potential solution. "IRT is a time-efficient means of reducing blood pressure, needing only 12 minutes a day, two to three days per week, to produce the effects we found in our review," he explains. Plus, he says, "IRT could easily be performed while participants are watching TV" in the comfort of their own home.

Earlier research had hinted that IRT could be effective at lowering blood pressure, but this is the first to comprehensively examine the safety of IRT. And the researchers give a hearty thumbs-up to both. "We also found IRT caused improvements in other measures of blood pressure including central blood pressure (the pressure in the heart's largest artery, the aorta, and an important predictor of cardiovascular disease) and to a lesser extent ambulatory blood pressure (average blood pressure across a 24-hour period), neither of which had previously been reviewed," Jones says.

While this isn't to say you can drop your high-blood-pressure medications just yet—consult with your physician if you're being treated for hypertension—a well-balanced workout routine including cardio (walking, biking, spin class), dynamic strength training and IRT could be a recipe for success, in terms of heart health and general wellness. Our 10-minute equipment-free home workout plan to build strength includes a few IRT moves to help you dip your toe into this heart-healthy option. Craving a little more motivation? Check out how working out at home helped one woman get stronger than ever for less than $2 per month.

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