Although we can’t feel it, our blood vessels are under constant pressure—blood pressure, that is. As the heart pumps out blood, delivering oxygen to our muscles and organs, force is exerted with each beat. This is systolic pressure—the greater of the two numbers that measure blood pressure. Diastolic pressure, the lesser number, indicates the force of blood flow between beats.
When we’re healthy and fit, blood pressure is at or less than 120/80 millimeters of mercury (the standard method of measurement). Yet the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that about one in three American adults has high blood pressure, a condition that increases the risk of heart disease, stroke, congestive heart failure and kidney disease.
Blood pressure at or exceeding 140/90 is considered high or ‘hypertensive,’ and prehypertension is defined as systolic pressure of 120 to 139 and diastolic pressure from 80 to 89. “Prehypertension is a warning sign for hypertension (high blood pressure) and should be viewed as a wake-up call,” says Dr. Linda Stronach, an interventional cardiologist on staff at Missouri Baptist Medical Center.
Patients with prehypertension need specific lifestyle changes known to decrease blood pressure. They include weight loss, exercise, dietary changes, moderation of alcohol intake and smoking cessation.
The good news is that when it comes to preventing and treating high blood pressure, relatively small lifestyle changes can have a significantly positive effect. Some patients even reverse the need for medication. “And besides affecting blood pressure, the recommended lifestyle changes are beneficial for cholesterol health, prevention of stroke, prevention of diabetes, even prevention of some types of cancer,” says Dr. Mohammad Kizilbash, a cardiologist on staff at Barnes-Jewish Hospital.
For example, when individuals are given antihypertensive medications, it decreases blood pressure to varying degrees. Some medicines only decrease blood pressure by 4 or 5 millimeters of mercury. “When we see a drop of 10, we’re actually very excited,” Kizilbash says. Yet for an overweight individual, losing just 10 pounds can decrease blood pressure from 5 to 10 millimeters of mercury. An individual who is 20 pounds overweight and loses those extra 20 pounds can decrease blood pressure by as much as 20 millimeters. “That’s a profound drop,” Kizilbash adds.
Regardless of weight, regular exercise—at least 30 minutes of aerobic activity per day—helps lower blood pressure. “Regular physical activity makes your heart stronger. A stronger heart is more efficient and can pump more blood with less effort. When your heart does not have to work as hard, the force on your vessels decreases, resulting in a lower blood pressure,” explains Dr. Sana Waheed, a physician specializing in internal medicine with Mercy Clinic.
Along with exercise, patients are advised to follow a diet high in fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, whole grains and low in sodium.
Another lifestyle change beneficial to many involves managing stress. “Stress increases hormones in our bodies, which constrict the arteries, causing higher pressure in these blood vessels.”
The most important advice is to know your blood pressure and take steps to control it. As Stronach sums up: “Treatment, whether with lifestyle changes, medications or both, can result in preserved quality and length of life.”