Lack of Exercise at Young Age Raises Hypertension Risk

High blood pressure, or hypertension, increases significantly with low levels of physical activity and fitness, a study of young adults shows.

The study in the journal Hypertension found that about one-third of all high blood pressure cases could be prevented with increased physical fitness.

“Those who were the least physically fit, as determined by the amount of time on a treadmill and self-report, were more likely to develop hypertension,” says study author Mercedes Carnethon, Ph.D., at Northwestern University.

Because high blood pressure does not generally have warning signs or symptoms, it has been called “silent killer” because many people do not realize they have it.

High blood pressure can be detected in a quick, painless manner by having a blood pressure measurement performed by a physician or other healthcare professional. Blood pressure checks should be performed regularly, at least once a year or more often, if recommended by a healthcare provider.

Long-Term Study Uses Treadmill, Questionnaires

For the study, researchers asked if levels of physical activity and fitness as a young adult affect risk of developing high blood pressure later in life.

To answer that question, 4,618 men and women between 18 and 30 years old were recruited for a 20-year study of cardiovascular disease risk factors. Study volunteers completed a treadmill test and a physical activity questionnaire when the study began. In addition, their overall health was assessed at six follow-up appointments over 20 years.

Just over 1,000 people in the study developed high blood pressure, which was defined as having blood pressure that is higher than 140/80 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) or having been prescribed medication to treat high blood pressure.

Even after adjusting for other known heart disease and high blood pressure risk factors – such as smoking, age, race, sex, cholesterol, and diet – the researchers found that lower levels of physical activity and fitness were associated with an increased risk of high blood pressure.

Dr. Carnethon says this study is especially helpful because it did not rely solely on self-report of physical activity, but relied on an objective measure of physical activity – the treadmill test.

If people moved more and were able to increase their fitness level, the researchers estimate that about 34 percent of hypertension cases could be prevented.

Old Habits Are Hard to Change

The reason sedentary behavior in young adults translated to a higher risk of elevated blood pressure later in life, says Dr. Carnethon, was probably because the sedentary behavior did not change as people grew older.

“The results of this study aren’t too surprising, but what I think is impressive is the amount of hypertension that can be prevented, says Dr. Goutham Rao, at Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh.

“For example, in white women, the difference between low levels of fitness and high levels of fitness is a fivefold higher risk in the low level group,” he says. “The magnitude of the difference was surprising.”

“Hypertension is largely controllable or reversible,” explains Dr. Rao. “The good news is that there’s no point at which you can not benefit from increased activity.” But, he says, it is better to start younger because people who are active in their youth are more likely to stay active as adults.

One in three Americans has hypertension, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). High blood pressure is a risk factor for heart disease, stroke, and kidney disease.

Regular physical activity is one way that a person can help keep blood pressure at normal levels. The CDCrecommends at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on most days of the week.

Always consult your physician for more information.

Facts about High Blood Pressure

Blood pressure is the force of the blood pushing against the artery walls. The force is generated with each heartbeat as blood is pumped from the heart into the blood vessels.

The size and elasticity of the artery walls also affect blood pressure. Each time the heart beats (contracts and relaxes), pressure is created inside the arteries.

The pressure is greatest when blood is pumped out of the heart into the arteries, called systole. When the heart relaxes between beats (blood is not moving out of the heart), the pressure falls in the arteries, called diastole.

Two numbers are recorded when measuring blood pressure. The top number, or systolic pressure, refers to the pressure inside the artery when the heart contracts and pumps blood through the body.

The bottom number, or diastolic pressure, refers to the pressure inside the artery when the heart is at rest and is filling with blood. Both the systolic and diastolic pressures are recorded as “mm Hg” (millimeters of mercury). This recording represents how high the mercury column is raised by the pressure of the blood.

Blood pressure is measured with a blood pressure cuff and stethoscope by a nurse or other healthcare provider. A person cannot take his or her own blood pressure unless an electronic blood pressure monitoring device is used.

High blood pressure, or hypertension, directly increases the risk of coronary heart disease (heart attack) and stroke (brain attack). With high blood pressure, the arteries may have an increased resistance against the flow of blood, causing the heart to pump harder to circulate the blood.

Usually, high blood pressure has no signs or symptoms. However, you can know if your blood pressure is high by having it checked regularly by your healthcare provider.

Always consult your physician for more information.