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Exercise vs. Meds: Are They Equally Effective in Lowering Blood Pressure, Reducing Body Fat?

Regular exercise can have an empowering effect on one’s health — and even lower blood pressure and reduce visceral body fat nearly as effectively as common prescription medications, according to two separate studies that are helping clarify the benefits of physical activity.

However, it’s still too early to conclude that exercise can replace drugs for many patients, especially those on meds to treat hypertension, other heart disease risk factors and other chronic conditions. More research is needed to determine which type of exercise can best treat specific conditions and how much exercise would be effective.

Nonetheless, the new research is encouraging to physicians, dietitians and fitness trainers who encourage patients to adopt a regular exercise routine to better manage or prevent chronic conditions.

“I whole-heartedly agree that exercise is medicine,” says Michael Swartzon, M.D. [1], primary care sports medicine physician with Miami Orthopedics & Sports Medicine Institute [2]. “This reaffirms that exercise—in conjunction with proper diet — is essential in the treatment of high blood pressure.”

The first of the two studies was published in December in the British Journal of Sports Medicine [3]. Researchers looked at data from 197 clinical trials that monitored the effects of structured workouts on lowering systolic blood pressure, the top number. The researchers also looked at information from 194 trials that examined the impact of prescription drugs on blood pressure. In total, the studies included nearly 40,000 people.

The types of exercise in the studies included walking, jogging, running, cycling and swimming. Strength training with weights or other forms of resistance was also part of the research — as was a combination of aerobic and resistance training. They found evidence suggesting that regular exercise can be as effective at lowering high blood pressure as prescribed pills.

Systolic blood pressure is the top-line blood pressure reading. It measures the amount of pressure that’s in your blood vessels when your heart beats. Ideally, the number should stay below 120. That’s because extra stress on the arteries can lead to a heart attack, stroke, or heart failure.

The second of the studies was published in recently in Mayo Clinic Proceedings [4]. Researchers focused on fat and, in particular, visceral fat, the potentially hazardous type that accumulates in the midsection, or abdominal cavity, deep beneath the skin. The higher the amount of visceral fat a person stores, the more at risk they are for certain serious health issues, such as type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Several drugs are approved to trim visceral and other types of fat. But researchers in the second study found that exercise was a slightly better option than drugs because exercise played a bigger role in losing pounds associated with visceral fat.

“We recommend a minimum of 150 minutes a week of cardiovascular exercises and 150 minutes a week of resistance training,” says Dr. Swartzon. “I’ve had many patients who have reduced or eliminated the use of prescription medications simply with dedication to lifestyle changes of diet and exercise.”