Exercise Your Heart

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For patients with hypertension – or high blood pressure – medication may not be the only way to treat their condition. According to scientists at Women’s College Research Institute, exercise and lifestyle changes may be just as important.

Dr. Paula Harvey, director of the Cardiac Research Program and scientist at Women’s College Research Institute, and her colleagues are exploring non-drug methods to improve cardiovascular health for women. They are looking for proof that exercise can enhance hypertension treatment.

“Results from our research have been eye-opening,” said Dr. Harvey. “We’ve found that acute exercise – which could be as simple as walking at a comfortable pace for 45 minutes – can decrease a woman’s blood pressure significantly.”

Considering that 60 per cent of Canadian women are inactive, light exercise can make a big difference, added Dr. Harvey.

To further test the benefits of physical activity on cardiovascular health in women, volunteers are participating in an exercise experiment. The information this experiment generates will help the team develop improved hypertension treatments.

Although the research focuses primarily on women, a related study at Women’s College Research Institute expands the investigation of exercise and non-drug treatments for hypertension to include men.

“Hypertension affects both sexes, but there are significant differences in why and when women develop it compared with men,” said Dr. Harvey.

Some researchers suspect low estrogen levels after menopause may lead to an increased incidence of hypertension in women.

Others are looking at age. High blood pressure is less common in young women than their male counterparts. But as a woman ages, her blood pressure rises at a steeper rate.

“When you get into the older age groups, women not only catch up, they surpass men in terms of high blood pressure rates,” said Dr. Harvey. “Once women are over 60 and have moved into the postmenopausal phase of their lives, they tend to have higher rates of hypertension than men.”

Including both men and women in the hypertension investigation will allow Women’s College researchers to further examine why gender differences exist and develop new treatments for patients.

“We hope this research will show women the many benefits of being active,” Dr. Harvey explained. “Our ultimate goal is to expand exercise to all cardiovascular treatment programs in the future.”