Fat Around the Legs May Protect Against High Blood Pressure, Study Suggests

People with a higher percentage of body fat in their legs were found to be less likely to have high blood pressure in a study when compared to those with lower levels.

The study abstract was presented at the virtual American Heart Association's Hypertension 2020 Scientific Sessions. It was not clear if the study had been peer-reviewed.

The research involved 5,997 adults aged between 20 to 59 years old, who did not have cardiovascular disease, and were not pregnant or taking blood pressure medication. They were involved in the 2011-2016 National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys. The participants had their blood pressure measured, and were categorized according to how much leg fat they had based on body scans. Of the total participants, 24 percent had high blood pressure.

Blood pressure is measured in two ways: systolic, or the pressure in the arteries when the heart beats and fills up with blood, and the diastolic, or the pressure in the arteries when the heart is resting between beats. The normal range for blood pressure is less than 120 systolic and less than 80 diastolic.

In the study high blood pressure was defined as 130/80 mm Hg or above.

Participants with higher leg fat were 53 percent less likely to have high diastolic blood pressure, and 39 percent less likely to have high systolic. They were also 61 percent less likely to have the form of high blood pressure where both figures are high.

Co-author Aayush Visaria, a medical student at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, said in a statement: "Ultimately, what we noted in this study is a continued discussion of 'it's not just how much fat you have, but where the fat is located.'

"Although we know confidently that fat around your waist is detrimental to health, the same cannot be said for leg fat. If you have fat around your legs, it is more than likely not a bad thing and may even be protecting you from hypertension, according to our findings."

Visaria said the results need to be confirmed in larger, more robust studies. He envisioned that "just as waist circumference is used to estimate abdominal fat, thigh circumference may be a useful tool, although it's a bit cumbersome and not as widely studied in the U.S. population."

Sandosh Padmanabhan, professor of cardiovascular genomics and therapeutics at the University of Glasgow, U.K., who did not work on the study, told Newsweek: "This study reconfirms what has been known for a long time—that it is central fat mass that is high risk for atherosclerosis [plaque in the arteries] and not peripheral fat mass.

"This study is an observational study that shows that leg adiposity [fat] has lower odds of hypertension. This is correlation and not causation."

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A stock image shows a person having their blood pressure measured. Scientists have explored the link between body weigh and blood pressure.