Rarely does news this good come out about a problem so bad: The new treatment for high blood pressure has finally arrived. After yeas of scientific testing, it’s made the grade and become the potent Third Option – beyond drugs and diet. But it has some strange side effects: it can make you feel younger, and look younger, too. It can increase blood levels of HDL cholesterol (the beneficial type), help you lose weight, decrease stress and lower your risk of heart disease. It’s also as natural as a sunset and as easy as a walk in the park. And most important, it’s free.
It’s exercise. For years research has slowly piling up to show that regular workout may lower blood pressure by 5 to 20 points. Bu now two brand new studies appear to give the final blessing to the third option by suggesting that it may have far more power to lower blood pressure, and do it in more interesting ways, than anyone thought.
“Results of this new research could substantially change the way we treat moderate and borderline cases of this very serious problem,” says hypertension researcher John Martin, of San Diego State University. “Exercises seem to work more directly in lowering blood pressure than had previously been thought.”
Gain without Loss
In one of the new studies, Dr. Martin and his colleagues put 19 sedentary men with hypertension through either an aerobic exercises programme or a “placebo” regimen (slow calisthenics and stretching). After 10 weeks, the blood pressure of the men in the aerobic group dropped dramatically from an average of 137/95 at the beginning of the study to 130/85 at the end. That’s a change from mild hypertension to high-normal blood pressure. “These drops were significant because they brought our test subject’s reading down out of the range where drug therapy often is considered, “Dr. Martin says. The placebo group, on the other hand actually had a slight increase in blood pressure). And later, when they were placed on the exercise programme, they showed similar reduction in blood pressure.
These big improvements in the exercisers were expected, but something else was a pleasant surprise. “Scientists have known for years that losing weight could lower blood pressure” says Martin. “And they thought that exercise could lower blood pressure only if it also produced substantial weight loss. But that appears not to be the case. Our study found significant blood pressure reductions even though participants did not experience sizeable decrease in weight or body fat.”
If these findings are borne out by other research, it will mean that exercise has not one but two mechanisms for beating mild hypertensions.
Then there was something else. Previous research suggested that it was vigorous exercises that brought blood pressure down. But in this study the subjects weren’t exercising strenuously enough to make profound gains in aerobic endurance. Despite that fat, significant reductions in blood pressure still occurred. Diastolic blood pressure (the second number, which heart is at rest) came down by an average of 9.6 points, and systolic pressure (the measurement of pressure as the heart contracts) fell by 6.4 points.
“People in our study exercised at levels well within their comfort zone. Their exercises consisted of either walking, cycling, jogging or doing any combination of these activities for approximately 30 minutes, four times a week,” says Dr Martin. “The subsequent reduction in blood pressure suggests that physical activity of even fairly light intensity may be more helpful against hypertension than previous research has led us to think.”
None of this means, though, that reducing body fat and increasing aerobic fitness are advisable anti hypertensive strategies. “Our research simply suggests that exercise may have valuable effects in normalizing blood pressure that work independently of those two other mechanisms,” Dr. Martin says.
Workouts Vs Wonder Drugs
The second study was conducted at Columbia Medical Plan, Columbia, Maryland in conjunction with johns Hopkins School of Medicine. In it, 52 men between ages 18 and 59 with mild hypertension were asked to exercise regularly for 10 weeks while taking either blood pressure medication or a placebo. Sure enough, blood pressure dropped in all the subjects including those who didn’t take medications, from an average of 145/97 to 131/84. Again, this decrease was reached without substantial weight loss. The real news here, however, was that the data suggest that aerobic exercise may not be the only kind of workout that can help lower blood pressure. Three days a week, for 50 minutes per workout, the participants in this study walked/jogged or rode stationary bike and surprisingly enough did weight training. It’s surprising because weight training tends to raise blood pressure during the actual lifting and so has long been considered too risky an exercise for people with high blood pressure.
“The findings suggest that weight training need not be dangerous if the lifting is kept fairly light,” says one of the researchers, Mark Effron. “All of the lifts in our study were performed at 40 percent of a participant’s maximal capability, which is a level reported to be associated with acceptable rises in blood pressure.” The weight training was done for 30 minutes each session in the circuit fashion, where lifts were done on 20 different variable resistance machines.
“While we did find that blood pressure was elevated more just after weight training than after the aerobic exercise,” says Dr. Effron, “the difference in the measurement was only slight.
“What’s more, pulse rates were lower during the weight training than during the aerobic activities, so the overall demands being put on the heart by the two types o exercise proved to be roughly the same. That’s a significant finding. And it’s very encouraging news for the strength conscious”
Also significant in this study was the discovery that blood pressure drugs administered in addition to exercise did not lower blood pressure any more than exercise alone. “Patients engaged in a regular programme of exercise may not need drug therapy for control of mild hypertension,” the authors of the study conclude. That’s big news for the estimated 40 million Americans with blood pressure readings in the moderately high range (a diastolic pressure of 90 or more)
Not all these people could do without medication, but moderate workouts could help many of them get off their drugs or not have to use drugs in the first place.
“They could get complete medical clearance from their doctors first, of course, but if a exercise programme is approached sensibly, it can be a highly recommendable option to standard drug therapy,” says Effron.
One more interesting piece of evidence uncovered in study though bother exercises and the drugs lowered blood pressure equally well, exercise alone actually proved superior to one of the drugs in affecting cholesterol. Exercise lowered total blood cholesterol and low density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (the heart clogging kind) and raised high density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol (the beneficial type). This has been demonstrated in other research too. But in this study, propranolol lowered HDL, which might be a disadvantage for anyone concerned about heart disease.
Borderline Hypertension: More Dangerous than Expected
So exercise can wrestle down blood pressure naturally, and with no side effects other than greater energy, a firmer physique and a shot in the arm for self esteemed. It’s great news.
But the news becomes even greater in light of an important new discovery from researchers at the University of Machigan Hospitals. They found that border hypertension either 140 to 160 systolic (the first number) or 90 to 95 diastolic appears to pose greater risks to the cardiovascular system than had been previous thought. A random sampling of 946 people between the ages of 18 and 38 found that those whose blood pressure was in the borderline range (approximately 12 percent of the total group) had significantly greater cardiovascular abnormalities than the people whose pressure was normal.
Levels of total cholesterol, triglycerides and insulin all were higher, while HDL cholesterol (the good kind) was lower in the borderline group. The borderline group also showed signs of having less flexible arteries than the normal group, and their hearts showed signs of having lost elasticity and hence pumping power.
“We used to think of borderline hypertension has a grey area but we now have reason to believe it’s darker than we had thought,” said study director Stevo Julius. “People with borderline hypertension are likely to be at a significantly greater risk for cardiovascular disease than people whose pressures are normal. They should make concentrated efforts though exercise, weight control and restriction of sodium, dietary fat, tobacco and alcohol to bring their pressures down. Only if these strategies fail then drugs should be considered.
The Ways of Success
So why it is that high blood pressure yields to a little human muscle? Why should firming up the muscles help loosen up the arteries? You might think just the opposite would be true.
“We are not sure yet. But there are some theories.” Dr Martin says. “It may well be that the amount of inactivity many of s have been accustomed to is simply unnatural from a biological stand point. A certain level of physical movement may be necessary to keep the body’s blood pressure regulating mechanisms working as they should.
“We know, for example that small arteries can begin to shut down through lack of physical activity and those regulatory hormones from the kidneys can be adversely affected. And the effects of psychological stress that can result from too sedentary a lifestyle and you can begin to see just how extensive the ill effects of too little activity can be”
So if you have high blood pressure and you have been given a green light by your doctor, there’s no reason not to take your condition “by the horns and wrestle it to the ground” with a sensible and moderate exercise programme. Try to do something even if it’s just doing for a walk for about 30 minutes at least three days a week.
In combination with whatever other blood pressure beating tactics you can employ (i.e. cutting back on sodium, alcohol, tobacco and stress), you should be able to give your blood pressure a darned good run for its money.
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