From research about chocolate and blood pressure to how napping relates to blood pressure, this heart health-related biometric is a frequent hot topic here on EatingWell—and one that fans often want to learn more about.
Going back to basics for a moment, what is blood pressure (AKA hypertension), exactly?
“Blood pressure is defined by the pressure of blood inside the arteries. Higher blood pressure means that the heart has to do more work to pump blood,” explains Natalie Rizzo, M.S., RD, plant-based sports dietitian with Greenletes in New York City and the author of Planted Performance.
According to the American Heart Association, anything 120/80 mmHg or lower falls under the “normal” category, while stage one hypertension is classified as between 130-139/80-89 mmHg. Stage two is anything above 140/90 mmHg, and “hypertensive crisis”—requiring immediate medical care—occurs when blood pressure is over 180/120 mmHg.
According to the CDC, uncontrolled high blood pressure can lead to chest pain and, eventually, heart attack, heart failure or stroke. The World Health Organization (WHO) admits that some risk factors for high blood pressure are things you can’t control, including family history (genetics), age and frequently co-existing conditions, such as kidney disease or diabetes. But other hypertension risk factors are things you can affect, including whether you smoke, consume excess salt and saturated fats and more.
While diet might be the single most impactful lifestyle factor related to blood pressure, research published in September 2022 in the journal Hypertension suggests other important details are at play.
Exercise is one of the three things that can help lower high BP even when medication isn’t helping. While a well-balanced fitness routine that meets the recommendations for physical activity is best, aerobic workouts, in particular, appear to be important to prioritize. According to a study in the February 2019 edition of Hypertension, sedentary adults who walked for just 3 minutes every 30 minutes of sitting for 8 hours experienced better blood pressure shifts than their fully-seated peers.
And that was just one day. Over time, the shift can be more significant. A January 2022 meta-analysis in the journal American Family Physician found that, after analyzing 73 studies with more than 5,700 participants with hypertension, walking 150 minutes per week for 15 weeks (about 3 ½ months) lowered blood pressure by 4/2 mmHg.
So why does walking move the needle—and what’s the best way to get started on a walking workout to lower blood pressure? Read on for the answers.
Why Is Walking Good for Your Blood Pressure?
“Walking is an aerobic activity, so it increases endurance and physical fitness, which are both benefits for heart health,” Rizzo says. “Research also shows that people who walk more have a lower risk for heart disease.” For instance, a 2019 study published in Preventing Chronic Disease concluded that walking is a way to encourage an active lifestyle and prevent cardiovascular disease.
The heart is just like any other muscle: the more we use it, the stronger it becomes.
“All of our muscles work better when they are strong,” says Damien Joyner, an ACE-certified health coach and personal trainer with Incremental Fitness in San Diego, California. “Think of physical activity as strength training for our heart. When the heart is stronger, it can push the blood throughout our body with less effort. Because of physical activity, our heart becomes more efficient at pushing the blood and the force on our arteries decreases. As that force decreases in our arteries, our blood pressure is lower.”
All forms of physical activity, including walking, can impact heart health and help to lower blood pressure, adds Angie Asche, M.S., RD, CSSD, a registered dietitian and owner of Eleat Sports Nutrition in Lincoln, Nebraska. She says that exercise is especially beneficial for systolic blood pressure (the first number in that mmHG reading), which can, in turn, help reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes.
How Long Does It Take for Walking to Lower Blood Pressure?
This varies by the person and their unique biology, current blood pressure level and other heart disease risk factors. However, a study in the August 2018 journal PeerJ found that six months of consistent walking “elicited a marked reduction” in blood pressure.
“Several studies point to improvements after about 8-weeks of intervention” among sedentary individuals, Asche says.
Overall, Joyner believes that a good estimate for noticeable changes in blood pressure would be a few weeks to a few months for consistent exercise to lower your blood pressure.
“Consistent exercise is key,” he says. “Other factors like stress, diet, hydration levels, medication you are taking, and other health-related factors can also negatively or positively influence how long it may take for a blood pressure shift to occur. Aside from that, I would encourage you to not only think about the numbers even as important as they are. Overall well-being, energy levels and feeling like you are reconnecting with your body and making progress don’t have a number measurement, but are all very significant.”
Just like any change in behavior, the speed with which you see changes will be dependent upon how big those changes are, adds Erin Beck, the Orange County, California-based director of education for STRIDE Fitness.
“Start with a shift you can maintain, check your blood pressure once per week to monitor progress and add a new challenge to your routine every four weeks to see if you can make additional progress,” Beck says.
The Best Walking Plan to Help Lower Blood Pressure
As you embark on this walking plan for hypertension, keep these pointers from Joyner in mind:
- Don’t neglect your feet: If you can’t remember how long ago you bought the shoes you walk in, that’s a good sign that you should invest in a new pair of walking sneakers. Shoes that are worn down on one side more than the other have less traction and uneven support or cushioning and “don’t do your body any favors,” Joyner says. “You want your joints stacked on top of a supportive and level foundation: your shoes.”
- Incline can be your BFF: If you have hills, or even stairs, close to your walking path or available on your treadmill, don’t avoid them. If you are just getting started at hills, ease into it and see how you feel after your first time. (Translation: The first few times, set a goal to conquer one-quarter or half of the hill, then walk back down, eventually working up to the full hill.) “Instead of longer steps, chip away at the incline in small, controlled steps, like you are switching gears,” Joyner suggests.” Allow your arms to help you by swinging them and driving your elbows back.”
- Posture matters: Focus on keeping your joints stacked. Walk with your ears above your shoulders and your shoulders above your hips. Walk tall, and occasionally shake your arms and check in with your shoulders (relaxing them if they’re creeping up towards your ears). “The more you’re aware and mindful of your posture when you’re walking, the more it will carry over to your everyday life,” Joyner says.
Use Joyner’s week-by-week walking plan for better blood pressure as your guide for month one.
Week 1: 20-minute walk five days per week
- “The main goal this week is to be mindful of your posture and to reconnect with your body.” focus on a comfortable pace for the first 5 minutes. Then for the remaining 15 minutes, shift up to a slightly challenging pace.
Week 2: 20-minute walk five days per week
- Maintain the same amount of overall time, and see if you can cover more distance in the same amount of time (20 minutes). Again, start with a comfortable pace for the first 5 minutes. Then for the remaining 15 minutes, find a more challenging pace that you can hold for the full 15 minutes.
Week 3: 30-minute walk five days per week
- This week, try 10 more minutes daily and pepper in some intervals. After the 5-minute warmup, try 4 minutes at a moderate pace, then 1 minute at a very challenging pace (the latter should be like you’re trying to make it across an intersection as fast as you can when the walking sign is counting down, Joyner says). “Do what is challenging to you, not someone else, though,” he adds. Repeat the 4-minute moderate, 1-minute challenging interval style for four more rounds.
Week 4: 30-minute walk five days per week
- Now it’s time to extend the intervals. After the 5-minute warmup, try 3 minutes at a moderate pace, then 2 minutes at a challenging pace you can hold for the entire 2 minutes. “If that begins to be easy, extend the amount of time for your challenging pace by 1 additional minute,” Joyner says, so 2 minutes moderate and 3 minutes challenging. Repeat these intervals for four more rounds, adjusting your pace as necessary.
How to Step Up This Walking Plan
Remember that analogy about strength training or the heart? The more you consistently exercise, the better, Joyner says.
“The intervals included in the training plan are a helpful way to mix things up,” Joyner says.
Beyond speed, you can “level up” a workout by changing one of these variables, so feel free to adjust accordingly as you continue into month two and beyond:
The Bottom Line
Walking is most definitely a good enough workout to improve your heart health and overall well-being. Just like with making any healthy habit change “stick,” Beck says the most important piece of any new workout plan is finding what works for you.
“This may mean starting by parking in the farthest spot from the office each morning. As that walk becomes second nature, start parking further away from the grocery store or restaurant,” Beck says.
When that becomes a habit, add a daily walk—before dinner, or maybe during your lunch hour, or right when you wake up, she continues. Even just 10 minutes at a brisk pace will be enough to raise your heart rate and potentially be a boon for your blood pressure over time.
If you could use a little extra nudge to make this walking plan for better blood pressure part of your day, “put some headphones on and listen to a book, podcast, or music, talk to a friend or even have a work call all while walking. It’s easier to stick to a walking routine when you know you can cross off another task off your list—or listen to something you enjoy—during the process,” Asche advises. “Take your time and go at your own pace, ideally working your way up to 30 minutes or more daily.”