The health problem impacting 1 in 3 Americans
Roughly 75 million – that’s 1 in 3 – American adults have high blood pressure, a contributing factor to heart disease and stroke.
While less people suffer from strokes today, it is still the fifth most common cause of death and leading cause of disability in the U.S. However, simple lifestyle modifications can reduce your risk for developing these issues.
Follow these tips to gain control over your blood pressure today:
Know the blood pressure guidelines
Do you know your blood pressure numbers? Last fall, the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association updated their guidelines for what’s considered high blood pressure. Remember that normal blood pressure is less than 120/80mm Hg. Blood pressure is considered elevated when systolic blood pressure (the first number) is between 120-129 and diastolic (the bottom number) is lower than 80. As the numbers rise, people are considered stage 1, Stage 2 or in hypertensive crisis.
“You can never know if your blood pressure is elevated if you don’t check it,” says Dr. Timothy Mikesell, neurologist at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill. “That’s why hypertension is called the silent killer. People usually don’t feel the effects of elevated blood pressure until a vascular event like a stroke or heart attack occurs.”
It’s important to have your blood pressure checked. Knowing your numbers allows you to catch high blood pressure early and possibly lower it with lifestyle changes and diet modifications.
Consistently working out and raising your heart rate has many health benefits. Exercise strengthens the heart, which leads to lower blood pressure. Working out also helps reduce stress and manage weight. “Being overweight increases your risk for high blood pressure “says Dr. Mikesell. “It’s easiest to lose weight by exercising, which in turn can lower blood pressure.”
The American Heart Association recommends people aim to incorporate at least 90 to 150 minutes of aerobic and/or dynamic resistance exercises per week, which equates to two hours and 30 minutes of exercise each week. This type of moderate activity can take many forms, such as a brisk walk or jogging on the treadmill. Divide workouts by how they fit best with your schedule. For example, you could schedule 30 minute workouts for five days of the week to complete the recommended amount of exercise. Remember to incorporate stretching into your routine to avoid injury and include at least two days of strength training in your routine.
Just remember to create an exercise plan you like. You’re more likely to stick with it if you’re doing something you enjoy as opposed to dreading time at the gym.
Be aware of your sodium intake
Stephanie Wells, a registered dietitian at Advocate Lutheran General, explains that our body can only handle a certain level of sodium in the blood. Our bodies need some sodium, but too much can lead to complications. If there’s too much, water is pulled from tissues into the blood vessels to attempt to dilute that high sodium level.
“If you imagine our blood vessels are like pipes, and there is extra water in these pipes, it puts extra pressure on the inside of the blood vessel walls. This can lead to damage to the blood vessel walls, which can eventually lead to heart attack or stroke,” says Wells.
Today, many food options contain high levels of sodium. It might seem obvious that salty snacks like chips, pretzels, crackers, popcorn or French fries contain excess sodium, but salt can be found in less obvious items such as deli meat, sausage and hot dogs. Processed and preserved frozen meals such as canned soups, cheese, boxed pasta and rice mixes can also contain large amounts of sodium. Sauces and gravies and restaurant foods can also have a high concentration of sodium.
“Fortunately, there are many low-sodium alternatives to the foods listed above. Look for “low sodium” on the labels of soups, frozen meals or deli meat,” says Wells.
Find sources of Omega 3 fatty acids
While no foods specifically lower blood pressure, Wells says a diet rich in omega-3 fatty acids can help. These fats are heart healthy and can increase HDL cholesterol as well as produce anti-inflammatory cell signals in the body, both of which have been shown to protect against heart disease.
“Try adding foods that contain omega-3s into your diet such as cold-water fish like halibut, tuna, cod, salmon and sardines as well as canola oil, flaxseed oil and walnuts,” says Wells.
To maintain normal blood pressure and general health, Wells suggests eating fresh, whole foods. Limit the salt and sauces you add to your cooking and try eating at home more often than at restaurants. Remember to eat sodium-rich foods such as cured meats and cheese sparingly or choose the low sodium varieties.
“For snacks, choose fresh fruits and vegetables, yogurt or low-sodium nuts,” says Wells.
Encountering some stressful situations can be good for our health, but too much stress can lead to a host of problems, including elevated blood pressure. One way to reduce stress that also has the potential to lower blood pressure is through developing a meditation practice. Start slowly, only five to 10 minutes a day, and work your way up to meditating for twenty minutes at a time. There are many ways to meditate, but at its core, meditation is focusing on a single thing for a fixed period of time (your breathing, a mantra or a bodily sensation). Next time you’re stressed, find a quiet place to sit with your feet flat on the floor and your palms in your lap and focus on your breathing. Notice your breathing pattern and let all other thoughts pass by. Know the thoughts are present, but don’t acknowledge them. Start with focusing for only a few breaths and increase the time from there.
Consider getting a pet
While studies are still being conducted, many point to the possible health benefits of pet ownership, especially for dog owners. Studies have shown that those who come home to a furry friend have lower blood pressure, lower cholesterol levels and are less likely to be obese. Dogs’ excited and energetic natures force their owners to spend time outside walking and exercising, which can help lower blood pressure. The American Heart Association points to a study that’s shown adults who own dogs were 54 percent more likely to get the recommended amount of exercise than those who did not. While researchers aren’t sure if healthier people are more likely to own pets or if pets increase the health of owners, there’s no denying that a pet can bring much joy to the home. If nothing else, being greeted by a dog or cat showing you unconditional will elevate your mood.
About the Author
Colette A. Harris, health enews contributor, is the public affairs and marketing coordinator at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Il. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism and has nearly a decade of experience writing about health and wellness, which are her passions. When she’s not writing, you can find her practicing yoga, cooking, reading, or traveling.