- We’ve known for years that high blood pressure can be lowered with exercise and a healthy diet.
- Researchers now have evidence that suggests exercise can be as effective at lowering high blood pressure as pills.
- As a person’s blood pressure goes up, the benefits of exercise appear to get even more significant.
- But more rigorous head-to-head comparisons of drugs and exercise are needed to know for sure.
Once again, scientists are finding fresh evidence that exercise is basically a wonder drug.
Research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine on Tuesday suggests that exercise may be just as effective as drugs at lowering high blood pressure.
The review analyzed nearly 400 different studies on drugs and exercise, and focused on patients with top-line (systolic) blood pressure cuff readings of 140 or higher. The results suggested that it doesn’t matter much what kind of exercise you perform; as long as you’re moving, your doing good things for your heart.
“I wouldn’t necessarily say that one form of exercise seems to be the winner,” lead study author Huseyin Naci, a public health expert from the London School of Economics, said on a BMJ podcast.
‘Comparing like with like’
For the study, Naci and his co-authors compared two sets of people. The first was a subset of people from some 197 exercise trials who already had high blood pressure. The second included patients from 194 other studies who were taking prescription blood pressure drugs.
“When we did this type of an analysis, comparing like with like, then we found exercise interventions to appear as effective as drug interventions in lowering systolic blood pressure,” he said.
Systolic blood pressure is the top-line read on a cuff; it measures the amount of pressure that’s in your blood vessels when your heart beats. Ideally, the number should stay below 120, since extra stress on the arteries can lead to a heart attack, stroke, or heart failure. But it can be tough to see physical signs of pressure building up in a person’s blood vessels until it’s too late.
Unfortunately, nearly half of US adults are above that 120 mark, leaving them at risk of succumbing to this so-called “silent killer.”
The benefits of exercise extend beyond the heart
Doctors have been suggesting for decades that the most straightforward (and cheapest) way to reduce your risk of developing high blood pressure is to stay active.
It makes sense intuitively that more movement leads to better heart health: When you’re more active, the heart doesn’t have to work as hard to pump blood around your body. But this study was the first to directly compare how blood pressure-lowering prescription drugs measure up to exercise. Previous trials have found that drugs may be better at lowering blood pressure than exercise alone, but they weren’t comparing apples to apples.
“A lot of the exercise trials are actually including people who are healthy and who do not have high blood pressure to begin with,” Naci said.
His results suggested that a range of physical activities — including jogging, lifting weights, walking, swimming, and high-intensity interval training — all “consistently seem to be effective in lowering systolic blood pressure,” Naci said.
The minimum physical activity standards set by the US government are two and a half hours of activity per week. That can even include chores at home like vacuuming or shoveling snow, as well as walking. But roughly 8 in 10 adults don’t meet this minimum.
The new study results may serve as motivation for some people to get moving, but the study authors are still urging a cautious approach to their new findings.
“We don’t think that, on the basis of our study, patients should stop taking their anti-hypertensive medications without a very thorough, careful discussion with their physicians,” Naci said.
That being said, there are plenty of other good reasons to work out more. People who do can improve their mood, boost their memory, help their immune system stay strong, and pick up a bouquet of other health benefits, too.
If you’re worried you may not be quite as fit as you should, there is a quick check you can perform right now: climb four flights of stairs without stopping. A recent study, which included more than 12,000 patients with known or suspected heart disease, found that if participants could climb four flights quickly without stopping, they were less likely to die from all sorts of causes, including heart disease and cancer.
So start taking those stairs. It could literally help save your life.