High blood pressure is a major risk factor for heart disease, and it can be a chronic illness in its own right. Cardiovascular wellness includes maintaining a healthy blood pressure and lowering your risk of cardiac events such as a stroke.
But what does it mean to have high blood pressure, and how can you prevent it?
What is Blood Pressure?
Blood pressure is the force of blood against the walls of arteries as the heart pumps. It is measured in millimeters of mercury (mmHg) and is expressed as two numbers:
The systolic pressure represents the pressure in the arteries when the heart beats or contracts.
The diastolic pressure represents the pressure in the arteries when the heart is at rest between beats.
When you hear your blood pressure reading, the systolic pressure is the higher number and the diastolic pressure is the lower number. Normal blood pressure is typically considered to be around 120/80 mmHg, although this can vary based on each individual’s medical profile.
Hypertension is the medical term for high blood pressure. It is defined as a systolic pressure of 130 mmHg or higher or a diastolic pressure of 80 mmHg or higher.
People may become hypertensive due to a mix of genetic and lifestyle factors:
As people age, the risk of developing hypertension increases.
If a person’s family members have a history of hypertension, it may increase their risk.
Being overweight or obese can increase the risk of developing hypertension. This is partly because excess body fat may be deposited along blood vessel walls. This “plaque” restricts the space through which blood must travel, increasing one’s blood pressure.
Health conditions that are often comorbid with excess weight, such as sleep apnea and diabetes, are also risk factors for hypertension.
A lack of physical activity can increase the risk of hypertension, especially as this often contributes to obesity. Overweight people may also be less likely to engage in an active lifestyle.
High-salt or high-fat diets
A high-fat diet increases the risk of obesity and therefore hypertension. It also contributes to blood vessel plaque that raises blood pressure. Another dietary concern, especially in the U.S., is sodium intake.
Americans consume an average of 3,400 mg of sodium every day, compared to a recommended daily intake of just 2,300 mg. Our food often contains excess sodium as a preservative. Even if you don’t salt your meals, you may be getting too much sodium. And because sodium attracts water, your blood fluid levels rise, increasing your blood pressure and potentially damaging your blood vessels.
Tobacco and alcohol use
Smoking damages blood vessels, which can lead to high blood pressure. Tobacco products contain nicotine, a stimulant that increases your heart rate. They often include other substances that impair the body’s normal function and raise the risk of cancer and other chronic health issues.
Drinking alcohol can also increase blood pressure and therefore the risk of hypertension. It raises the level of a hormone called renin in the blood, causing vessels to constrict. Therefore, blood pressure rises as you consume alcohol. Regular consumption may lead to chronic hypertension. And because heavy alcohol use also contributes to weight gain, it introduces yet another risk factor for high blood pressure.
How to Lower Blood Pressure
Even if you don’t consume tobacco or alcohol, your genetics may put you at risk for hypertension. However, you can lower this risk by maintaining an active lifestyle and decreasing your intake of salty, fatty foods.
Avoid processed foods or convenience meals
Most pre-made meals, such as canned soups, boxed dinners, etc., use salt to prevent spoilage. Unfortunately, this also means you’re getting excess sodium when you eat them.
To reduce your sodium intake, eat as many whole, unprocessed foods as possible. Shop for groceries in the produce and meat sections and cook them yourself. This way, you can control the level of salt.
Eat foods high in potassium and magnesium
Potassium and magnesium are vital to regulating blood pressure because they help the vessels relax. Certain foods, including leafy greens, nuts and seeds, yogurt, and whole grains, are rich in these nutrients — and often, helpful antioxidants and vitamins as well.
Add some of these delicious options to your diet:
- Swiss chard
- Pumpkin seeds (pepitas)
While exercise does temporarily raise your heart rate, it also strengthens your heart muscle and helps remove excess fat from the body. In short, the benefits far outweigh the short-term effects. If you have been diagnosed with hypertension, be sure to consult your physician before starting an exercise program.
You don’t need to perform heavy workouts, either. Even daily walking or light cardio such as cycling or jogging can offer major benefits.
Get Active for Healthy Blood Pressure
Your blood vessels are crucial to pumping oxygen and nutrients throughout your body. Give them the care they deserve: maintain an active lifestyle and healthy diet, especially if your family history or current health conditions put you at risk for hypertension.
Even 20-30 minutes of mild to moderate physical activity every day can help. Track your steps now with the AMP2 app!