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  • Kathleen Casey

Heart Month: Focus on Blood Pressure

In honor of American Heart Month, we wanted to explore blood pressure - what is it, and how can you manage it?

What is blood pressure?

Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against your blood vessel walls. A blood pressure reading has two numbers. The top number (systolic) is the force on your blood vessel walls while blood is being pushed through your arteries during a heart contraction, and the bottom number is the force remaining in the vessels at rest, between heartbeats.

High Blood Pressure

Hypertension, or high blood pressure (systolic greater than 130, or diastolic greater than 80), is when the force that the blood pushes against your blood vessel walls is consistently high. This can lead to serious health complications, such as increased risks of developing heart disease and kidney disease, as well as being a leading risk factor of stroke. These conditions are serious, and are collectively excellent reasons to try to avoid high blood pressure, or identify and properly manage high pressure if it exists.

The good news is that healthy lifestyle choices can help reduce your risk of developing hypertension or help you manage hypertension if you have it.

Let’s break down some of the healthy choices you can make to reduce your blood pressure risk.

1. Engage in Physical Activity

Firstly, the research in this area is very strong. Basically, any regular movement and exercise are better than nothing, and it all gives you a multitude of benefits. To reach a level that is recommended, guidelines suggest we aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate aerobic activity per week, or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity per week, or a combination of both. The key point is to do it regularly and accumulate active time throughout each day and your week.

Here are some ideas to get started:

  • Start slowly and gradually. For example, add 5 minutes to a walk once a week.

  • Make it fun. Engage in activities that you enjoy.

  • Make it social. Tell friends and family what you are doing, organize for them to join you, or have virtual challenges to keep each other accountable.

  • Find ways to squeeze in physical activity. Try 10-minute workouts, play with your children or pets outside, do a 10-minute workout during a television show.

  • Try Mind and Body exercises. Mind and body exercises, such as tai chi and yoga, involve mind, body, and breathing. You get a 2 for 1 deal because it helps with both relaxation and physical fitness.

  • Moderate or Vigorous? Research indicates that the effects of physical activity on blood pressure showed that moderate physical activity (ie, light walking) produces as many blood pressure benefits as vigorous activity (ie, running, biking, etc).

Important note: If you’re living with a chronic condition like heart disease; type 2 diabetes; osteoporosis; arthritis; COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), high blood pressure, OR if you are unsure if you can begin exercising, consult your doctor or a health professional before starting a new exercise regimen.

2. Choose Healthy Foods and Beverages

The DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to stop hypertension) has a positive effect on the prevention and control of hypertension. The DASH diet consists of plenty of fruits and vegetables, whole grain; low-fat or non-fat dairy; along with poultry, fish, and plant-based proteins such as dried beans, seeds, and nuts. It’s low in total fat and saturated fat and limits red meats, sweets, and high sugar beverages.

Research has found that individuals with hypertension who adopted the DASH diet saw a reduction of 11.4 mmHg systolic blood pressure and 5.5 mmHg diastolic blood pressure.

Try these tips:

  • Eat foods rich in potassium. Eating more potassium-rich foods, such as sweet potatoes, yogurt, white beans, and other fruits and vegetables can help counteract high sodium levels.

  • Plan ahead. Meal planning can make you feel more accountable, but also can help you save some time and money.

  • Create a healthy plate. Make your plate at least half fruits and vegetables; choose whole grains and lean or plant-based proteins; if having dairy, pick nonfat or low-fat products.

  • In sight and in the mind. Keep fruits and vegetables visible and convenient. Having a bowl of fruit out or pre-chopped vegetables can give you that healthy reminder and convenience.

3. Cut Back on Salt

Sodium is essential but the human body can adequately conserve sodium, so we only need a little in our diet. When you eat more sodium than your body requires, your body reacts by holding onto water so it can dilute the sodium. This water retention leads to an increase in fluid in your blood vessels, so blood volume and blood pressure increase, which leads to an increased workload for your cardiovascular system.

If you need to cut back on your sodium intake, try some of these tips:

  • Make sure to read the nutrition label. Look for ‘sodium’, and aim for less than 1500mg per day.

  • Try adding natural flavor enhancers to your dishes and even some drinks, such as herbs and spices instead of salt.

  • Choose more whole foods, processed food tends to have more sodium.

  • Reduce processed foods, like frozen meals, or choose foods labeled as low-sodium.

  • Cut back sodium levels slowly (tip: mix low-sodium and reg sodium items)

  • Research showed that after 2-3 months of consuming less salt, people noticed that they were more satisfied with the flavor and they became more satisfied with low-sodium foods.

4. Maintain a Healthy Weight

If you have a BMI of 25 or higher, you may have accumulated abdominal fat which has been shown to be damaging to the heart. Weight loss and reducing that abdominal fat can lower blood pressure and improve your health.

  • Choose foods cooked via healthy cooking methods (i.e. avoid fried)

  • Know your portions. Choosing the right amount of food and beverages is all a part of a healthy eating plan.

  • Read the Nutrition Facts label.

  • Use measuring cups and measuring spoons.

  • Eat from a bowl or plate. It is easier to eat more than one serving if you are eating directly from the package.

  • Choose healthy snacks and beverages. Limit foods and beverages containing high amounts of sodium, refined sugar, and fat.

5. If you Smoke, Quit

Tobacco use, whether it be smoking, chewing or vaping, increases the workload of the heart by constricting small blood vessels. This is due to nicotine. Since the heart has to work harder to circulate blood, heart rate increases making blood pressure increase. Did you know that a smokers’ heart rate and blood pressure can drop in as little as 20 minutes after quitting?

Try some of these tips for cutting back:

  • Find your reason to quit. It is important to choose a motivator to help you quit. Whether it is family, cost, or your health, focus on your motivator.

  • Build confidence. Set small, attainable goals for yourself.

  • Learn your triggers. Most triggers are social, emotional, withdrawal, or pattern. Being able to identify these triggers can help you deal with them.

  • Next time you are craving tobacco, try exercising or breathing exercises.

  • Grab a straw (or try this cool “Ziggy Stick”). Keep it handy and next time you are craving a cigarette, grab a straw or tube and instead use it for mindful breathing.

6. Lower Your Stress Levels

When you encounter a stressful situation, your sympathetic nervous system triggers the fight or flight response to prepare your body for action. When stress hormones are released, heart rate increases (in turn blood vessels become narrower, resulting in higher blood pressure), your breathing increases, and blood is sent to muscles and organs. Stress is useful by keeping your body alert, but chronic stress can hold negative long-term effects, which include sustained high blood pressure. Although we can’t always control stressful situations, we can try different coping mechanisms that are best suited for our lifestyles.

Here are some tips to help manage stress:

  • Build strong social support.

  • Try new relaxation techniques. Try meditation, breathing exercises, yoga or tai chi. These techniques can help slow down your heart rate and lower your blood pressure.

  • Sleep well. Getting adequate amounts of sleep helps with your energy levels. This can help you feel more confident in dealing with an unexpected stressor.

  • Exercise. Exercise can help to reduce stress and decrease risk of becoming depressed.

  • Focus on your nutrition. Eating balanced meals gives you more energy and provides better fuel for your mind and body.

  • Smile and laugh. Look through pictures of pets, family or friends. Watch a quick funny video or read a funny joke.

  • Make time to do something you enjoy. Let your creativity shine or relax in nature. Even if it’s only for 5-10 minutes.

  • Consult a health professional.

Blood pressure is a critical health metric that deserves your attention. If it is high, it’s important to get it under control, and regardless of your current blood pressure level, being mindful of healthy lifestyle practices that can help maintain a healthy blood pressure is important for us all!



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