You don’t want to reach your peak cardiovascular fitness too soon in life. According to recent research, you should maintain your level of exercise through middle age if you want to guard against high blood pressure as you age.
However, a study of over 5,000 people in four US cities found that social factors can make this harder for some people to do than for others.
“Teenagers and those in their early 20s may be physically active but these patterns change with age,” study author and epidemiologist Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo from the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) explained in April 2021, when the study was published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
Exercise has been demonstrated in numerous studies to lower blood pressure, but according to Bibbins-Domingo’s latest research, “maintaining physical activity during young adulthood – at higher levels than previously recommended – may be particularly important” for preventing hypertension.
High blood pressure, or hypertension, is a dangerous illness that affects billions of people globally. It increases the risk of stroke and heart attack, as well as dementia in later life.
The World Health Organization estimates that approximately every fifth woman and up to one in four men suffer from hypertension. However, high blood pressure is often referred to as the “silent killer” because most of its sufferers are unaware that they have it.
However, there are strategies to lower high blood pressure; in this study, exercise is the main strategy.
The study enrolled over 5,100 adults and followed their health over a three-decade period using physical examinations and questionnaires about their alcohol consumption, smoking status, and exercise routines.
Blood pressure was taken three times, one minute apart, at each clinical assessment. Participants were divided into four groups based on gender and race for the data analysis.
Between the ages of 18 and 40, levels of physical activity fell precipitously for both men and women, as well as for both racial groups. Over the next few decades, rates of hypertension increased and physical activity decreased.
The researchers conclude that young adulthood is a crucial time frame for implementing health promotion programs aimed at increasing exercise in order to prevent midlife hypertension.
“Nearly half of our participants in young adulthood had suboptimal levels of physical activity, which was significantly associated with the onset of hypertension, indicating that we need to raise the minimum standard for physical activity,” said lead author Jason Nagata, a UCSF expert in young adult medicine.
Studying individuals who had engaged in five hours a week of moderate exercise in their early adult years—double the amount currently advised for adults—the researchers discovered that this level of activity significantly reduced the risk of hypertension, particularly if the participants continued their exercise regimen until they were sixty years old.
“Achieving at least twice the current minimum adult [physical activity] guidelines may be more beneficial for the prevention of hypertension than simply meeting the minimum guidelines,” the researchers wrote in their paper.
But increasing weekly physical activity in the face of life-altering choices and mounting responsibilities is not simple.
“This might be especially the case after high school when opportunities for physical activity diminish as young adults transition to college, the workforce, and parenthood, and leisure time is eroded,” said Nagata.
Another sobering fact revealed by the study is that Black men and Black women’s health trajectories differ significantly from those of their White counterparts. While Black participants’ levels of physical activity continued to drop, White men and women’s levels plateaued at age 40.
White women in the study had the lowest rates of hypertension through midlife, while Black women overtook White men in this regard by 45 years.
Furthermore, by the age of 60, about half of White women and slightly less than 70% of White men had hypertension, compared to 80–90% of Black men and women.
The research team attributed the well-known racial disparities to a variety of social and economic factors; while high school education was mentioned, these factors were not evaluated in this study.
“Although Black male youth may have high engagement in sports, socioeconomic factors, neighborhood environments, and work or family responsibilities may prevent continued engagement in physical activity through adulthood,” Nagata said.