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  February 26, 2001

Even Leisurely Exercise Has
Health Benefits, Says Researcher

If the thought of a 40-minute jog or an hour on an exercise bike sounds exhausting, think about a leisurely walk.

"It can be just as beneficial to your health," says Linda Pescatello, assistant professor and director of the Center for Health Promotion in the School of Allied Health.

Pescatello, an exercise physiologist, has been studying the effects of the health benefits of physical activity for nearly 20 years. She became intrigued with the subject in 1983 when, as director of a cardiac rehabilitation program at New Britain Hospital, she observed a phenomenon that "set a light bulb off in my head," she says.

"I would notice that when patients had their blood pressure taken after exercising, it was lower than it was when they came in," she says. "Exercise physiologists had always promoted long-term regular exercise training programs for lowering blood pressure - but were not paying attention to the short-term effects of exercise."

After her observations, Pescatello began conducting studies and found that blood pressure decreased and remained significantly lower for a prolonged period of time after a session of aerobic exercise.

Pescatello's research has focused on the cardiometabolic health benefits of physical activity.

"Cardiometabolic disease," a term she coined, is a clustering of disorders that occur together, that leads to heart disease, stroke, and Type 2 diabetes mellitus," she says. These include: insulin resistance or glucose intolerance, a precursor to diabetes; hypertension (high blood pressure); and slightly elevated levels of low-density lipoprotein and triglycerides and low levels of high-density lipoproteins, and being overweight and obese, especially about the abdomen. Cardiometabolic disease is the major cause of disability and death among people in the industrialized world.

"One's metabolic health is directly related to heart health, and vice versa," Pestacello says, because 80 percent of people with Type 2 diabetes will eventually acquire heart disease. A regular program of physical activity may turn that around. Your blood pressure will come down, your blood lipids and lipoproteins and triglycerides will fall into more favorable ranges, and you see a better ability to dispose of glucose."

One of Pescatello's latest research projects deals with high blood pressure and the effects of aerobic exercise. She received an American Heart Association grant-in-aid for $214,000 for 2001-2003 for her research on "Establishing an Exercise Dose Response for Postexercise Hypotension."

"High blood pressure is a major public health problem in the United States," Pescatello says. "Endurance exercise immediately lowers the resting blood pressure of people with high blood pressure. This effect is called "postexercise hypotension" and has been shown to last for up to 16 hours after exercise. For these reasons, she says, postexercise hypotension holds promise in the treatment of hypertension, or high blood pressure.

The study will examine the influence of different amounts of aerobic exercise on the resting blood pressure of middle-aged men with mildly elevated blood pressure who are not taking medications for it. Pescatello will look at how other cardiac risk factors such as obesity, diet, and selected blood pressure genes known to influence blood pressure may alter the decrease in blood pressure that occurs after exercise. "In this way, we will better characterize the people for whom aerobic exercise is effective antihypertensive therapy," she says.

Pescatello hopes her findings will enable clinicians to more effectively prescribe aerobic exercise to people with high blood pressure, possibly even eliminating the need for medication in some people.

"In the 1970s and '80s, we were telling people how much exercise they needed to do to be physically fit. It was the more the better," Pescatello says. "But what the average person really wants to know, is really how little they need to do to benefit."

Before joining the UConn faculty in 1998, Pescatello was director of the Department of Health Promotion at New Britain Hospital for 16 years, and was an assistant professor in exercise physiology in the physical therapy program at the University of Hartford for two years. She received three degrees from UConn: a bachelor's in biological sciences and education, and a master's and Ph.D. in exercise science.

She has had many articles published in scientific journals, serves as a manuscript reviewer for several prestigious journals in her field, and has presented papers regionally and nationally. She has received awards for her work from the American College of Sports Medicine, the Association for Worksite Health Promotion, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Pescatello is inviting men between the ages of 18 and 55 who think they may have high blood pressure or who have been diagnosed with high blood pressure to participate in the study.

If interested, please call Lisa Couglin in the Center for Health Promotion at (860) 486-2812.

Sherry Fisher