"The results of this study send a very practical message, which is that even a very realistic, moderate amount of exercise — which we define as brisk walking for 150 minutes per week — can provide a huge health benefit, particularly to people predisposed to hypertension because of their family history," study author Robin Shook said in an American Heart Association news release.
The researchers followed nearly 6,300 highly fit people ranging in age from 20 to 80 for nearly five years. Of this group, one-third had at least one parent with high blood pressure. These people had a 34 percent lower risk of developing hypertension than other people who also had a family history of the disease but were not as physically fit.
Overall, more than 1,500 of the participants developed hypertension during the course of the study. High levels of fitness, however, were associated with a 42 percent lower risk for high blood pressure — regardless of family history. Moderately fit people had a 26 percent lower risk.
In contrast, the study, published May 14 in the journal Hypertension, showed that people with a low level of fitness and a family history of hypertension had a 70 percent higher risk for high blood pressure than highly fit people.
Moreover, among fit people, having a family history of hypertension increased the risk for the condition by only 16 percent.
"The correlation between fitness levels, parental history and risk are impossible to ignore," said Shook, a doctoral candidate in the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. "This awareness can serve the clinician and the patient as they work together to find effective and reasonable ways to avoid the diseases that have affected their family members, in some cases for generations."
The American Heart Association recommends at least 30 minutes of moderately intense physical activity, such as brisk walking, five days a week.
Because the majority of participants in this study were white, well-educated men with higher incomes, the new findings may not apply to all people.