05/17/2012 02:11 pm ET

World Hypertension Day: Exercise Lowers Blood Pressure Risk, Despite Genes

Just in time for World Hypertension Day comes this piece of good news: We might have more control over our blood pressure than previously thought.

We're often taught that genetic susceptibility is rote. There's no way around it: if one of your parents has a condition, there is a specific probability that it will be passed down to you. With conditions for which genetic associations are very strong, such as hypertension, it can seem like a hopeless pursuit to prevent it. Previous research has found that having just one parent with a history of hypertension makes you 20 percent more likely to suffer from the condition, even after risk factors have been accounted for.

But a new study demonstrates that staying physically fit and active can have a lasting impact and counter genetic predisposition. The study followed 6,278 predominantly white men and women of all ages over a nearly five-year period. About 33 percent of the participants had at least one parent with a history of hypertension. Researchers found that those who maintained a moderate to high fitness level, despite family history, were overall 34 percent less likely than those who lived a sedentary lifestyle to develop high blood pressure over the course of the study.

What's more, the relationship wasn't seen exclusively in "gym rat" types; moderate exercisers enjoyed a 26 percent reduction in hypertension risk. "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," said lead author Robin P. Shook, a doctoral graduate student in the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, in a statement.

But as fitness levels went up, so did the probability that a study participant would avoid hypertension. In fact, among the most physically active group, participants had a 42 percent reduction in high blood pressure risk. But what's more, their risk was only 16 percent higher than that of someone with no family history of the disease.

On the other hand, those who had at least one parent with high blood pressure and who remained inactive were 70 percent more likely to develop hypertension than fit individuals with no family history. “The correlation between fitness levels, parental history and risk are impossible to ignore," added Shook.

The study was published in the American Heart Association's Hypertension Journal this week.