Science Confirms Exercise Can Help Blacks Lower Risk Of High Blood Pressure


older man walkingResearchers like me who study cardiovascular health have long known that exercise is one way to keep high blood pressure, a potentially debilitating condition, at bay. But studies confirming this protective effect mainly have focused on white patients.

Our research found the strongest evidence to date that moderate to vigorous regular exercise can help reduce the risk of hypertension in African Americans. Our finding is a clear wake-up call to many African Americans who perhaps have had doubts about the benefits of exercise in controlling blood pressure, or who have found adding it to their daily routines too onerous. Our study, recently published in the journal Hypertension, was funded by the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) and the National Institute on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NIMHD), which are parts of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

My colleagues and I studied 1,311 men and women in the Jackson Heart Study, the largest, community-based study of cardiovascular disease and its risk factors in African Americans. The participants were, on average, in their late 40s when the Jackson, Miss.–based study began in 2000. None of them had hypertension at the time. We followed them for eight years and surveyed their physical activities.

At the end of the study, nearly 50 percent of the participants had developed hypertension. But those who reported higher levels of moderate to vigorous physical activity had a significantly lower risk of hypertension, compared to those who did not exercise at all. Specifically, those who reported intermediate levels of physical activity – less than the recommended 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity exercise based on the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans – had a 16 percent lower rate of hypertension. Those who reported ideal levels of physical activity – an average of 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity exercise or at least 75 minutes a week of vigorous exercise – had a 24 percent lower rate.

African Americans have the highest rate of high blood pressure in the United States; in fact, as much as 50 percent higher than whites and Hispanics. That means they are at much greater risk for heart attack, stroke, kidney disease and even death.