• New research suggests that people with high blood pressure and low fitness levels have more than double the risk of death from cardiovascular events, compared to those with normal blood pressure and high fitness.
  • The study also suggests that even if blood pressure stays elevated, exercise can help lower the risk of death.

Consistently high blood pressure, known as hypertension, is considered a major risk factor for heart attack and stroke, and previous research has shown that regular exercise can bring blood pressure down to normal levels. However, even if blood pressure remains elevated, physical activity may help lengthen life, according to a new study in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology.

Researchers looked at data from a study of about 2,000 middle-aged men in Finland that began in 1989. Over nearly three decades, participants provided information on blood pressure and cardiorespiratory fitness level—which was determined by assessing oxygen intake during periodic sessions on a stationary bicycle.

After adjusting for variables like age, smoking status, alcohol consumption, use of antihypertensive medication and other factors, researchers found that men with high blood pressure and low fitness levels had more than double the risk of death from cardiovascular events compared to those with normal blood pressure and high fitness. While those with high blood pressure and high fitness levels still had elevated risk, it was lower than those with hypertension who didn’t exercise.

The takeaway here is that bringing blood pressure down and increasing physical activity is the ideal scenario in terms of protecting the heart, but that exercise can also be beneficial even if hypertension is still present, according to lead author Jari Laukkanen, Ph.D., researcher at the University of Eastern Finland.

“Getting blood pressure under control should remain a goal for those with elevated levels,” he told Bicycling. “Our study suggests that men with high blood pressure should also aim to improve their fitness levels with regular physical activity. While exercise doesn’t eliminate risk completely in terms of cardiovascular mortality in those with hypertension, it’s a move in the right direction.”

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There have been many studies done on the effects of exercise with blood pressure management, but this was the first to look at how fitness might reduce risk of dying from cardiovascular disease events for those with high blood pressure, he added. These results underscore the effects of consistent physical activity during aging—for example, many of the surviving participants at the study’s conclusion were in their 80s and 90s.

Although the research was only done on men, previous research has shown similar benefits for women as well. For example, a research review in the journal Integrated Blood Pressure Control noted that multiple studies looking at hypertension in men and women found that all participants achieved better blood pressure management through different types of activity, including aerobic exercise and strength training.

Another study, in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, done with a group of older women with hypertension, found that nine months of multicomponent exercise was enough to improve functional capacity even when blood pressure didn’t lower to a normal range.

“Our findings add to previous studies, as well as emerging research that achieving and maintaining the highest level of cardiorespiratory fitness, especially in middle age and beyond, is one of the most effective ways to lower risk of chronic disease and, in turn, potentially extend your lifespan,” said Laukkanen.

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Elizabeth Millard is a freelance writer focusing on health, wellness, fitness, and food. 

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