It is estimated that poor diet and physical inactivity contribute to approximately 20% of deaths in the United States. Unhealthy lifestyles can increase the risk of health problems, including heart disease, diabetes, and cancer. It is recommended that people with elevated blood pressure make lifestyle modifications, including regular physical activity and a healthful diet. But can these lifestyle changes control blood pressure over the long term?

A new study in the April 4, 2006 issue of the Annals of Internal Medicine found that people with elevated blood pressure who sustained multiple lifestyle modifications were able to improve their blood pressure for 18 months.

About the Study

This study included 810 people with prehypertension or stage 1 hypertension, meaning their systolic blood pressure (the “top number”) was 120-159 millimeters of mercury (mmHg) and their diastolic blood pressure (the “bottom number”) was 80-95 mmHg. The participants were assigned to one of three lifestyle modification programs:

  • Intervention group – participated in comprehensive lifestyle intervention, which promoted physical activity and weight loss, and reduced sodium intake
  • Intervention plus DASH group – participated in comprehensive lifestyle intervention plus the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, which is high in fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy products, and low in saturated fat, total fat, and cholesterol
  • Advice group – received advice to reduce weight and sodium intake, regularly exercise, and consume a healthful diet

Both of the intervention groups attended 26 group and seven individual counseling sessions with health professionals. The advice group had two individual sessions, during which the advice was provided. The researchers followed the participants for 18 months, tracking their blood pressure, weight, and dietary intake.

Both intervention groups significantly reduced their weight and fat and sodium intake. The group also on the DASH diet increased fruit, vegetable, fiber, and mineral consumption, and reduced cholesterol and fat and saturated fat consumption. After 18 months, the prevalence of hypertension was 24% in the intervention group, 22% in the intervention plus DASH group, and 32% in the advice group.

This study was limited because the researchers did not follow the participants for long enough to see if the lifestyle modification programs actually decreased the risk of cardiovascular disease (e.g., heart attack , stroke ).

How Does This Affect You?

These findings suggest that people with elevated blood pressure can adhere to multiple lifestyle modifications for at least 18 months, and that these modifications can effectively treat their hypertension. This is good news for people who have or are at risk for hypertension, since they may be able to control their blood pressure by adopting healthier lifestyles.

If you have elevated blood pressure, talk to your doctor about the lifestyle changes you should be making. Exercising more and participating in regular physical activity can be as effective as medications in controlling blood pressure. But while the payoff may be worth it, keep in mind that sticking with these lifestyle changes is a challenge. The participants in the intervention groups had a high level of social support and frequent access to health professionals.