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How much exercise do you need to control your blood pressure?

Research suggests we should be doing more than the recommended amount of exercise.

Research suggests we should be doing more than the recommended amount of exercise. Photo: Getty

Can you exercise your way out of preventing high blood pressure?

On the face of it, this can seem impossible, at least for people living even half-busy lives.

The problem was neatly laid out in a 2021 study that probably didn’t get the attention it deserved, the world being preoccupied with COVID at the time.

Now, sites such as Science Alert are giving it a proper look for the first time.

Researchers from the University of California San Fransisco School of Medicine tracked the health and exercise habits of more than 5100 adults for three decades.

For those who did twice as much exercise than is recommended – that is, five hours a week, instead of 2.5 hours – their risk of hypertension was lowered significantly.

This was the case “especially if people maintained their exercise habits until age 60”.

Well, of course they did. But guess what?

Over time, most of the participants did less exercise, and their hypertension risk went up. Because that’s what happens when people lives fill up. There are work demands and attendant stress. There are family commitments, such as (ironically perhaps) driving kids to their sport practice.

And when possible, there’s lying on the couch.

What can we take from this?

As study author and epidemiologist Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo noted: “Teenagers and those in their early 20s may be physically active but these patterns change with age.”

Lead author Jason Nagata, an expert in young adult medicine told Science Alert: “Nearly half of our participants in young adulthood had sub-optimal levels of physical activity, which was significantly associated with the onset of hypertension, indicating that we need to raise the minimum standard for physical activity.”

Many people will balk at this idea. Mainly because many people don’t manage the 2.5 hours of moderate exercise that are prescribed.

And yet, half an hour of exercise per day adds up to 3.5 hours for the week.

And Australia has a killer problem with hypertension.

Blood pressure by the numbers

A 2019 study found that one in three adult Australians have high blood pressure – more than six million people.

In 2009 it was one in five, or about four million people. That was 20 per cent of the population at the time – and now it is nearly 33 per cent .

And half of those people with hypertension don’t know they’ve got it. Nor do they understand the attendant risks, not only to their heart and arteries, but also to their brains, kidneys, and eyes.

This suggests that people aren’t getting their blood pressure measured routinely when visiting the doctor, are oblivious to the results, or they are not going to the doctor at all – or maybe they just don’t think about it.

Of those who received treatment, 40 per cent still had blood pressure above the recommended level. People who smoked, drank alcohol or had cerebrovascular disease were at greater risk of having elevated blood pressure.

Perhaps, one of the disincentives is that exercise might be perceived as hard work, and hard on the joints.

There is good news

You don’t need to drown yourself in sweat or pump iron to improve your blood pressure.

Isometric exercise works just as well as vigorous exercise.

Isometric exercise relies on your body’s weight, during planks or wall squats, that help maintain strength and stabilise your joints and core.

Even easier is the gentle sport of tai chi which has been found to work better than aerobic exercise at lowering blood pressure. And there are other benefits, including better sleep, weight loss, improved mood and management of chronic conditions such as fibromyalgia.

It’s a particularly useful practice for seniors and for people who have lost their fitness and ease of movement. There is probably no better way than spending half an hour a day.

Topics: Health
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