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High Blood Pressure and Weight Lifting

Copyright: Joe Knight

High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, is one of those medical problems that usually has no early signs or symptoms. A person can have hypertension for many years and not know it. But during this time, a slow, insidious process of organ damage is occurring. Heart attack, stroke blindness, kidney failure...all of these problems can occur with untreated hypertension (see side bar).

So what causes one’s blood pressure to go up? We all have temporary rises in our blood pressure when we lift weights, get upset or drink too much coffee, but these rises in your blood pressure are generally minor and not associated with serious problems (assuming you’re in good health to begin with). But what’s the deal with hypertension?

Suppose you’re watering your yard with a garden hose. The water flows through the hose, but when you turn-off the spray nozzle, the water stops, and the pressure in the hose increase. If you crank-up the water pressure enough, or leave the water on for a long time (with the nozzle closed), the hose will rupture.  This is analogous to what can happen in your circulatory system. The blood pressure slowly increases until the tiny blood vessels are damaged. The damage is generally permanent, so preventing the problem to begin with will save a lot of aggravation in the long run.

In about 90% of cases of hypertension, the cause is unknown (this is called essential hypertension). Some of this can be caused by stiffening of the blood vessels as one ages, and heredity may play a part. The other 10% of causes of hypertension are medical conditions which your health care provider can pick-up during a physical examination and lab tests.

Checking your blood pressure is easy. It can be done using a machine with a cuff attached to it. This  assembly is called a sphygmomanometer. The cuff wraps around your arm, and the cuff is then inflated. As the cuff deflates, two numbers become apparent. The top number is called the systolic blood pressure, and the bottom number is called the diastolic blood pressure. Consider your circulatory system as a closed system, and your heart hollow. As the heart contracts, it pushes the blood within it out into the circulatory system.

This raises the pressure against the walls of the blood vessels. As the heart relaxes, blood flows back into it, which decrease the pressure against the walls of the blood vessels. This “pressure” is what is being measured when one’s blood pressure is taken. In general, a blood pressure of below 140/90 is what is preferred, but medical conditions can require a blood pressure well under the 140/90 cut off.

The more elevated above 140/90 one’s blood pressure is, the greater the risk of complications. There are many home blood pressure monitoring setups on the market today, so there is no reason why one cannot have their blood pressure checked on a regular basis.

OK, so you’re in your clinician’s office and she says your blood pressure is 169/96. Well, you feel great, you eat right, exercise three times-a-week, so what’s the problem? Actually, hypertension is a major health problem which can significantly decrease your life span, make your life miserable (think dialysis), and cause numerous health problems as you age. Always remember that high blood pressure is painless...until you have your stroke or heart attack.

So now you’re told your blood pressure is high. What’s next? The clinician will have you come back for a blood pressure check several more times to verify that your blood pressure is high (no one treats a patient for high blood pressure based on one blood pressure reading, unless the blood pressure is extraordinarily high). So you’ve have your blood pressure checked several times over the ensuing weeks, an the clinician confirms that you that you’ve got hypertension. Now what? And most importantly, how is this going to affect your workout?

The first step in managing high blood pressure (and yes, it’s managed...there is no cure for most cases of hypertension) is lifestyle modifications. The fact that you’re reading this article in a bodybuilding magazine implies that your risk factors are a lot lower than the general population, but it’s a good idea to know them so you can pass this information on to your loved ones. Lifestyle modifications are things you can do to lower your blood pressure without the use of medications. Exercise is one. Brisk walking, aerobic exercise, weightlifting and the most important, LOSING WEIGHT if one’s is overweight. Another is to limit your salt intake. Salt retains water, and this fluid overload can increase the pressure along the walls of your circulatory system.

You’ve done all the recommended life style changes, you return for your 90-day checkup, and the clinician tells you that your blood pressure is still up. Now we’re talking medications. Medications used to lower blood pressure are termed “antihypertensives”.

There are many classes of antihypertensives, and each class has it’s own “side effect profile”; that is, each class not only lowers your blood pressure, but each has different side effects. Make sure you tell your medical provider that you’re a weight lifter or bodybuilder; some of these medications may have a direct or indirect effect on your workout. Be sure you emphasize how important your workouts are to you; you don’t want to be given an antihypertensive that can, for example, make you feel sluggish all the time

It’s important to remember that, even in a person without hypertension, your blood pressure will temporarily skyrocket when lifting, especially if you’re going heavy. If you’re unknowingly hypertensive, and you try to max-out your bench press, this surge in your blood pressure can go way beyond the safety limit.

So can you lift weights with high blood pressure? You bet, ASSUMING you’re aware that you have high blood pressure, your health care provider knows you’re a lifter, and you’re under proper medical management. Some blood pressure medications take several week to a month-or-so to kick in, so your clinician may ask you to hold off on going heavy for awhile.

One other’ll never know you have high blood pressure unless you make an appointment with your health care provider. And you’re probably due for a physical exam anyway.

Complications of high blood pressure

Erectile dysfunction
Heart attack
Kidney failure
Enlarged heart
Blocked arteries

About the Author

Joe Knight is a Physician Assistant and a medical and science writer in Fresno, California. He is also a weightlifter and has high blood pressure.