Taking a morning stroll can do wonders for your blood pressure, according to a study out Wednesday, especially if you’re not moving around much to begin with. The research found 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 from sitting throughout the day experienced an even larger drop.
The researchers, based in Australia, recruited 32 men and 35 women for their experiment. The average age of the volunteers was 67, and 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 simply sat for eight hours, as a control condition. Another day, they sat for a hour, then walked on a treadmill at moderate intensity (the equivalent of a brisk walk) for 30 minutes, then sat again for 6.5 hours. In the third condition, they again walked in the morning, but every thirty minutes of sitting afterward was broken up by a three-minute light walk.
In both walking conditions, the researchers found, the volunteers had their average blood pressure drop compared to the control day. But when they also took walking breaks, the systolic blood pressure (the top number in a blood pressure reading that measures the force with which your heart pumps blood into the arteries) of female volunteers dropped even further.
According to the authors of the study, published in the journal Hypertension, the size of the decrease in blood pressure was big enough to match a typical blood pressure drug.
“For both men and women, the magnitude of reduction in average systolic blood pressure following exercise and breaks in sitting approached what might be expected from anti-hypertensive medication in this population to reduce the risk of death from heart disease and stroke,” lead author Michael Wheeler, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Western Australia in Perth, said in a statement released from the American Heart Association (the AHA owns the journal where Wheeler’s study was published).
The study is far from the first to suggest that even a short walk can improve your health. Just last month, a study found that even 30 minutes of light regular exercise could lower the risk of a early death by 17 per cent for the average middle-aged American.
But the study by Wheeler and his team is one of the few to objectively measure the impact of exercise on older adults in a real-world experiment (many studies on this topic look at population data, which can only show a correlation, not a direct cause-and-effect, between two things). The authors say theirs is the first to show that exercise’s effects on blood pressure in this specific group of older, overweight adults can last over an eight-hour typical workday.
And exercise isn’t just great for the heart. A study from Wheeler and his team published earlier this month, based on the same sample of volunteers, found that light exercise could also reverse the effects of sedentary behaviour on the brain, by improving blood flow. Regular exercise has been linked to a lower risk of dementia too, though we’re still trying to figure out just how preventive exercise really is for that condition.
The relationship between exercise and a better heart isn’t entirely clear either, at least when it comes to the role of gender. Wheeler and his team found that the drop in blood pressure from regularly moving was greater in women than men. There may be a few possible reasons for this disparity, the authors speculated. Older women tend to already be at higher risk for cardiovascular problems, due to being post-menopausal, so any improvements in cardiovascular function could be more dramatic for them, for instance.
But exercise also seems to influence the release of some stress hormones differently in older men and women; these hormones in turn could affect blood pressure. In the study, men experienced a rise in adrenaline levels on days they exercised, while women experienced a drop.
That’s a link worth exploring more in the future, but for now, the take-home message is simple: Get up and walk around whenever you can, especially if you’re not very active already.