You hear it all the time from your doctor…the blood pressure and cholesterol are going up and maybe it’s time to do something about it.

But is there really any benefit from reducing these metrics, or can we just ignore them as long as we otherwise feel well?

Results from a blood pressure trial

We know that super-high levels of blood pressure and cholesterol are no good, raising our risk of heart attack and stroke as we get older. But researchers at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research, and backed by AstraZeneca, a drug company, asked whether average people with slightly above average cholesterol and blood pressure would benefit from treatment. Their results are published this week in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine.

Now from a drug company perspective, this question is a great one to answer, especially if it means the potential to sell more drugs. There’s a lot more people out there with mild-moderate high blood pressure and high cholesterol than there are people with serious problems. Getting a reason to put them on drugs makes for great business.

So this trial took 12,000 people with mild elevations in blood pressure (around 130/80) and LDL cholesterol and followed them for an average of just under 6 years. Yes, indeed, there was a slight benefit to those taking medications. But the results were modest – people who took drugs had a 3.6% chance of a heart attack or stroke, compared to 5% for those without treatment. This makes a clear case for the benefits of lower blood pressure and cholesterol numbers, even when the numbers don’t seem so bad. The effect is modest, but only insignificant if you aren’t one of the people who had the heart attack or stroke. In this trial, an extra 44 people in the untreated group had a heart attack, making them probably wish they’d gone ahead and taken the drugs.

Unfortunately, the group that took medication also had higher rates of dizziness and muscle pains, two well-known side effects of blood pressure and cholesterol medications, respectively. Which of course is why more people with modest blood pressure and cholesterol issues would do better to improve them with diet and exercise rather than medications. Every indication is that we benefit the same or more by improving our health the all natural way rather than through medications.

Working to improve blood pressure and cholesterol through natural means has clear benefits that only get more important as we age. Better numbers mean a better chance of avoiding heart disease, stroke, aneurysms and kidney disease…all clearly things we can live without.

So how best to get started lowering blood pressure and cholesterol?

Here’s a quick tip:

Work out at a high intensity. Vigorous exercise may lower your blood pressure as much as medications will, and is the only way to increase your good cholesterol (HDL). You can increase your HDL by up to 50% or more just by increasing the intensity of your workouts.

Vigorous exercise also improves triglycerides, an important component of the cholesterol panel. But not just any exercise will do – walking or other leisurely exercise is unlikely to have the same effect as working out at higher levels of intensity.