Importantly, those in the study had a reduced need for hypertension medication after the 16 weeks.
The study was presented at the American Heart Association's Joint Hypertension 2018 Scientific Sessions, which outlines new hypertension research each year.
In all, the study involved 129 men and women who were either overweight or obese.
They were all aged 40–80, and all participants had elevated blood pressures.
None of the participants were taking blood pressure medication at the time of the study, but about half met the criteria for hypertension drugs.
Diet, exercise, and hypertension
Each participant was randomly assigned one type of intervention. One group changed its diet to the DASH diet, participated in counseling, and underwent supervised exercise three times per week. Another group only changed its diet (again, the DASH diet was used). Another group changed nothing.
The DASH diet is an eating plan specifically designed to improve heart health. It includes eating vegetables, fruits, whole grains, low-fat or fat-free dairy products, fish, poultry, beans, and nuts. Adherents limit foods high in saturated fats, such as fatty meats, full-fat dairy, and tropical oils (including coconut, palm kernel, and palm).
Those in the first group had the most success overall in lowering their blood pressure. They lost an average of 19 pounds over 16 weeks and reduced their blood pressure readings by an average of 16 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg) systolic and 10 mm Hg diastolic.
By contrast, those eating a DASH diet showed a blood pressure decrease of 11 mm Hg systolic and 8 mm Hg diastolic, while those who did not modify their behavior averaged a blood pressure reading decline of 3 mm Hg systolic and 4 mm Hg diastolic.
At baseline, 50 percent of the participants met the criteria to receive hypertensive medication. However, by the end of the study, only 23 percent of those who changed their diet still met criteria, as well as just 15 percent of those who changed both diet and exercise routine.
"Lifestyle modifications, including healthier eating and regular exercise, can greatly decrease the number of patients who need blood pressure-lowering medicine," states study author Dr. Alan Hinderliter, an associate professor of medicine at University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.
The health impact of hypertension
High blood pressure is common. The American Heart Association (AHA) estimate that hypertension affects almost half of adults living in the U.S., and that many of those affected don't know that they have a blood pressure problem.
This is why high blood pressure is known as a "silent killer" — there are very few, if any symptoms.
Hypertension, if left untreated and unchecked, can lead to serious health problems. Untreated high blood pressure can contribute to heart attacks, strokes, heart failure, kidney disease, vision loss, sexual dysfunction, angina, and peripheral artery disease.
It can also damage your blood vessels and prompt low-density lipoprotein (the "bad" cholesterol) to build up in fissures along artery walls, making the circulatory system work harder while being less efficient.
While this study showed that lifestyle modifications, including diet and exercise, might be able help decrease the need for blood pressure medications, Hinderliter notes that there should be further research before recommendations can be made.
Also, individuals with elevated blood pressure should always follow doctor's orders, and if already taking those medications, continue for as long as it's recommended.
Still, altering diet and adding exercise to a weekly routine is one measure the AHA recommend for those who experience hypertension; it can have a considerable impact on overall health.