I love telling people about things that are simple, effective, and that they can do at home.Â Hereâ€™s one of those kinds of tipsâ€”I hope you like it!Â A hand grip designed to keep fighter pilots from blacking out during sharp turns and steep dives has an interesting therapeutic benefit on the ground â€” lowering blood pressure without medication.
Squeezing the grip for a few minutes a day has been shown to lower blood pressure as much as a first-line antihypertension drug. How it does this is still something of a medical mystery.
From air to earth
In the mid-1970s, the U.S. Air Force asked Dr. Ronald Wiley, an expert in heart and lung physiology, to find a way to keep fighter pilots from losing consciousness when flying the F-16 fighter. This jet could accelerate so fast that the G-forces it generated made it difficult for the pilotâ€™s heart to pump blood to the brain, causing vision problems, trouble thinking, and blackouts.
One of Wileyâ€™s strategies was a hand grip that pilots could squeeze to boost their blood pressure enough to maintain circulation to the brain. As he worked with pilots, he was struck by a contradiction â€” those who practiced with the hand grip for a few weeks lowered their resting blood pressure.
After several years of tinkering, Wiley refined the hand grip to minimize the blood pressure spike caused by isometric muscle contractions. The first version was a boxy machine called the CardioGrip. Todayâ€™s sleeker one is being sold as the Zona Plus.
The Zona Plus looks like an electric razor. You hold it in your right hand and squeeze as hard as you can for five seconds. The device measures the strength of your squeeze and calculates a target 30% as strong. You do the same thing with your left hand.
The device then prompts you through four 2-minute bouts of squeezing, with a minute break between each one. You squeeze just hard enough to keep the â€œHoldâ€ sign in the display atop the hand grip. A beep and a visual signal tell you if you are squeezing too hard or not hard enough.
The whole session, which should be done at least three times a week, lasts about 12 minutes. You can do it while watching the news, reading a book, or any other time you are sitting still for a few minutes.
A handful of studies have looked at how the CardioGrip and Zona Plus influence blood pressure. All of the studies have been small (under a dozen participants in each) and short (2â€“3 months). The results, though, have been remarkably similar.
In eight published studies, participantsâ€™ systolic blood pressure (the top number of a blood pressure reading) dropped an average of 14 points. The device had little effect on diastolic pressure. As is the case for almost everything in medicine, different people respond differently to the hand grip exercise. Individual responses to using the device for a month or so vary from a 55 mm Hg drop in systolic pressure to the rare but small increase.
If these results hold up in longer, larger studies, they suggest that this simple exercise could lower blood pressure as much as a first-line antihypertension drug. And itâ€™s conceivable that use of the Zona Plus could help people with normal blood pressure avoid the gradual creep upward that usually comes with age.
Researchers havenâ€™t yet figured out how an exercise involving only the forearm lowers blood pressure. Neil McCartney, who chairs the kinesiology department at McMaster University in Ottawa, Canada, and his colleagues have done several studies on the Zona Plus. He suspects that moderate-level isometric training somehow helps the body turn down activity of the sympathetic nervous system, which increases heart rate and blood pressure, and turn up the vagal system, which has a calming effect.
Exercise addition, not replacement
The Zona Plus doesnâ€™t offer an immediate fix for high blood pressure. You have to use it for four to six weeks to see any results. It isnâ€™t a cure for high blood pressure, since if you stop doing the exercise your blood pressure will begin to creep back up. And it isnâ€™t a substitute for regular aerobic exercise. While it may lower your blood pressure, you still need brisk walking, swimming, bicycling, or other activities to strengthen your heart, blood vessels, lungs, and bones, and to keep your blood sugar under control. Most people can use the Zona Plus; the company that makes the device says it isnâ€™t for people with arthritis in the hands, carpal tunnel syndrome, nerve damage from diabetes, an aneurysm, or mitral valve problems.
Although the Zona Plus is FDA approved, it isnâ€™t yet covered by Medicare or most large health insurers. At $300, it represents a substantial out-of-pocket expense. That may be money well spent, though, if it keeps your blood pressure under control or lets you eliminate a blood pressure drug from your daily handful of pills. As an added incentive, the Zona Plus comes with a money-back guarantee if you donâ€™t see an improvement in your blood pressure after using it as directed for eight weeks.
Have you ever tried the Zona Plus? What other exercises do you find lower your blood pressure?
Julie K. Silver, M.D., is an assistant professor in the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at Harvard Medical School. She is also the Chief Editor of Books for Harvard Health Publications.
The Harvard Heart Letter provides eight pages of monthly heart news, directly from the more than 8,000 doctors and researchers at Harvard Medical School. Itâ€™s a source of expert advice for people who may already suffer from heart disease (or their family members) and for people concerned about their risk who wish to take steps towards positive change.