Commander's Fit Tip: Under Pressure

ARNOLD AIR FORCE BASE, Tenn. -- We've explored numerous benefits of a fitness program, but recently I was reminded of perhaps the single most important reason to stick to a rigorous plan ... and it's the one we probably talk about the least.

It's commonly understood that both cardio and weight training workouts can help you lose weight, increase your strength, boost your metabolism and make you feel better all around.

But there's a much bigger benefit, and frankly, one that I rely on to keep me out of the pharmacy. Regular, challenging aerobic exercise will lower your blood pressure; just ask any doctor. High blood pressure is known as "the silent assassin" - no symptoms, no clues and constant damage. Here's the scoop.

You've probably had your blood pressure measured countless times. The technician or nurse will wrap a pressure cuff around your arm (near the location of a big artery or first aid "pressure point") and pump it full of air until it's rather uncomfortable. Then, they hold a stethoscope below the cuff, and start releasing the air pressure in the cup.

What's up with that? They are listening for your pulse as they drop the pressure in the cuff. When they pumped up the cuff, the squeeze action closed the artery, so no blood gets through, and the artery is "silent" in the stethoscope.

As they release the pressure in cuff, the artery opens back up and blood will start to flow. When they can hear the first pulse, they note the pressure. That's the "big number" in your reading, and if you want to sound sophisticated, you'd call it "systolic pressure." To get the "small number" (the diastolic pressure) they keep releasing the air pressure, until the artery goes silent again (you don't hear a pulse in a wide-open artery; you have to squeeze it some).

That combination of numbers (diastolic and systolic) is reported as your blood pressure, and normal for adults is around 120/80. The numbers represent the actual pressure reading in the artery, in weird scientific units (millimeters of mercury), but it's not unlike the "PSI" (pounds per square inch) you get from your tire gauge.

The systolic reading tells us how much pressure is built up when your heart beats (mainly when the left ventricle contracts and sends oxygenated blood from your lungs through your body), and the diastolic reading shows how much pressure remains between the beats.

Both numbers matter, and as mechanical engineers are well aware, fluid dynamics hold the key to understanding what's going on.

When your heart beats (contracts), the force applied to the blood gets transferred to the walls of your arteries. They literally expand and contract with each beat. The tissue in the blood vessels has to deal with all that expansion and contraction and as you age, that tissue gets stiffer.

By the time you are 65, you will likely join the more than fifty percent of Americans that have high blood pressure, meaning your numbers are bigger than 140/90.

If you hit these numbers earlier than that, you are literally taking years off your life. Every beat of your heart damages the sensitive tissue in your blood vessels, and they respond by getting harder. The cycle continues. Strokes, aneurisms, heart attacks, these are the "biggies" but the list goes on and on.

Some of our organs have networks of tiny arteries, and these are the most fragile. Your kidneys and your retinas (the "seeing" part in the back of your eyes) are really vulnerable. In fact, an optometrist can "see" your blood pressure when they look into your eyes, as they can see the pulsing in your retina.

There are lots of medical reasons for high blood pressure in young adults, but the top
causes are stress, lack of activity and - you guessed it - weight.
You see, all those fat cells have tiny artery networks too, and these tiny arteries make it hard for the blood to get through. That resistance ends up taxing the whole system, and the result is higher overall pressure. Lose the fat, and the numbers almost always come down.

In fact, many people find that they can stop taking blood pressure medicine when they establish a good fitness routine. As you challenge your heart, your blood vessels naturally dilate to allow more blood to flow to your muscles. This "stretch" will last for hours after the exercise, and you'll notice your blood pressure will be lower for a long time.

That's the result we're after! Mine goes down over "10 points" and stays down all day. It really works, and I haven't taken blood pressure medicine for years.

I know some believe that their medical conditions are genetic and feel hostage to their DNA. I don't subscribe to that. No doubt your genetics are a huge influence, but I heard a great quote: "Things happen when genetics meet environment and lifestyle." It's like "Success is when preparation meets opportunity."

If you have a genetic disposition for high blood pressure, then it's even MORE important that you avoid the environment and lifestyle (and diet!) that allows that condition to arise. Even if you can't get off the pills entirely, you may find you need a lower dose (read this as fewer side effects!) and you still get all the other benefits of exercise.

As always, your doctor needs to be a part of this, particularly if you are already on blood pressure medicine. You can't just charge off to the gym and hit the treadmill at max gas right away. But even a walking profile will help, and in a few weeks, you'll be able to up the ante.

As a gadget collector, I picked up a home blood pressure kit when I got into this, and I highly recommend you do the same. You'll be amazed at how much your pressure changes throughout the day, but the real amazing thing happens when you see a downward trend after a few weeks of workouts.

You have to write down the results often to see the trend, but it's worth the two minutes it takes. If you need some motivation, real results help, and when the numbers go down, you can't deny that your effort is paying off.

So if you are one of the millions with numbers on the rise, try this "antidote." All the "side effects" are beneficial!