5 ways you may get ahead of high blood pressure

If you’re in your 20s, 30s or early 40s, high blood pressure probably isn’t something you think about very much, especially if you’re generally in good health. But juggling work, relationships, kids, errands and social commitments can make anyone’s stress levels rise. And living with stress every day may lead to high blood pressure. 

The majority of people with high blood pressure (hypertension) are 45 and older. But that doesn’t mean younger people can ignore the condition. Nearly 1 in 4 adults ages 20 to 44 have high blood pressure, and many don’t know they have it.1 Untreated hypertension can have a big impact on your body and raise your risk for certain health conditions.

Sometimes high blood pressure runs in the family or you may have certain health conditions that increase your risk of having it. But many people develop high blood pressure because of lifestyle choices and habits. “This is actually good news. It means you have the power to change your lifestyle and lower your blood pressure,” says Trent Orfanos, M.D, director of integrative and functional cardiology at Case Integrative Health in Chicago.

Consider these 5 ways that may help lower your chances of developing high blood pressure. Or, if you already have it, ways that may help keep it under control.

1. Keep track of your blood pressure numbers

High blood pressure can be sneaky. Unless your numbers are very high, you may not feel it. That’s why it may be a good idea to regularly check your blood pressure. Your doctor will check it during office visits. But you can also check it yourself at self-check machines at drugstores or supermarkets. 

Another option is a home blood pressure monitor. This can allow you to track changes over time. The most accurate options are cuff or upper-arm blood pressure monitors, says Frita Fisher, M.D., founder and president of Midtown Atlanta Nephrology in Atlanta and author of Under Pressure: A Guide to Controlling High Blood Pressure.

“Monitoring your own blood pressure will help you and your doctor diagnose any worrying trends. And you’ll identify them sooner than you would with infrequent or only annual checkups,” says Dr. Orfanos. Plus, you’ll be able to see how your lifestyle affects your blood pressure, he adds. “For instance, does it spike after that second cup of coffee or a stressful meeting at work?”

How to read your numbers

So, what do the numbers mean? Blood pressure readings combine 2 numbers: 

  • Systolic pressure (the top number) is the pressure in your arteries when your heart beats
  • Diastolic pressure (the bottom number) is the pressure in your arteries between beats

A reading of 120/80 mmHg (millimeters of mercury) means your systolic pressure is 120 and your diastolic pressure is 80. And that’s as high as you want your numbers to go. Anything higher may indicate elevated risk:2

  • A systolic reading between 120 to 129 and a diastolic reading of under 80 is considered elevated blood pressure
  • A systolic reading of 130 to 139 or a diastolic reading of 80 to 89 is considered hypertension stage 1
  • A systolic reading of 140 or higher or a diastolic reading of 90 or higher is considered hypertension stage 2

2. Focus on your diet

What you eat – and how much – can contribute to high blood pressure. “Try to eat a diet high in plant-based foods and low in processed and refined foods,” says Dr. Orfanos.

“You want to eat the rainbow,” says Dr. Fisher. “The more colors you have, the more types of nutrients you’re getting. If you eat meat, try to choose healthy fatty fish or lean protein – like white-meat chicken breast with no skin.” Dietary fat contributes to high blood pressure as can too much sodium. Sodium can raise blood pressure too, so you want to keep your intake low, advises Dr. Orfanos. Try subbing in spices, herbs or lemon for salt.

3. Get active

Moving your body may be another great way to support lower blood pressure. Ideally, consider aiming for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity (think brisk walking) or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity (think jogging or running) each week. Per the American Heart Association, an easy way to break it up is to target 30 minutes of moderate-intensity activity 5 days a week.3

But that may not be doable for everyone – it’s OK to start small. “It can be as simple as getting up every hour and walking around a bit,” says Dr. Orfanos. What’s important is to move as much as you can. And mix up the types of activity as much as possible.

No need for a gym either. Easy-to-start habits such as using the stairs at work can make a difference. “It helps if you have a smartwatch or an app on your phone (many apps are free) to track your steps and monitor your progress,” Dr. Fisher explains. Tracking your activity in a notebook works great too.

4. Quit smoking

Smoking has been linked to high blood pressure. “If you look at almost any disease and what’s listed as risk factors, you’re going to see cigarettes,” says Dr. Fisher. In fact, smokers have a harder time controlling their blood pressure even on medications, according to the American College of Cardiology.4

If you need help quitting smoking, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Quit Guide has tips and information to get you started. For UnitedHealthcare members, you can get tools and one-on-one support to help you quit smoking or using tobacco through the Quit For Life® program.

5. Talk to your doctor about blood pressure medications

If you already have a diagnosis of high blood pressure and lifestyle changes don’t lower your blood pressure, then your doctor may put you on 1 or more medications. That’s especially true if your blood pressure is higher than 140/90. At that level, it can begin to damage other areas of your body, like your heart and kidneys.

Once you’re on medication, you should continue to work on eating and exercise habits over time. Over the long term, these healthy habits may reduce or even do away with the need for blood pressure medications, Dr. Orfanos explains

The bottom line on blood pressure

Even if you think your risk of hypertension is small, there’s no harm in looking at your eating and exercise habits and seeing where you can change them for the better. It can be easier to get ahead of a health issue than to try to reverse it.

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