One in five university students has high blood pressure, UAE study shows

Men at University of Sharjah were almost twice as likely to suffer early hypertension than female counterparts

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Greater efforts should be made to encourage university students to exercise, a researcher has said, after a study found that about one in five had blood pressure that was higher than normal for their age.

The research, carried out on people with an average age of 20, found a strong relationship between high blood pressure and a lack of physical activity.

Too little exercise was found to be more closely linked to the risk of high blood pressure than having a large waist circumference.

The first author of the study, Dr Kalyana Bairapareddy, an assistant professor in the College of Health Science at the University of Sharjah, said that physical activity levels among students tended to be “very low”.

When they go to school, they have physical education classes but when it comes to university, there is no such thing
Dr Kalyana Bairapareddy, assistant professor at the University of Sharjah

“When they go to school, they have physical education classes but when it comes to university, there is no such thing,” he said.

“Their physical activity levels are much better during childhood. When they come to university, it is only academic.”

The research involved 176 male and 178 female students at the University of Sharjah, each of whom was asked to fill in a questionnaire that covered, among other things, what kind of exercise they did. The students came from a variety of Arab countries.

Weight and height were measured, along with blood pressure, which was recorded three times and the average calculated.

Blood pressure readings were used to work out mean arterial pressure, or the average pressure in a person’s arteries in one cardiac cycle, which is the time from the beginning of one heartbeat to the beginning of the next.

Of the students, 63 (17.8 per cent) had “early hypertension”, indicated by a mean arterial pressure above 100, which suggests they could go on to develop hypertension.

The risk was greater for male students, 22.7 per cent of whom had early hypertension, compared to 12.9 per cent of female students.

Published in the journal Healthcare and titled, “Low physical activity levels are linked to early hypertension risk in college-going young adults,” the study was written with five other researchers at the University of Sharjah and two at the Manipal Academy of Higher Education in Karnataka, India.

Persistent high blood pressure increases the risk of health problems including heart disease, heart attacks, strokes, kidney disease and some forms of dementia.

“I believe the educational institutions should focus on increasing physical activity levels. There should be some study break for physical activity,” said Dr Bairapareddy.

Institutions could encourage students to use stairs instead of lifts, and to walk between buildings, perhaps by providing shaded tracks, he suggested.

As well as a lack of exercise, poor diet is known from previous research to contribute to high blood pressure, with high salt and low potassium intake particular risk factors.

Universities in the UAE say they help by promoting sports clubs, on-site gyms, swimming pools and sports fields, where available.

At the American University of Sharjah, for example, the Sports Complex – which has a gym, swimming pool and equipment for table tennis and racquet sports – attracts more than 600 weekly users. Outdoor amenities include a running track, football fields and tennis courts.

The university also offers, for example, weekly live workouts streamed by social media, a variety of sports teams and monthly challenges such as its “30-day biggest winner challenge”.

“This challenge encourages students to lead a healthy lifestyle, exercise more and assess and improve their eating habits,” said Graeme Dobie, AUS’s director of student athletics and recreation.

“During the process, they are continually tracked, supported and educated by our in-house fitness trainers.”

At Heriot-Watt University Dubai, where there are 10 sports clubs, with David Steers, the sports development manager, saying sport is “a key component” of the student experience.

“Our sports clubs play an integral role in the delivery of students leading a healthy and active lifestyle, offering opportunities and experiences that inspire and motivate our students to be active,” he said.

Apart from the boxing team, which trains at the university, the sports teams train off-campus at Gems Schools in Dubai.

While he said “a high percentage” of students took part in weekly sports club training, the university has additional recreational sports events for those who not physically active.

Dr Bairapareddy said there were now many tools, such as mobile phone apps, that help to monitor and improve activity levels.

Taking action need not involve playing sport or visiting a gym, as he said. Even handgrip exercises, in which users press small hand-held devices, could reduce blood pressure.

Updated: October 26, 2021, 11:30 AM