We’ve all heard that exercise is the panacea for myriad health problems, including high blood pressure. The proverbial walk around the block or a jog through the park has been touted for years as a reliable way to keep blood pressure in check. But what if there was an exercise, simple yet profound, that has also shown to be effective? Enter the wall squat.
In a recently published meta-analysis in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, scientists in Britain delved deep into 270 previously conducted studies. They unearthed a fascinating insight into the relationship between exercise and blood pressure. While conventional activities like walking, running, cycling, and high-intensity interval training indeed reduced blood pressure, they found that the crown jewel for hypertensive patients might be isometric exercises. Among the isometric exercises studied, including squeezing a handgrip, holding knee extension on a machine and wall squats, the last proved to be the most effective and practical option for busy individuals.
At its core, an isometric exercise involves muscle contraction without any discernible movement or change in the length of the affected muscle. Imagine trying to push a wall; the wall doesn’t budge, but your muscles strain and expend energy.
A wall squat (or wall sit) embodies this principle — you sit in an invisible chair, back against a wall, and your legs form a right angle: no movement, but immense tension. When performing a wall squat, your legs and core muscles engage to hold your body in a ‘seated’ position against a wall. Despite the muscles not changing their length, maintaining this tension requires energy.
Unlike isotonic exercises, where muscles change length (think of a biceps curl), wall squats can be done anytime, anywhere, without equipment.
The Science of It All
A two-fold mechanism is postulated for the blood pressure-lowering effect of wall squats:
1. Vasodilation: When muscles are contracted without movement, surrounding blood vessels compress. On releasing the tension, there’s a rush of blood, causing the vessels to dilate. Over time, this dilation might lead to a consistent reduction in blood pressure.
2. Glucose Uptake: Typically, glucose absorption in muscles and organs requires insulin. However, another theory suggests that as muscle energy depletes during isometric exercises, muscles absorb sugar from the bloodstream without needing insulin. This energy depletion in the muscles enhances their ability to absorb sugar readily from the blood leading to lowered blood sugar and decreased blood pressure.
The review also highlights the potency of short bursts of exercise that push our cardiovascular system – walking faster or carrying groceries with vigour can lead to notable health benefits. But the most intriguing finding was the outsized benefit of wall squats.
However, in the bigger picture, physical activities such as isotonic exercises like running and walking that increase the heart rate and induce slight sweating can significantly improve general health. Importantly, these activities need not consume a significant portion of your day. The most meaningful factor involved in improvement requires consistency rather than duration, which is crucial in improving health and reducing blood pressure. The golden rule remains to ensure consistency.
Wall Sits: An Easy Win for Professionals
The researchers proposed a 16-minute routine, three times a week, as an optimal regimen. Each session would include four two-minute sets of wall squats, with two-minute rest intervals. Depending on your comfort, the squat depth can be gradually increased, ensuring consistency in depth throughout the session. While wall sits might appear deceptively easy, sustaining the posture can be challenging. You can start with a comfortable 150-degree knee angle and progressively lower it to 90 degrees over time.
Maintaining a steady, deep breathing pattern is crucial during these exercises. Holding one’s breath can inadvertently raise blood pressure, defeating the purpose.
Complement, Not Replace
While this study’s findings may be enticing, does this mean you should abandon your gym membership and only do wall squats? Certainly not. Instead, isometric exercises like wall squats can complement these routines or serve as a stepping stone for those just beginning their fitness journey. These findings suggest that wall squats can be a robust addition to one’s fitness regime. They can be an excellent starting point for those new to exercise, offering a controlled, low-risk entry into physical activity.
However, always consult a healthcare professional before starting a new exercise routine, especially if you have pre-existing conditions.
Thus, while the world races to discover advanced health interventions, it’s fascinating to see that simple exercises such as the wall squat can effectively manage a chronic condition like hypertension. So, the next time you find a few minutes, why not lean against a wall and sit in the air? Your heart might thank you for it.
(Vijay Thakkar is a functional medicine expert and celebrity fitness coach in Mumbai. He is author of the best-selling book “Eating Less is Making You Fat,” aimed at dispelling misinformation about nutrition, calorie-deficit diets, metabolism and how hunger and satiety work)