Exercises to Improve Circulation and Increase Blood Flow
In terms of human health, circulation means the flow of blood throughout the body. It’s an essential process that delivers oxygen and nutrients to all your trillions of cells as well as helping to eliminate unwanted carbon dioxide and other waste matter from the cells. So, if your circulation isn’t as effective as it should be, the fact it can have a negative effect on your health and wellbeing is hardly surprising.
Yet most of us don’t think about our circulation until we develop a problem with it. However, when you consider what it does, it’s pretty impressive. According to the British Heart Foundation, our hearts beat around 100,000 times a day, pumping around five litres of blood around our bodies using our circulatory system (i). This system (also called the vascular system) includes an intricate network of blood vessels such as arteries and capillaries – through which blood reaches every part of the body – as well as veins.
If your circulation is below par for any reason, it can cause a range of symptoms such as:
Cold hands and feet, even during warmer weather
Changes in skin colour
Numbness in parts of the body, particularly the extremities
Lack of energy
Lack of focus and concentration
Pins and needles
Swelling, particularly in the feet or ankles (oedema)
Problems with digestion
Meanwhile there may be a number of reasons why you might develop poor circulation. Your age and general health will play a part, and if poor circulation runs in your family you may have a higher risk of developing it too. Being overweight and smoking are also associated with circulatory problems.
There are also some medical conditions that cause poor circulation:
Caused by a furring up of your arteries by fatty substances such as cholesterol, atherosclerosis means your arteries become harder and narrower, which makes the blood flow through them less effectively (this includes the blood supply to the heart). Atherosclerosis, if left untreated, can increase your risk of developing cardiovascular disease, which includes angina, heart attack, stroke, coronary heart disease and peripheral arterial disease.
Peripheral artery disease
Also known as PAD for short, this is when atherosclerosis restricts the blood supply to your leg muscles, often causing pain when you walk.
If you have Raynaud’s, the blood supply to your extremities becomes blocked, turning parts of your body – typically your fingers and sometimes also your toes – white, blue, purples and sometimes even black. It can also cause pain, tingling, throbbing and numbness. To understand more about the condition, why not read our article
If you have persistent high blood sugar it can damage your blood vessels, which can have a negative effect on your circulation.
If you have a clot in one of your blood vessels, it can limit or even completely block your circulation. If untreated, a blood clot can cause serious health conditions including heart attack, stroke and pulmonary embolism (where a clot blocks a blood vessel in your lungs).
Can exercise help?
Being inactive is thought to be one of the major causes of poor circulation. So the good news is you can help prevent circulation problems by exercising and being more active in general. Movement of any kind is good for keeping your heart pumping and your circulation system strong, flexible and healthy – which, coincidentally, helps boost your performance when you work out, thanks to the fact that the blood reaching your muscle tissue has a higher volume of oxygen.
Aerobic exercise – the kind that makes you breathe harder and faster – may be particularly effective at boosting the circulation system. This includes activities such as running, jogging, brisk walking, hiking, swimming, cycling, dancing, boxing, skipping, aerobics classes and many more, including team sports.
As for how much aerobic exercise you should do, the UK government recommends all adults should do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity a week (moderate intensity means you should be reasonably out of puff but still capable of having a conversation). This can be divided however you like (as long as each session is at least 10 minutes). For many people, those 150 minutes mean a 30-minute session on five days in the week.
If, however, you need a quick circulation boost – if your hands or feet feel cold, for instance – just a few minutes of marching or jogging on the spot can do the trick (alternatively, try doing 50 jumping jacks once every hour whenever you spend a lot of time sitting).
Should you lift weights?
While aerobic exercise has long been associated with improved circulation, researchers have more recently discovered that resistance training – either that that incorporates lifting weights or using your body weight as resistance – may also have major benefits for the cardiovascular system. One study, by researchers at Iowa State University, has even found that lifting weights for less than an hour a week may reduce the risk of heart attack or stroke by up to 70 per cent (ii).
If you don’t want to join a gym to do weight lifting or invest in a set of dumbbells, try kettlebell training, as you usually only need a single kettlebell weight. Kettlebell training is ideal for anyone who wants to boost their circulation since many kettlebell exercises activate multiple muscles at the same time, which really gets the cardiovascular system working hard.
Meanwhile body resistance exercises that use your own body weight include moves such as push-ups, crunches, squats, lunges, planks, tricep dips, lying hip raises and lying double leg lifts. If you’re already reasonably fit, try doing three sets of 10 burpees – which combine aerobic and strength in a single exercise:
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, arms at your sides.
Lower your body into a squat by bending your knees and pushing your hips back, and place your hands flat on the floor, between your feet.
Shift your weight into your hands and jump your feet backwards, so that you end up in a plank position (your body – from your head to your heels – should form a straight line).
Jump your feet back again, then immediately jump up, straightening your body and reaching your arms high above your head at the same time.
When you land, move immediately back into a squat, hands on the ground, and repeat the sequence.
If the classic burpee is too much of a challenge, try stepping your feet back instead of jumping. However, if you want to push yourself even more, try doing a push-up when you move into plank position.
Yoga is often described as a great way to boost circulation, as all that bending, twisting and stretching may help compress and decompress your blood vessels. Indeed, one study, published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, suggests yoga helps improve cardiovascular health as well as the body’s metabolism (iii).
Some of the yoga poses that may help improve circulation include:
One of the best-known yoga poses, downward dog looks like an upside-down V shape. Inverted poses like this one are thought to help with circulation because gravity helps more blood from the lower extremities to flow back to the heart. Here’s how it’s done:
Kneel on the floor on all fours, then tuck your toes under and lift your hips up and back, straightening your arms and legs while pressing firmly into your hands (if you have flexible hamstring muscles you may be able to press your heels into the floor too). Imagine you’re trying to push the floor away with your hands and feet to deepen the pose.
Relax your head and neck and breathe deeply into the pose for at least three good breaths.
Slowly lower your knees and hips back to the starting position. Alternatively, step or jump your feet forward, then slowly curl up into a standing position.
Legs up the wall
This is another inverted pose because your legs are higher than your heart and head. It involves lying on the floor with your legs supported by a wall, and your hips as close to the wall as possible (ideally your body should be in an L-shaped position). There are various ways of getting into the pose depending on your flexibility – just find the easiest way for you. Once you’re there, try to relax completely and take slow, deep breaths for five minutes or longer.
Using a foam roller to stretch and massage your muscles – called self-myofascial release – may also help boost your circulation (indeed, any kind of massage can help improve blood flow). Researchers have found a 30-minute session of foam rolling may improve arterial blood flow by up to 74 per cent (half an hour after the session the benefits were still evident, with blood flow improved by 53 per cent) (iv).
Some gyms have foam rollers you can use, or you can buy one to use at home. They’re often used during warm-up and cool-down routines and may help with muscle recovery as they help release tightness. You simply sit, lean or lie on the roller, depending on which muscle or muscle group you want to stretch/massage, and use your body weight to apply pressure, focusing on any tender spots.
There’s a useful guide to some basic foam roller stretches on the National Academy of Sports Medicine’s website.
• Before starting any new fitness routine, always speak to your GP if you have an existing medical condition or if you haven’t been very active lately. Foam rolling may also not be suitable for some people, including those with any type of organ failure, contagious skin conditions or bleeding disorders. If in doubt, speak to a health professional before you start.
Besides being more active there are other ways to improve your blood flow – here’s a quick look at the lifestyle change you could make that may be useful:
If you smoke, consider giving up (if you need support, try pharmacy products that help relieve nicotine cravings, including patches, lozenges and gum).
Keep your weight within a healthy range (exercise will help with this too).
Eat a healthy balanced diet with at least five portions of fruit and vegetables each day, and a limited amount of saturated fat.
Drink plenty of water, as water contributes to blood volume. If you don’t like pure water, try adding a splash of fruit juice or a slice of fruit or cucumber. For a hot drink, try herbal or decaffeinated tea (caffeinated tea – including black and green tea – may also help improve circulation, with one study suggesting black tea boosts blood vessel health (v)).
Have a couple of portions of oily fish each week, as the omega 3 fatty acids found in oily fish may have a role to play in the prevention of atherosclerosis (vi).
Interested in health and exercise? Why not take a look at our other sports articles while you’re here...
Available online: https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/how-a-healthy-heart-works
Li. Y., et al. Associations of Resistance Exercise with Cardiovascular Disease Morbidity and Mortality. Med Sci Sports Exerc. (2019 Mar). 51(3):499-508. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30376511
Chu. P., et al. The effectiveness of yoga in modifying risk factors for cardiovascular disease and metabolic syndrome: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized controlled trials. Eur J Prev Cardiol. (2016 Feb). 23(3):291-307. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25510863
Hotfiel. T., et al. Acute effects of lateral thigh foam rolling on arterial tissue perfusion determined by spectral Doppler and power Doppler ultrasound. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. (2017 Apr). 31(4), 893-900. Available online: https://blog.nasm.org/certified-personal-trainer/research-review-foam-rolling-increase-arterial-blood-flow
Duffy. S.J., et al. Short- and Long-Term Black Tea Consumption Reverses Endothelial Dysfunction in Patients With Coronary Artery Disease. Circulation. (2001 Jul 10). 104(2):151-6. Available online: https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/full/10.1161/01.CIR.104.2.151
Sudheendran. S., Chang. C.C., Deckelbaum. R.J., et al. N-3 vs. saturated fatty acids: Effects on the arterial wall. Prostaglandins Leukot Essent Fatty Acids. (2010 Apr-Jun). 82(4-6):205-9. Available online: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20207121
Christine Morgan has been a freelance health and wellbeing journalist for almost 20 years, having written for numerous publications including the Daily Mirror, S Magazine, Top Sante, Healthy, Woman & Home, Zest, Allergy, Healthy Times and Pregnancy & Birth; she has also edited several titles such as Women’ Health, Shine’s Real Health & Beauty and All About Health.