In November 2017 the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology changed the definition for high blood pressure. One day your blood pressure of 130/80 was normal — the next day you had stage 1 hypertension, and suddenly you found yourself in a higher risk category formerly reserved for people with blood pressure of 140/90. While you probably don’t feel like celebrating the change, it may actually be a good thing.
"These guidelines have been long anticipated and are very welcome by most high blood pressure experts," says Dr. Naomi Fisher, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. "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.
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.
The good news is that it doesn’t take a major life overhaul to improve your blood pressure. Small steps add up to big changes. Here are six simple steps that can help you get, and keep, your blood pressure in a healthy range.
1. Lose a few pounds. 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. 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. Be particularly aware 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."
4. Pump some iron. Add some weightlifting to your exercise regimen to help lose weight and stay fit.
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 can not only constrict your blood vessels and lead to temporary spikes in blood pressure, but over time can also 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, controlling stress should be a top priority.
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Executive Editor, Harvard Women's Health Watch