AHA: Physical Activity Best First-line for High BP, Cholesterol

Megan Brooks

June 10, 2021

The optimal first step to address mild to moderately elevated blood pressure and cholesterol in otherwise healthy adults is a "prescription" to sit less and move more, the American Heart Association (AHA) says in a new scientific statement.

"The current American Heart Association guidelines for diagnosing high blood pressure and cholesterol recognize that otherwise healthy individuals with mildly or moderately elevated levels of these cardiovascular risk factors should actively attempt to reduce these risks," Bethany Barone Gibbs, PhD, chair of the statement writing group, said in an AHA news release.

"The first treatment strategy for many of these patients should be healthy lifestyle changes beginning with increasing physical activity," said Gibbs, from the University of Pittsburgh.

The 12-page AHA scientific statement — Physical Activity as a Critical Component of First-Line Treatment for Elevated Blood Pressure or Cholesterol: Who, What, and How? — was published online June 2 in Hypertension.

Every Little Bit Helps

According to the AHA, about 21% of American adults have systolic blood pressure between 120 and 139 mm Hg, or diastolic blood pressure between 80 and 89 mm Hg, which meets the criteria for lifestyle-only treatment for elevated BP outlined in the American College of Cardiology (ACC)/AHA high blood pressure guideline.

In addition, about 28% of American adults have LDL cholesterol above 70 mg/dL and otherwise meet the low-risk criteria for heart disease or stroke. These individuals would meet the criteria for lifestyle-only treatment outlined in the 2018 ACC/AHA cholesterol treatment guidelines, which include increased physical activity, weight loss, better diet, smoking cessation, and moderating alcohol intake.

"Of the recommended lifestyle changes, increasing physical activity has extensive benefits, including improving both blood pressure and blood cholesterol, that are comparable, superior, or complementary to other healthy lifestyle changes," the writing group says.

"Physical activity assessment and prescription are an excellent lifestyle behavior treatment option for all patients, including for the large population of mild-moderate-risk patients with elevated blood pressure and blood cholesterol," they note.

Research has shown that increasing physical activity can lead to clinically meaningful 3 or 4 mm Hg reductions in systolic and diastolic blood pressure, and 3 to 6 mg/dL decreases in LDL cholesterol, the authors point out.

Previous evidence also shows that physically active people have a 21% lower risk of developing cardiovascular disease and a 36% lower risk for death from cardiovascular diseases than those who are not physically active.

Physical activity also has benefits beyond heart health, including a lower risk for some cancers; improved bone, brain, and mental health; and better sleep, they note.

The US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) 2018 physical activity guidelines advise Americans to log 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity each week and to participate in two or more weekly strength training sessions.

However, there is no minimum amount of time to receive benefits from physical activity.

"Every little bit of activity is better than none. Even small initial increases of 5 to 10 minutes a day can yield health benefits," Gibbs said.

Translational Advice for Clinicians

The AHA statement encourages clinicians to ask patients about their physical activity at every interaction; provide ideas and resources to help patients improve and sustain regular life-long physical activity; and encourage and celebrate small increases in activity, such as walking more or taking the stairs, to help with motivation.

"In our world where physical activity is increasingly engineered out of our lives and the overwhelming default is to sit — and even more so now as the nation and the world is practicing quarantine and isolation to reduce the spread of coronavirus — the message that we must be relentless in our pursuit to 'sit less and move more' throughout the day is more important than ever," said Gibbs.

The statement was prepared by a volunteer writing group on behalf of the AHA Council on Lifestyle and Cardiometabolic Health; the Council on Cardiovascular and Stroke Nursing; and the Council on Clinical Cardiology.

This research had no commercial funding. A list of disclosures for the writing group is available with the original article.

Hypertension. Published online June 2, 2021. Full text

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