According to some estimates, about 1 in 3 adults has high blood pressure, but only around half of them have the condition under control. That’s a dangerous situation for the other half, since high blood pressure puts you at greater risk for heart disease and stroke.
Normal blood pressure is 120 systolic and 80 diastolic, or 120/80 mmHg. If you’re between that number and 139/89 mmHg, you’re considered at risk for high blood pressure, and above that, you’re in the high blood pressure group.
Often, people don’t even know they have a blood pressure issue, particularly if they’re younger and tend not to get yearly checkups. But it’s worth knowing your numbers — even if that means doing a self-test at a pharmacy kiosk — to keep track of your progress, suggests Dr. Robert Greenfield, medical director of non-invasive cardiology and cardiac rehabilitation at MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute at Orange Coast Medical Center.
“I’d suggest checking a few times over the course of a couple weeks, so you get the most accurate idea of what your blood pressure is,” he says, adding that blood pressure can change slightly if you’re feeling stressed. “But even if you don’t have high numbers, it’s helpful to focus on strategies that can keep your blood pressure where you want it to be.”
Here are a few habits Greenfield recommends:
There have been so many studies linking moderate-to-vigorous exercise to heart health that it’s probably impossible to count them at this point. But the big surprise, Greenfield says, is you don’t need to set aside time for a workout to see huge heart benefits.
“The old advice centered on exercise for a certain amount of time, at a certain intensity,” he notes. “Now we know that any movement is good movement. Maybe you take the stairs instead of the elevator, or you walk down the hall to talk to a colleague instead of sending an email. Or you get up and move a little during commercials. It all counts, and it all adds up.”
Movement of any kind helps lower blood pressure, and improves the heart’s ability to draw oxygen from the blood. That increases its efficiency over time. Ideally, you’d want to add some higher-intensity exercise into the mix, whether that means a brisk walk or swimming some laps, but everyday, regular movement is also highly beneficial.
One of the top modifiable factors for blood pressure is how frazzled and overwhelmed you are. When you’re under chronic stress, your “fight or flight” hormones like cortisol go zooming upward, and so does your blood pressure. That can increase your risk of heart attack and stroke.
Of course, simply telling yourself to calm down isn’t always a useful strategy — and can actually backfire, since you may then get stressed about being stressed. It’s easier to implement de-stress habits instead, Greenfield recommends.
That means instituting better sleep strategies, getting more fresh air, trying some deep-breathing exercises, practicing yoga, starting a gratitude journal or even listening to your favorite music.
It’s no surprise focusing on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, good fats and lean proteins — essentially, sticking to a Mediterranean diet — comes with major heart and blood pressure benefits, according to Greenfield.
“There’s a reason this way of eating has such longevity in terms of being recommended,” he says. “It’s not a short-term plan that involves deprivation or cutting out food groups. It’s a lifestyle change that’s full of heart-healthy options.”
For example, he says, the good fat that comes from choices like avocado, olive oil and salmon helps lower inflammation in the body, which helps blood pressure regulation and also allows you to better absorb certain fat-soluble vitamins and minerals.
What if you do all these strategies perfectly and still have high blood pressure? Then it’s likely you might be looking at genetic factors that elevate your pressure, and this can be especially true if you have a family history of high blood pressure.
Some other factors can affect your risk, especially your age — your blood pressure tends to rise as you get older. Also, your race or ethnicity could play a part. African Americans tend to develop high blood pressure more often than other ethnic groups, according to the Centers for Disease Control, and also develop the issue earlier in life.
If these kinds of factors apply to you, or you’re simply not seeing improvement after a few months of healthy strategies, it’s a good idea to check with your doctor to figure out a potential treatment plan.