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Kinesiology researcher studying how gripping device lowers blood pressure

While many students were enjoying a break from their studies, Mark Badrov was hard at work in the lab this summer, trying to better understand why a simple hand grip device helps lower blood pressure in some individuals.

“I really like research,” said Badrov, a human kinetics student who will enter the second year of his master’s program this fall. “It’s a lot of fun. It involves a lot of hands-on learning, and you feel like you’re making a difference.”

Under the direction of professor Cheri McGowan, Badrov has been working in the kinesiology department’s Physical Activity and Cardiovascular Research Laboratory, trying to figure out how and why using an isometric hand grip device, which requires the user the squeeze it over short, but sustained intervals, seems to help lower blood pressure.

“Previous studies have shown that isometric hand grip training can reduce blood pressure in people with and without high blood pressure, but we don’t really know why,” explained Dr. McGowan. “And some evidence suggests this type of training is more effective in women than in men.”

An Oakville native who earned his undergraduate degree at McMaster University, Badrov has been recruiting participants into a study which requires them to squeeze an isometric handgrip device either three or five times per week for an eight week period. Participants complete four, two minute contractions at 30 per cent of their maximum ability. He records their blood pressure at rest and during the contractions, uses ultrasound equipment to capture visual images of what’s happening in their arteries before and after the exercise, and uses a technique called venous strain-gauge plethysmography to assess forearm resistance vessel blood flow. By the end of the study, he hopes to have tested 36 females and 12 males, and have a better idea of the physiological changes their bodies have gone through by using the device.

McGowan said there are a number of questions Badrov is trying to answer: Why is blood pressure lowered following the training? Is lowered blood pressure the result of better functioning of smaller resistance vessels? Does the training improve heart rate variability and condition the autonomic nervous system to better regulate blood pressure? If women train more often will they experience greater reductions in resting blood pressure? What is happening in the body during an acute bout of isometric handgrip exercise, in terms of the functioning of conduit arteries and resistance vessels, blood pressure, and heart rate, and does it change with training? Does it differ between women and men? Badrov said he hopes to answer these questions and eventually publish his results.

Badrov said he’s excited about the technique’s potential to manage blood pressure and avoid hypertension, which increases the risk of developing cardiovascular heart disease and afflicts more than 4.6 million Canadians.

“High blood pressure is a very serious and growing problem,” said Badrov, who aspires to pursue a PhD and a career in academia. “Isometric handgrip training is a simple and time-efficient form of exercise that effectively reduces resting blood pressure. We’re hoping that it can be used as a tool for the primary and secondary prevention of hypertension.”

Editor's note: this is one of a series of articles about students from across campus who were engaged in cool research projects and other activities during the summer.