If your New Year’s resolution to exercise and lose weight already bit the dust, here’s some information that may get you back on the treadmill: Just 30 minutes of moderate daily exercise is enough to substantially decrease your risk of heart disease. And that’s why exercise is a leading recommendation when it comes to maintaining healthy blood pressure—an important component of heart attack and stroke prevention.
“Hypertension (high blood pressure) is a major risk factor for heart disease, which remains the No. 1 cause of death for men and women,” says Dr. Mark Friedman, a cardiologist with Metro Heart Group based at SSM St. Mary’s Health Center. “Unfortunately, it’s often a silent risk factor because many people don’t even know they have it.” Hypertension medications can control blood pressure; however, they may have unpleasant side effects, such as fatigue and sexual dysfunction, he explains. “This is why we prefer to prevent high blood pressure or try to treat it with lifestyle changes.” Friedman recommends a brisk walk most days of the week. “The biggest bang for the buck occurs when a sedentary person becomes even a mild exerciser.”
The National Institutes of Health (NIH), defines hypertension as consistent blood pressure of 140/90. Blood pressure that hovers between hypertension and the healthy standard of 120/80 is referred to as prehypertension.
“We have to recognize that there are some people who, despite whatever they do, have essential hypertension or high blood pressure that’s genetically based,” explains Dr. Michael Lim, a SLUCare cardiologist and director of cardiology at Saint Louis University School of Medicine.
Yet Lim agrees that preventive strategies are important. Maintaining a healthy weight is a marker of decreased heart disease risk and often a result of increased physical activity. “Heavier people tend to be more sedentary and that causes changes in the vasculature (blood vessels) that increase the risk of hypertension,” he says.
“Most people only exercise when they feel they have to,” Lim says. “They may have great intentions, but it has to become a high-priority part of the daily routine. And it needs to be a long-term lifestyle.”
Friedman cites himself as an example. “I’m pretty busy, but I run three days a week and play tennis once or twice a week. If I can do it, anyone can,” he says. “And once you start, you want to continue because you feel so much better—healthier, less stressed and more energetic.”
Even a five- to 10-pound weight loss can improve cardiovascular function and decrease blood pressure. Adipose tissue, the fat we see around our midsection, produces hormones that have negative effects on blood sugar and can result in increased blood pressure.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services announced new dietary guidelines focusing on consumption of nutrient-dense foods and reduced intake of salt, saturated fats, cholesterol and refined grains. Complete guidelines are available at nutrition.gov. “The good news is that if you adhere to a healthy diet and regular exercise, hypertension is just one bad thing that you may avoid,” Friedman says. “You’ll also reduce risk of diabetes, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and premature death.”
Lim sums up: “Get your blood pressure checked regularly when you see your primary-care physician and take advantage of free screenings offered at health fairs and other events. And remember, there’s no such thing as perfection in living a healthy lifestyle. Do your best. That’s really all any of us can do.”