‘Prescription to sit less’ may save millions from high blood pressure, cholesterol problems

DALLAS, Texas — Usually when someone gets a written prescription from their doctor it means a quick trip to the pharmacy. However, a new report from the American Heart Association (AHA) recommends that physicians start handing out prescriptions with one sentence on them: stop sitting so much.

Researchers find a “prescription” to sit less and be more physically active is the best medicine for millions at risk from high blood pressure and unhealthy cholesterol levels. The study reveals about 21 percent of American adults live with only mildly or moderately-raised blood pressure. Between 28 and 37 percent are living with mildly-elevated cholesterol levels. Study authors say, instead of turning to costly medications, the best choice in these particular cases is lifestyle-only treatments.

“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. The first treatment strategy for many of these patients should be healthy lifestyle changes beginning with increasing physical activity,” says Bethany Barone Gibbs, Ph.D., from the University of Pittsburgh, in a media release.

Lifestyle prescriptions significantly cut heart disease risk

Study authors say about 53 million U.S. adults are living with higher-than-normal blood pressure. Specifically, this refers to people with a systolic blood pressure (top number) between 120-139 mm Hg or a diastolic blood pressure (bottom number) between 80-89 mm Hg. The study finds about 71 million people (28% of U.S. adults) have an LDL “bad” cholesterol score over 70 mg/dL.

However, many of these patients also have an otherwise low risk of developing heart disease according to guidelines from the American College of Cardiology and AHA. In these cases, researchers say a less sedentary lifestyle, losing weight, a better diet, quitting smoking, and limiting alcohol intake is the best prescription for a healthier life.

“Increasing physical activity can help lower blood pressure and cholesterol, along with many other health benefits.” Gibbs adds.

The associate professor in Pitt’s department of health and human development and clinical and translational sciences notes these lifestyle changes also lead to a lower risk for cancer, improved bone, brain, and mental health, and better quality sleep.

Study authors reveal more physical activity can lower either blood pressure reading by three to four mm Hg. It can also reduce LDL cholesterol levels by three to six mg/dL. Overall, the report finds increasing physical activity lowers the risk of developing heart disease by 21 percent. In comparison to people who are not physically active, those who get their exercise in have a 36 percent lower risk of dying from heart disease.

Every minute you’re active helps

Officially, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that people get in at least 150 minutes of moderately-intense aerobic exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous activity each week. The new report however, does not put any goals on their prescription to sit less.

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

When it comes to the doctors filling out these lifestyle prescriptions, researchers have a few suggestions:

  • Screen patients about their physical activity levels during every visit. Physicians can ask patients to report on their activity through a few questions or by using a wearable device.
  • Provide patients with ideas and resources to help improve and sustain their physical activity.
  • Meet patients where they are most active and provide ideas for further success.
  • Encourage and celebrate small increases in physical activity, like walking more or taking the stairs.

“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,” Gibbs concludes.

The study appears in the journal Hypertension.

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