Lowering your blood pressure without medicines
November 1, 2023 | View PDF
An estimated 80% of older adults in the U.S. have high blood pressure. Maintaining healthy blood pressure can protect against serious conditions like heart failure, heart attacks and strokes. Now, a new study is suggesting that adding a relatively minimal amount of movement, about 3,000 steps per day, can significantly reduce high blood pressure in older adults. It is time to step up your game.
"We'll all get high blood pressure if we live long enough, at least in this country," said study investigator Linda Pescatello, who is a professor of kinesiology at the University of Conneticut. "That's how prevalent it is."
The study focused on a group of sedentary older adults between ages 68 and 78 who walked an average of about 4,000 steps per day before the study. After consulting existing studies, the researchers determined that 3,000 steps would be a reasonable goal. This would put most participants at 7,000 daily steps, in line with the American College of Sports Medicine's recommendation.
The researchers found that the 7,000-step regimen produced similar blood pressure reductions seen with medications. Eight of the 21 participants were already on high blood pressure medications.
"In a previous study, we found that when exercise is combined with medication, exercise bolsters the effects of blood pressure medication alone," said Pescatello. "It just speaks to the value of exercise as anti-hypertensive therapy. It's not to negate the effects of medication at all, but it's part of the treatment arsenal."
The researchers found that walking speed and walking in continuous bouts did not matter as much as simply increasing total steps. "We saw that the volume of physical activity is what's really important here, not the intensity," said Pescatello.
Physical activity, particularly when it is moderate-intensity and raises your heart rate, is known to reduce the risk of a number of diseases, including heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer. It is recommended that all adults 50 and older do at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity a week. It is also recommended that older adults break up prolonged periods of being sedentary with light activity when physically possible.
Big brain benefits with more steps
A British team led by researchers at the University of Cambridge recently examined activity levels among 1,433 adults age 60 and above using accelerometers. The researchers found that just adding more daily steps may translate into a much better quality of life.
Those individuals who did more moderate-to-vigorous physical activity and spent less time sedentary at their first assessment had a higher quality of life later on.
"Keeping yourself active and limiting the amount of time you spend sitting down is really important whatever the stage of life," said study investigator Dr. Dharani Yerrakalva from the Dept. of Public Health and Primary Care at the University of Cambridge in the UK. "This seems to be particularly important in later life, when it can lead to potentially significant improvements to your quality of life and your physical and mental wellbeing."
There are several ways in which increased physical activity may help maintain a better quality of life. Increased physical activity can reduce pain in common conditions such as osteoarthritis, and being more physically active improves muscle strength.
"Similarly, depression and anxiety are linked to quality of life, and can be improved by being more active and less sedentary," said Dr. Yerrakalva.
Regular physical activity offers physical, mental, emotional and social benefits. Older adults are at risk for vitamin D deficiency and frailty. Safe participation in outdoor activities can increase sun exposure and boost the body's vitamin D production, even in cold weather. Don't let bad weather get in your way. Think of alternative ways to get your steps.
Although winter can be a physically challenging season to stay active, prioritizing movement is important for stimulating your body and brain. Exercise doesn't have to feel like a chore. It can be fun, safe and empowering. Evidence shows regular activity can reduce the risk of neck and back pain. It can also help reduce pain intensity and mental health disorders that can occur with chronic pain, like depression.
Physical activity during the day, especially in the sunlight, can help regulate your circadian clock and sleep routine. Combining aerobic exercise and strength training has been shown to reduce the risk of falls. Exercise programs incorporating three hours of balance training per week can reduce falls risk by 21%, according to recent studies.
Focus on these types of exercise
The National Council on Aging recommends older adults focus on specific types of exercise: endurance, strength, flexibility and mobility, and balance. While they're all important, some people may focus on one category more than another, depending on their current status and wellness goals. Also known as aerobic exercise, endurance activities are prolonged, repetitive exercises that get your heart beating faster (biking, jogging and swimming).
Strength or resistance training builds muscle and supports joint health. This type of training involves working against resistance, like body weight or dumbbells, to improve your muscles' capacity to work through heavy tasks. You can use your own body's weight for resistance exercises. Push-ups, planks, lunges and pull-ups are all strengthening exercises that can be done at home and require no equipment.
Flexibility refers to a muscle's ability to lengthen. Joint mobility refers to the joint's ability to move freely. Both types of training go hand-in-hand because they allow you to move with less restriction. Lack of flexibility and joint mobility contributes to feelings of stiffness and can limit your ability to participate in everyday activities.
Often overlooked, balance training is an essential part of independent movement and confidence. Your brain takes information from your body's position and its surroundings to make adjustments that keep you steady.
Stretching can improve your flexibility.Moving more freely will make it easier for you to reach down to tie your shoes or look over your shoulder when you back your car out of the driveway. There is a universe of flexibility exercise tutorials on YouTube, and be sure to make use of local fitness centers, classes and trainers.
Balance exercises help prevent falls, a common problem in older adults that can have serious consequences. Many lower-body strength exercises also will improve your balance. Again, YouTube, fitness centers, classes-tai chi and yoga, especially- and instructors are excellent resources for discovering balance exercises.
John Schieszer is an award-winning national journalist and radio and podcast broadcaster of The Medical Minute. He can be reached at email@example.com.