Take Charge of Your Blood Pressure

Lifestyle changes can make the difference

Medically Reviewed by Charlotte E. Grayson Mathis, MD on November 05, 2004
4 min read

They call high blood pressure "the silent killer" because so many people are walking around with it and don't even know it. Government statistics indicate that roughly 29% (or about one in three) American adults have high blood pressure, compared with 25% in the early 1990s.

With the rising rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes, it comes as no surprise that higher rates of high blood pressure would follow. It doesn't help that one out of four of us consumes too much salt, according to guidelines from the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine.

When your blood pressure is high, you're at higher risk for heart disease, kidney failure, stroke, and other serious conditions. Both men and women are affected by high blood pressure.

So what is considered high? New guidelines say that systolic numbers (that's the top number in your blood pressure reading) above 140 and diastolic numbers (the bottom number) above 90 are considered high. "Normal" is a systolic number of 120 or below and diastolic of 80 or below.

Rates falling somewhere between high and normal have been coined "prehypertension" by the National Institutes of Health, to help alert doctors to those who are at risk for developing the disease.

Regardless of where your numbers fall, blood pressure evaluation and control should be managed by your doctor.

In 2002 and 2003, the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute issued two reports that serve as national guidelines for the treatment and prevention of high blood pressure. Both suggest many lifestyle adjustments that can help prevent and treat hypertension. Experts agree that the first line of defense to preventing or controlling high blood pressure is a healthier (but realistic) lifestyle.

Follow these recommendations to help take charge of your blood pressure, with or without the help of medication:

  • Blood pressure rises with body weight, so losing weight is one of the best ways to improve your numbers. According to the national guidelines and recent research, losing weight can lower both systolic and diastolic blood pressure -- and potentially eliminate high blood pressure. For every 20 pounds you lose, you can drop systolic pressure 5-20 points. People who are considered prehypertensive can benefit significantly by dropping 20 pounds.
  • Follow the guidelines of the National Institutes of Health's DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet. Eating a lower-fat diet that's rich in fruits and vegetables and low-fat dairy foods can lower your systolic numbers 8-14 points. A typical DASH eating plan includes:
    • 4-5 vegetable servings per day
    • 4-5 fruit servings per day (choose fruits and vegetables that are rich sources of potassium such as bananas, tomatoes, avocados, dates, tomatoes, raisins, cantaloupe, and oranges)
    • 7-8 daily servings of grains, preferably whole grains
    • 2-3 daily servings low-fat or fat-free dairy
    • 2 or fewer daily servings of lean meat, poultry, or seafood
    • 4-5 servings of nuts, seeds, and beans per week
    • 2-3 daily servings of fats and oils
    • 5 servings of sweets and snacks per week
  • Get active. At least 30 minutes each day of brisk walking or another aerobic activity could trim 4-9 points off your systolic pressure.
  • Monitor your sodium intake. Typical adult diets average 4,000 mg of sodium daily. You can reduce this to the recommended level of 1,500-2,300 mg by:
    • Making healthier food selections. Foods in their natural state contain much less sodium than those that have been processed. Sodium is used to help extend shelf life, so fresh ingredients are less likely to be high in sodium. Shop the perimeter of the grocery store, where most fresh foods can be found.
    • Keeping processed foods to a minimum. Sodium hides in instant foods, soups, lunchmeats, canned vegetables, processed meats (bacon, sausages, ham, canned meats and fish), frozen dinners, ethnic foods, crackers, etc.
    • Salting your food lightly at the table, not during cooking where the taste is lost. A pinch, dash, or pre-measured packet of salt is roughly 200 mg of sodium.
    • Reading food labels and choosing lower-sodium brands.
    • Spicing up foods with fresh and dried herbs and salt-free seasonings and spices.
  • If you drink alcohol, limit it to one to two drinks per day for a reduction of 2-4 systolic points.

Blood pressure rises with age, so as we get older it becomes increasingly important to know our blood pressure numbers and what we can do to keep ourselves in the "normal" range.

It is as easy as becoming a sleuth for sodium, tweaking your eating plan to enjoy more DASH kinds of foods, and getting regular physical activity. Put yourself in charge of your blood pressure today.