Hint: It’s not cardio.
Think fast: What’s the best workout to reduce blood pressure? You might guess it’s a low-key aerobic exercise like walking, or a heart-pumping method like Zumba class. While those are great options, it turns out that isometric exercises—in which you simply hold one position, like a plank—trump all other workouts.
According to a big, recent meta-analysis in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, isometric holds are more effective than HIIT, dynamic strength training, and cardio when it comes to lowering blood pressure. (That’s news to many of us!)
If you’re looking to prevent or treat hypertension, you’re gonna want to jot that down. But how could staying still be so effective? We asked the experts to break it down.
Why are isometric exercises best at lowering blood pressure?
A few processes are going on in your body when you’re doing an isometric exercise.
They affect your blood vessels
The biggest reason isometrics affect our blood pressure is because of vascular adaptation. “When we do exercises like planks, our muscles squeeze on blood vessels,” says Joseph A. Daibes, DO, an interventional cardiologist and the president/founder of New Jersey Heart and Vein. “Once we relax, there’s a rush of blood. Over time, our blood vessels get better at handling this, which can lower blood pressure.”
They don’t stress the cardiovascular system like a HIIT class would
Nelly Darbois, PT, a physical therapist and scientific writer, points out that while isometric exercises can cause a rise in blood pressure when you’re holding a pose, it drops quickly when you’re done with the rep. “In comparison, dynamic exercises can elevate heart rate and blood pressure more consistently throughout the workout, potentially putting more strain on the cardiovascular system,” she explains.
In that way, holding a position may be easier on the heart, if that’s a concern. “Isometric exercises are gentler on the heart than fast-paced workouts, making them a safer choice for some people,” Dr. Daibes says. Overall, isometric exercises put less stress on your body. Darbois adds people can also carry out isometric exercises at different intensity levels, too, and that flexibility can help if you have a health condition that makes exercise trickier.
The use of breath can contribute to stress reduction
Isometric positions often require controlled breathing—like when you’re doing a Warrior pose in yoga, for instance—which can contribute to stress reduction and blood pressure management, Darbois says. “This is particularly beneficial for those seeking a low-stress exercise option.”
Isometric holds downshift your sympathetic nervous system
This effect on your blood pressure also has to do with your nervous system. “[Isometric exercises] decrease the activity of the sympathetic nervous system, which is linked to the ‘fight or flight’ response and high blood pressure,” says sports physical therapist Kieran Sheridan.
They help your body better regulate blood pressure changes
Lastly, Sheridan mentions how isometric exercises boost the responsiveness of baroreceptors, which monitor blood pressure changes, to better regulate it. We told you there’s a lot going on behind the scenes!
Two isometric exercises to try
- Find a clear wall space and lean your back against it.
- Slide down until your thighs are parallel to the floor and you’re in a sitting position.
- Hold the position for at least one to two minutes (or as long as you can).
- Rest (for about one to four minutes, Darbois says).
- Repeat three to four times.
While doing wall sits, Darbois reminds you to maintain good posture, engage your core, and breathe steadily.
- Get into the push-up position with your arms straight beneath your shoulders.
- Make sure your core feels engaged and the space from your head to your heels is a straight line.
- Hold for 30 seconds to a minute.
- Rest for one to four minutes.
- Repeat three to four times.
During this exercise, don’t forget to engage your chest, shoulders, and core muscles, Darbois says.
Best practices to reap the benefits of isometric exercises
The age-old (but no less important!) disclaimer: You’ll want to touch base with your healthcare provider before jumping into these exercises. “As I always recommend, before starting any new exercise, always check with a doctor, especially if you have health concerns,” Dr. Daibes says.
Sheridan also encourages starting with shorter holds. “Increase duration as strength and endurance improve,” he says. As far as frequency, he and Darbois recommend doing these exercises a few times a week.
Ultimately, finding the right exercise is about two things: considering what you need (anything from lowering your blood pressure to stretching tight chest muscles) and what you find fun. If wall sits and planks are what would help but aren’t the most thrilling, don’t fret! Experiment with other positions like a glute bridge, squat, or side plank. Try a yoga class—many consist of mostly isometric work and stretches. Or play your favorite TV show or listen to an audiobook while you do your weekly wall sits. Finding a way to enjoy your isometric holds will ensure you actually do them often enough to get the benefits.