Walking is one of the best forms of exercise, bar none. Not only is it easy to get started (just strap on a pair of sneakers and go), it is the safest and simplest way to get in shape and lose weight. And pretty much anyone can do it — young or old, thin or overweight. Even those with debilitating health conditions like arthritis can greatly benefit from walking, often experiencing relief from joint pain and other bothersome symptoms.
Exercise such as walking is especially important as we get older. Many significant changes happen within our bodies as we age, one of the biggest being increased blood pressure. Studies prove without a doubt that exercise is an effective way to lower blood pressure naturally, but few studies have examined how aerobic walking, in particular, affects the blood pressure of elderly adults. Researchers in Brazil aimed to learn precisely that.
Twenty-three volunteers aged 60 and older participated in this study. On day one, they each had their blood pressure measured six times on each arm using two methods: oscillometric (electronic monitor) and auscultatory (using a stethoscope and sphygmomanometer, or cuff). On day two, blood pressure was measured again in the same manner, but only on the right arm.
Participants were considered to have high blood pressure if their mean blood pressure was 140/90 mmHg, or if they were already taking medication for high blood pressure. In total, 11 study participants had high blood pressure, and 12 had normal blood pressure.
Next, all participants had their aerobic capacity and maximum heart rate assessed, then they were divided into two groups: exercise or rest. Exercise sessions with the exercise group were conducted at one-week intervals. Researchers instructed those in the exercise group to take their regular medications and eat a light breakfast before their workouts.
Before starting their exercise sessions, blood pressure was measured every five minutes for a period of 20 minutes while participants were seated. They then began walking on a track. After a five-minute warm-up, participants started walking at their usual speed, then increased their walking speed to reach and maintain their unique maximum heart rates for 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, they had a five-minute cool down, followed by 40 minutes of seated rest.
At the end of the exercise sessions, blood pressure was measured every five minutes for one hour. A blood pressure monitor was also placed on each participant’s non-dominant arm for 24 hours to measure blood pressure throughout the day and night.
Walk for Lower Blood Pressure
As predicted, the walking group did experience a reduction in blood pressure. Specifically, they saw an average of 14mmHg (auscultatory) and 12 mmHg (oscillometric) reductions in systolic blood pressure after exercising. (Systolic pressure is the top number of a blood pressure reading, and measures the blood pressure in the arteries when the heart is beating.)
Diastolic blood pressure (the bottom number, and the pressure in the arteries between beats, when the heart is relaxed) decreased by 4 mmHg after exercise, using both blood pressure measurement methods.
Additionally, both systolic and diastolic pressures during wakefulness were lower in the exercise group, as was systolic pressure during periods of sleep.
Just 30 Minutes a Day
The message here is clear: Just 30 minutes of walking leads to significant reductions in blood pressure in the over-60 crowd. (Research has also shown that it can significantly lower your cholesterol.)
And whether you’re 20 or 70, strapping on a pair of good sneakers and going for a brisk walk for 30 minutes, most days of the week, can lead to incredible changes in your health.
If you haven’t exercised in a while, start slow. Walk for 10 minutes at a moderate pace, and as your fitness levels improves, pick up the pace and increase your time. As you get into better shape, you may want to add variety to your walking routine, perhaps by trying Nordic walking or eccentric exercise like walking downhill or bench steps.
Whatever you choose, just stick to it and reap the countless health benefits — lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol, weight loss, and so much more.
 Lima LG et al. Effect of a single session of aerobic walking exercise on arterial pressure in community-living elderly individuals. Hyperten Res. 2012 Feb 9. doi: 10.1038/hr.2011.227. [Epub ahead of print.]