WEDNESDAY, May 19, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- Cholesterol-busting drugs do their job, but regular exercise and healthy eating remains the best long-term strategy for staving off high blood pressure, claims a new report.
"It's so easy to pop a pill as a cure for the problem. But we know that lifestyle changes, while they may be a little more difficult, can have benefits that are long-lasting," said James Blumenthal, a professor of medical psychology at Duke University.
Blumenthal is the lead author of a review of the current medical literature on exercise, diet, and high blood pressure that appears in the May 19 issue of the journal Sports Medicine.
As the American population ages and obesity rates soar, the numbers of Americans with high blood pressure continues to climb. "It's probably now about one in four adults," Blumenthal said. "That's about 50 million people."
That number includes only those with statistical high blood pressure, which is a reading of 140 over 90 millimeters of mercury (mm/Hg) and above. Last year, experts at the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute amended their guidelines to recommend healthy changes in lifestyle for people with blood pressure falling in a "prehypertensive" range between 120 over 80 mm/Hg and 140 over 90 mm/Hg.
As Blumenthal explained, "these are people who don't technically have high blood pressure but who are at high risk of developing it over the course of their lifetime."
According to the Duke review, low-fat diets high in nutrient-rich fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, and whole grains remain key in keeping hearts and arteries healthy. In one study, hypertensive individuals placed on these types of diets saw their systolic blood pressure (the top number in a reading) drop by 11.4 mm/Hg, compared to patients eating typical high-fat fare.
Of course, a switch to a healthier diet usually means weight loss, too. In fact, weight loss may help explain why diets and regular exercise are so effective in driving blood pressure down, according to American Heart Association spokesman Dr. Daniel Jones, dean of the School of Medicine at the University of Mississippi.
"When you exercise, you burn calories," Jones said, "and weight is an important part of blood pressure." Recent studies suggest that by losing just 15 pounds, hypertensive individuals can lose an average of seven to 10 mm/Hg in systolic blood pressure as well.
Exercise might even help mend damaged hearts. According to Blumenthal, chronic high blood pressure often leads to a dangerous enlargement of the heart's left ventricle, a condition known as left ventricular hypertrophy (LVH). "Your heart is a muscle like any other muscle, such as a bicep," Blumenthal explained. "It's pushing against higher pressure and it becomes thicker as it has to flex against that increased pressure."
LVH is a serious risk factor for heart attack, but early research suggests aerobic exercise may help shrink hearts affected by the condition. Blumenthal's team plans more research looking at the effects of lifestyle changes on LVH. "We want to see whether or not appropriate diet or exercise can either retard the process or potentially even reverse it," he said.
In the meantime, "getting people to be more physically active and eat a healthier diet is critically important, especially now, with this epidemic of obesity that we are currently facing," he said.
Jones agreed. "I do think it's useful to remind people," he said. "It's important to keep focusing on diet and exercise as an important tool for reducing your cardiovascular risk."
For the scoop on eating right to reduce high blood pressure, check out the American Heart Association. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also has information on the role of exercise in maintaining health.