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Lifestyle Changes You Can Make to Manage High Blood Pressure

High blood pressure, also referred to as hypertension, is a common medical condition. In North America, as many as 1 in 3 individuals are silently living with this disorder. Genetics, being overweight or obese, advancing age, and being African-American all predispose individuals to have high blood pressure. High blood pressure causes no symptoms early on but can be the cause of major and life-altering illnesses such as heart attack and stroke.1-2

Blood pressure is measured using two numbers which work together to tell how well blood is flowing from the heart throughout the body. The first number, known as the systolic blood pressure, should be less than 120. The second number, known as the diastolic blood pressure, should be less than 80. These target numbers will differ depending on your overall health status. It’s important to monitor your blood pressure at least annually if you have no underlying conditions – or more often if you do.2-3

There is no cure for high blood pressure, but the condition can be managed using lifestyle changes and, in some cases, medications. 

Weight Loss and Physical Activity 

A healthy body mass index (or BMI) is between 18.5 and 24.9 kg/m.2 A BMI of 25 to 29.9 kg/m2 is classified as overweight, and a BMI of 30 kg/m2 and above is classified as obese. Being overweight or obese puts additional strain on the heart, making it more difficult to pump blood. Over time, this increased strain can lead to high blood pressure and damage to the blood vessels.1,3

Being overweight or obese may also lead to a complication known as sleep apnea. This is a condition during which an individual stops breathing for short periods of time during sleep. Sleep apnea can lead to increased blood pressure, and heart strain that may result in an irregular heartbeat.3

Fortunately, losing weight when necessary has an exceedingly positive impact on blood pressure. For those who are overweight, a loss of as little as 10 pounds may reduce blood pressure. For every 20 pounds lost, blood pressure may drop anywhere from 5 to 20 points.2

Regular physical activity can also contribute positively to lowering blood pressure. An exercise regimen of moderate activity for 30 minutes a day, five days a week, assists in maintaining healthy blood pressure.1  

Dietary Changes

There are special diets targeted for those who have high blood pressure and other conditions involving the heart. These are referred to as heart-healthy diets. A heart-healthy diet focuses on including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low-fat dairy products, and nuts. It avoids saturated and trans fats, high levels of salt, red meat, and added sugar. In the United States, heart-healthy processed foods can be easily identified by the Heart-Check Mark – a symbol used by the American Heart Association to identify foods that fit a heart-healthy diet.2-3

The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, or DASH, diet, is an example of a heart-healthy diet. This plan focuses mostly on the aforementioned elimination of red meats, added sugars, and salt. It is commonly used as one of the first approaches to lifestyle change for those with high blood pressure. Specific DASH dietary targets may be found online and can be recommended by your healthcare provider.2

Limiting Alcohol and Quitting Smoking

A heart-healthy diet limits alcohol as much as possible. High consumption of alcohol has been linked to an increased risk of high blood pressure. For those who drink, a suggested limit is one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men. A drink may refer to a 12-ounce beer, one 4-ounce glass of wine, or a 1.5-ounce serving of spirits.3

Smoking is one of the most common causes of preventable disease in North America. A direct link between smoking and high blood pressure has yet to be established. However, smoking has been linked to an increased risk of heart attack and stroke. In addition, smoking and second-hand smoke exposure have both been linked to a buildup of fatty substances in the blood vessels – a process linked to high blood pressure. Quitting smoking can have many positive effects, including protecting blood vessels and the heart.3

Reducing Stress

Stress management is incredibly important in your day-to-day life. Stress can cause emotional discomfort, but it also leads to a physical response that may lead to illness. When under stress, the body produces stress hormones – like adrenaline and cortisol. These hormones cause the heart to beat faster and the blood vessels to narrow. This makes the heart work harder and increases blood pressure. This physical response is temporary. The long-term link between stress and high blood pressure is still being studied. However, it has been noted that increased stress may lead to behaviors that are known to affect the heart negatively – such as excessive alcohol consumption or smoking.1,3

People choose to deal with stress in many different ways. Speaking with family and friends, or getting regular exercise, for example, are some behaviors that may decrease stress. You can also decrease stress by setting clear boundaries in your life and in the workplace, ensuring you have time carved out for self-care, practicing gratitude, and reflecting on the areas of your life that you can and can’t control. Emotional health is an important part of a holistic lifestyle.3

There are many viable lifestyle changes geared towards lowering blood pressure. They are commonly prescribed by healthcare providers as the first step toward a healthier heart. For those taking medications for high blood pressure, it is important to follow the instructions you were given. Because high blood pressure is not associated with any symptoms, you may be tempted to stop the pills when you feel fine. However, remember that high blood pressure is a silent condition with potentially deadly results. Keeping on top of your medication and ensuring you collect your refills will go a long way toward keeping you healthy.3

As always, make sure to communicate with your healthcare provider. They can offer support to help you on your journey to optimum heart health. 

References

  1. Desai AN. High blood pressure. JAMA. 2020;324(12):1254. doi:10.1001/jama.2020.11289
  2. Hoare E, Kingwell BA, Jennings GLR. Blood pressure down under, but down under what? Hypertension.2018;71(6):972-975. doi:10.1161/hypertensionaha.118.11026
  3. Strategies for treatment of hypertension. Lifestyle Modification for the Prevention and Treatment of Hypertension. 2003:91-116. doi:10.1201/b14224-6

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

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