8 Key Steps to Better Blood Pressure Control
By Rozy Dunham, MD, FACC, Cardiologist, Virtua Cardiology
When everything’s going well, your blood vessels expand and contract to meet your body’s changing needs. If you have uncontrolled high blood pressure, however, your vessels are narrow and less elastic, limiting blood flow and, over time, increasing your risk of heart attack, heart failure, stroke, kidney disease, and vision loss.
High blood pressure, or hypertension, damages your body for years without producing any symptoms. It’s often called a “silent killer,” as many people don’t know their pressure is high until they experienced a heart attack or stroke. That’s why your blood pressure should be measured regularly, and if it’s routinely over 120/80 mmHg, you should take action.
Take charge of your blood pressure with these eight key steps.
- Stay on your medications. Take your blood pressure medication exactly as your health care provider instructs. If you’re experiencing side effects, don’t stop taking it. Instead, talk with your provider. A different medication or dose may be needed.
- Limit sodium. Sodium can raise blood pressure, so go easy on salt and check food labels. Try to get 1,500 milligrams or less of sodium a day.
- Keep a lid on alcohol. It raises blood pressure and adds calories. Your best bet: no more than one drink a day for women and two for men.
- Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, and low-fat and fat-free dairy products. Limit foods high in saturated fats and added sugars. These habits, part of a Mediterranean-style diet, lower blood pressure and improve your overall heart health.
- Get moving. Set a goal of 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity at least five days a week. But don’t give up if that’s more than you can handle. Any amount of exercise is helpful. Start with a five-minute daily walk and increase your routine gradually. Ask your health care provider what level of physical activity is right for you.
- Quit smoking. The nicotine in tobacco narrows blood vessels and increases your heart rate—which increases blood pressure. Quitting isn’t easy, but it will make a big difference in your blood pressure.
- Manage your weight. Carrying extra pounds forces your heart to work harder, raising your blood pressure and heightening your risk of heart attack, heart failure, and stroke. Losing just a few pounds can help. Get there by eating smaller portions and burning more calories through exercise.
- Relax. When you’re stressed, your body releases hormones that cause your heart to beat faster and your blood vessels to narrow—the “fight or flight” response. Occasional stress is OK, but chronic tension damages your cardiovascular system. Exercise, meditation, deep breathing, and talking to a counselor all can lower the temperature.
The lifestyle choices you make every day impact your blood pressure and your health. Even if you can’t follow all these steps, do as much as you can. Every little bit helps lighten the load.
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Updated October 19, 2021