What you need to know about your blood pressure

High blood pressure, also called hypertension, often doesn’t have any symptoms associated with it. Most people who have it don’t know it, and about one in three adults in the U.S. have high blood pressure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

If you think you’re healthy, it’s still important to get your blood pressure checked. Knowing your numbers can help you stay healthy or alert you when it’s time to work with your doctor to lower them.

What do the numbers mean? The first number is the systolic number. It’s found by measuring the pressure created on your arteries when your heart beats. The second number is the diastolic number. It’s created by measuring the pressure in your arteries in between heart beats. The unit measure for blood pressure is mmHG (millimeters of mercury).

The American Heart Association considers a “normal” systolic reading to be less than 120 and a diastolic less than 80. It considers over 130 systolic and 80 diastolic to be “high blood pressure.” And risks rise the higher those numbers go.

It’s important to point out that one high blood pressure reading doesn’t necessarily mean you have high blood pressure. If your numbers remain high over a period of time, it’s important to work with your doctor to lower them.

High blood pressure can lead to serious health problems. The most common are heart attacks or strokes. It can also lead to other illnesses like heart and kidney failure, blindness, poor mental function and erectile dysfunction in men.

Preventing serious health conditions is easier than trying to manage or treat them. The lifestyle improvements below can help you or anyone in your family achieve or maintain a normal blood pressure. If these methods don’t work, you might need medication along with the lifestyle changes.

1. Maintain a healthy diet

Fruit and vegetables and other foods low in sodium and rich in potassium, calcium and magnesium can improve blood pressure. Aim to eat at least five servings of fruit and vegetables each day.

2. Lose weight and inches around your waist

Eating better will also help you get your weight and waistline in a healthy range. A 5-10 pound weight loss can make a difference in your blood pressure, especially in people with a body mass index (BMI) of 25 or more. Calculate your BMI here.

If you’re not overweight, having a big belly can put you at risk of high blood pressure. Men should aim to have a waistline measure of less than 40 inches, and women less than 35 inches.

3. Exercise regularly

Exercise at least five days a week for 30 minutes or more. Regular exercise can make your heart stronger. A stronger heart can pump blood throughout your body easier, resulting in less force on your arteries, and lower blood pressure.

If you’re not exercising enough right now, get going. Good activities include brisk walking, jogging, swimming, biking or any other workout you enjoy that gets your heart pumping.

4. Stop smoking

While you’re smoking and temporarily after you’ve stopped, your blood pressure goes up. Smoking can also cause damage to your arteries, making them hard and narrow. This can increase your blood pressure. Secondhand smoke can also increase your blood pressure.

5. Cut out the salt (sodium)

Americans should consume less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium per day, as that amount has the greatest effect on blood pressure, says the AHA. (Note: This recommendation does not apply to people who lose a lot of sodium in sweat, like athletes, or people with specific instructions from their doctor.)

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