Small changes can make a big difference in your blood pressure numbers.
If you suddenly find yourself with high blood pressure (hypertension) under the new guidelines from the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology, you might be wondering what to do. The guidelines lowered the definition for high blood pressure to 130/80 from 140/90 millimeters of mercury (mm Hg), meaning more people now meet the criteria for stage 1 hypertension.
While you shouldn't shrug off the change, there's also no need to panic. "Obviously, nothing happened overnight inside a woman's body or to her health with the release of the guidelines," says Dr. Naomi Fisher, director of hypertension service and hypertension innovation at the Brigham and Women's Hospital Division of Endocrinology, Diabetes, and Hypertension, and associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.
The change, however, should spur you to take your blood pressure seriously. "These guidelines have been long anticipated and are very welcome by most hypertension experts. They may seem drastic, but in putting the knowledge we've gained from large trials into clinical practice, they will help thousands of people," says Dr. Fisher.
Why does hypertension matter?
If you are in this 130/80 range, reducing your blood pressure can help protect you from heart attack, stroke, kidney disease, eye disease, and even cognitive decline. The goal of the new guidelines is to encourage you to treat your high blood pressure seriously and to take action to bring it down, primarily using lifestyle interventions. "It is well documented that lifestyle changes can lower blood pressure as much as pills can, and sometimes even more," says Dr. Fisher.
Making those changes can be challenging. More than one woman has woken up in the morning committed to healthy eating only to be derailed by a plate of cookies on a table in the office or a dinner out with friends.
How lower your blood pressure with small changes
You don't have to embark on a major life overhaul to make a difference in your blood pressure. Here are six simple tips for actions you can take to help get your blood pressure back into the normal range.
1. Lose weight
By far the most effective means of reducing elevated blood pressure is to lose weight, says Fisher. And it doesn't require major weight loss to make a difference. Even losing as little as 10 pounds can lower your blood pressure.
2. Read labels
Americans eat far too much dietary sodium, up to three times the recommended total amount, which is 1,500 milligrams (mg) daily for individuals with high blood pressure, says Dr. Fisher. It doesn't take much sodium to reach that 1,500-mg daily cap — just 3/4 of a teaspoon of salt. There's half of that amount of sodium in one Egg McMuffin breakfast sandwich. Weed out high-sodium foods by reading labels carefully. "It is very difficult to lower dietary sodium without reading labels, unless you prepare all of your own food," says Dr. Fisher. Beware in particular of what the American Heart Association has dubbed the "salty six," common foods where high amounts of sodium may be lurking:
- breads and rolls
- cold cuts and cured meats
3. Get moving
It doesn't take much exercise to make a difference in your health. Aim for a half-hour at least five days a week. "Make sure you're doing something you love, or it won't stick," says Fisher. "For some that means dancing; for others, biking or taking brisk walks with a friend." Even everyday activities such as gardening can help.
4. Pump some iron
"Add some weightlifting to your exercise regimen to help lose weight and stay fit. Women lose muscle mass steadily as we age, and weightlifting is an often-overlooked part of an exercise plan for most women," says Fisher.
5. Limit alcohol to one drink per day
Drinking too much, too often, can increase your blood pressure, so practice moderation.
6. Relieve stress with daily meditation or deep breathing sessions
Stress hormones constrict your blood vessels and can lead to temporary spikes in blood pressure. In addition, over time, stress can trigger unhealthy habits that put your cardiovascular health at risk. These might include overeating, poor sleep, and misusing drugs and alcohol. For all these reasons, reducing stress should be a priority if you're looking to lower your blood pressure.
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