Having fatter legs linked to lower risks for high blood pressure

DALLAS, Texas — Many studies have connected having too much fat to various health problems. A new study however, contends the value of fat may be just like real estate — location, location, location. A report by the American Heart Association reveals having more fat tissue in your legs may reduce the risk of developing high blood pressure.

Researchers say all three varieties of hypertension are lower in patients with a high percentage of leg fat. This includes when both blood pressure indicators are above 130/80, systolic high blood pressure (when the first number is higher), and diastolic high blood pressure (when the second number rises).

How leg fat links to high blood pressure

“Ultimately, what we noted in this study is a continued discussion of ‘it’s not just how much fat you have, but where the fat is located,’” explains Rutgers medical student Aayush Visaria in a media release. “Although we know confidently that fat around your waist is detrimental to health, the same cannot be said for leg fat. If you have fat around your legs, it is more than likely not a bad thing and may even be protecting you from hypertension, according to our findings.”

The study looks at nearly 6,000 adults with an average age of 37 from the 2011-2016 National Health & Nutrition Examination Surveys. About half the group is female and 24 percent already have high blood pressure.

Researchers use special X-ray scans to measure the fat tissue in each participant’s legs while also comparing the results to overall body fat levels. The study defines high leg fat levels as more than 34 percent for men and over 39 percent for women.

Significant drops across the board

The results show patients with a higher percentage of fat tissue in their legs are 61 percent less likely to have hypertension. This decrease represents patients suffering a rise in both blood pressure numbers.

Diastolic high blood pressure, measuring pressure between the beats of the heart, is 53 percent less likely in people with fatter legs. The risk for systolic high blood pressure, measuring pressure when the heart is beating, drops by 39 percent in these individuals.

Even after accounting for factors like age, sex, race, smoking and drinking habits, and waist fat, the likelihood of having hypertension is still lower in the patients with more leg fat tissue.

“If these results are confirmed by larger, more robust studies, and in studies using easily accessible measurement methods like thigh circumference, there is the potential to affect patient care,” Visaria adds. “Just as waist circumference is used to estimate abdominal fat, thigh circumference may be a useful tool, although it’s a bit cumbersome and not as widely studied in the U.S. population.”

A growing body of evidence

This is not the first report to suggest having thicker legs is a good thing. A previous study from China confirmed that “thick thighs save lives.” That study measured thigh circumference and also finds a link between larger thighs and lower blood pressure.

Researchers say future studies on this connection should include people over 60, who are usually at higher risk for hypertension. They caution this new report can’t definitively say leg fat is directly causing lower blood pressure levels, since researchers measure both factors at the same time.

The findings are being presented at the American Heart Association’s Hypertension 2020 Scientific Sessions.

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