Easing Hypertension

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Hypertension, better known as high blood pressure, is an affliction that besets nearly one third of all American adults. Like obesity, some people have a preternatural inclination toward developing hypertension, but it’s also easily acquired through poor diet and lack of exercise. The two are inextricably linked—the famed Framingham Heart Study estimated that around 26 percent of hypertension cases in men and 28 percent in women were a result of carrying excess body weight.

Hypertension is most common treated through blood pressure prescription medication, and in fact, high blood pressure is the most common reason for doctor’s visits among non-pregnant adults. Unlike obesity, which easily reveals itself in the mirror, the presence of hypertension is relatively unknown, save for said office visits—it’s what’s earned it the name “the silent killer.”

Though the medications for high blood pressure are extremely common and help millions of Americans manage the issue, there are far less capsule-like solutions that are easily accessible to just about everyone—better diet and exercise.

Doctors will refer to bettering one’s diet and increasing exercise as “lifestyle interventions” under the (usually correct) assumption that individuals with high blood pressure need improvement in both categories. They’re both easy to decry off the bat—in certain environments, changes in diet are seemingly unavoidable, and increased exercise can also be hard to come by.

As someone who’s dealt with high blood pressure at a young age, it’s hard to disguise my annoyance with lifestyle interventions. If our environment as children permits, we eat what we eat because we like it, and usually don’t think about the consequences down the line. Same goes for exercise—it’s not hard to get out every day and take a walk for 30 minutes, but it’s even less difficult to lay around and do nothing. Of course, as adults those choices matter, along with the thousands we’ve made leading us to our current exercise and eating habits.

But hypertension is so easily affected by exercise, it’s almost unfair. A number of studies have confirmed that increased physical activity does wonders in fighting cardiovascular disease. Even for those with an unfavorable family history of heart disease can shirk high blood pressure with the right amount of consistent exercise. According to a 2012 study, moderate exercise defined as “brisk walking for 150 minutes per week” decreased participants’ risk for developing hypertension by 42 percent. People with a family history of hypertension that participated in high levels of fitness had only a 16 percent higher risk to develop high blood pressure, despite their inherent genetic disposition toward it.

The study’s flaws are obvious, testing only “relatively fit, well-educated, middle to upper class white men.” It doesn’t take into account the socioeconomics behind poor diet or the physical environments that lend themselves to poor exercise habits, such as living in large cities with limited park space. However, there’s something to be said for just how effective exercise can be in terms of preventing high blood pressure.

Major health organizations know it—the Mayo Clinic writes about exercise as a drug-free way to treat high blood pressure, and emphasizes consistency when it comes to physical activity. Quite literally anything that raises breathing and heart rates can fight high blood pressure, even household chores like doing the dishes, mowing the lawn, or gardening.

Admittedly, chores might not be the best way to dissuade someone from the perils of high blood pressure. But given how much such a small amount of exercise can do, those of us with high blood pressure should understand what consistent physical activity can do to ease the tension.