A morning walk can be as effective as a medication to lower blood pressure

Photo: Maddie Meyer (Getty Images)

Walking in the morning can do wonders for your blood pressure, according to a study released Wednesday, especially if you do not move much to begin with. Research revealed that sedentary older adults who walked in the morning for 30 minutes experienced a noticeable drop in blood pressure. And women who also took breaks during the day saw an even bigger drop.

Researchers based in Australia recruited 32 men and 35 women for their experience. The average age of the volunteers was 67 years old. They were all overweight or obese and reported not being very physically active. They were asked to spend three days in three different ways, in random order.

One day, they sat for eight hours as a condition of control. Another day, they sat for an hour, then walked for 30 minutes on a treadmill at a moderate intensity (the equivalent of a brisk walk), and then sat for 6.5 hours again. In the third condition, they walked again in the morning, but every thirty minutes afterwards were interrupted by a light walk of three minutes.

The researchers found that in both walking conditions, the mean arterial blood pressure drop was lower than that of the control day. But when they also took breaks, systolic blood pressure (the highest figure in a blood pressure reading that measures the force with which your heart pumps blood into the arteries) of female volunteers has further declined. According to the study's authors, published in the journal Hypertension, the magnitude of the decrease in blood pressure was large enough to correspond to a typical antihypertensive drug.

"For men and women, the magnitude of the reduction in mean systolic blood pressure after exercise and sitting breaks corresponded to what could be expected from a patient. antihypertensive therapy in this population to reduce the risk of death from heart disease and stroke, "senior author Michael Wheeler, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Western Australia in Perth, said in a statement issued by the American Heart Association (the AHA holds the journal where the Wheeler study was published).

The study is far from being the first to suggest that even a short walk can improve your health. Last month, a study found that even 30 minutes of light regular exercise could reduce the risk of premature death by 17 percent for the average middle-aged American. However, the study by Wheeler and his team is one of the few to objectively measure the impact of exercise on older adults as part of a real-life experience (many studies on this subject are looking at population data, which can only show a correlation, not a direct, cause-and-effect analysis between two things). The authors say that theirs is the first to show that the effects of exercise on blood pressure in this specific group of older, overweight adults can last more than eight hours a day.

And exercise is not just good for the heart. A study by Wheeler and his team published earlier this month, based on the same sample of volunteers, revealed that a light exercise could also reverse the effects of sedentary behavior on the brain by improving blood flow. Regular exercise has also been associated with a lower risk of dementia, although we are still trying to understand how effective preventive exercise really is.

The relationship between exercise and the best heart is not entirely clear either, at least with regard to the role of gender. Wheeler and his team found that the lower blood pressure associated with regular movement was greater for women than for men. The authors speculated on the reasons for this disparity. Older women already have a higher risk of cardiovascular problems because of their menopause, so any improvement in cardiovascular function could be more dramatic for them, for example. But exercise also seems to influence the release of certain stress hormones differently in older men and women; these hormones could in turn affect the blood pressure. In the study, men's adrenaline levels were increased on days when they were exercising, while those of women were falling.

It's a link worth exploring in the future, but for now, the message is simple: get up and walk around whenever you can, especially if you're not not already very active.

[Hypertension via the American Heart Association]

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