High Blood Pressure For Dummies
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Hypertension can be serious when not treated properly, but for most people it’s a very manageable condition. The best way to manage hypertension is by setting long-term goals rather than focusing on nonexistent quick fixes. In this article, we share the 10 best lifestyle changes you can make to create optimal health and lower your blood pressure. Controlling hypertension doesn’t happen overnight, but you can turn the corner by following our tips.

DASH diet © serato / Shutterstock.com

Before you implement any major changes to your diet or exercise regimen, talk to your doctor first to make sure what you’re planning is medically safe. Then check in with your doctor regularly to keep her abreast of your progress and challenges to ensure the best management of your hypertension.

Lose weight and keep it off

Weight loss is often the number-one treatment for hypertension, and even a small drop in pounds helps. Being overweight strains your body and your heart, and losing weight will usually help to improve your blood pressure.

After you’ve lost the weight, the key is to keep it off. A healthy diet, like the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diet, is not a one-and-done situation. To maintain that weight loss you worked so hard to achieve, you must maintain the lifestyle changes that got you there: eating the right amounts of the right foods (lean meats, vegetables, fruits, dairy, grains, less salt, and smaller portions of treats) and exercising 20 to 30 minutes per day. You’ll be rewarded with the energy and vitality you crave.

Sticking to lifestyle changes often means continuously setting new goals to avoid a setback. A great tool to help you set diet and exercise goals—and stick to them—is Calorie Counter Journal For Dummies, by coauthors Rosanne and Meri Raffetto (Wiley).

Develop an exercise routine

Along with eating right, regular exercise keeps your weight under control, improves your cardiovascular health, and reduces your stress level, all of which help you curb hypertension in the long run. Regular is the magic word here. Scheduling a 20- to 30-minute walk five days a week is a great way to begin moving regularly. Do whatever you can at first, and then add minutes each week. After you’re up to 30 to 45 minutes of walking, gradually increase your pace until you can walk a mile in 15 to 20 minutes.

Weight-bearing exercise is important too, especially as you age because muscle and bone loss occur at a more rapid rate. Adding workouts with weights or resistance bands two or three times a week to your aerobic activity is a great plan. Some forms of yoga can help, too.

Stick to DASH

Although one of the goals of DASH eating is to reduce sodium, saturated fat, and cholesterol in the diet, DASH is more about what to add to your diet than what you should limit. Fruits and vegetables, for instance, are very important sources of potassium and magnesium (which help lower blood pressure), antioxidants (such as vitamins C and A), and fiber (which helps keep cholesterol in check).

DASH also encourages you to include more monounsaturated fats and low-fat dairy products. Following the DASH dietary guidelines has been proven to lower hypertension. Enjoy the recipes in Part 4, which all incorporate aspects of the DASH plan, and check out Part 3 for even more information on what to eat and how to navigate restaurants and get-togethers so you can stay true to your DASH eating plan for the long haul.

Eat less salt

A high-salt diet has been shown to raise blood pressure in some people, so reducing your intake of high-sodium foods and the amount of salt you use in cooking is a good idea (daily goal: 1,500 to 2,300 milligrams). Because more than three-fourths of the salt in most people's diets comes from prepared foods, the first step is to read food labels and reduce your consumption of highly processed packaged foods. Eating out less often (and eating smaller portions) will also help, because restaurant foods tend to be highly salted. By cutting back in stages, you’ll find that your cravings will gradually subside.

Ingredient lists and product labels usually refer to salt in terms of sodium, a building block of salt, but may also include other forms of sodium such as monosodium glutamate (MSG), which is typically found in Asian foods and some processed products. Also, be aware that salt commonly hides in restaurant foods.

Add good fats to your diet

Hypertension is a risk factor for heart disease; so is high blood cholesterol. Consuming heart-healthy fats may help improve the balance of good and bad cholesterol in your blood stream. On the other hand, saturated fats from red meat and tropical oils may make it worse. Vegetable oils such as olive, canola, avocado, and peanut oils are your best bet because they’re high in heart-smart monounsaturated fat. Other vegetable oils are higher in polyunsaturated fat, which isn’t harmful but seems to have a neutral effect.

Adding nuts, seeds, avocados, olives, and monounsaturated oils to your diet is a good idea, but keep in mind that good fats have just as many calories as the bad stuff. Try walnuts or plain roasted sunflower seeds in salads or mixed into vegetable dishes or in stir-fries. Nuts can also be a nutritious snack as long as you don’t overindulge (about 15 to 20 nuts is sufficient).

Avoid drinking alcohol excessively

Although one glass of red wine or other alcoholic beverage a day may be beneficial to your blood circulation and heart health, overindulging is not. If you’re male, drinking more than two drinks a day can lead to heart damage, high blood pressure, and high triglycerides. For women, the threshold is more than one drink daily; this level can also increase the risk for breast cancer.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define heavy drinking as consuming 15 or more drinks per week for men and 8 or more drinks per week for women. One drink is equivalent to a 5-ounce glass of wine, a 12-ounce beer, or 1-1/2 ounces of 80-proof liquor. So keep your alcohol intake moderate for heart health — and if you don’t drink alcohol, there’s no need to start. Make other heart-healthy lifestyle choices instead, such as adding more grapes and colorful fruits and vegetables to your diet, and exercising regularly.

Don’t use tobacco products

Smoking causes coronary heart disease, contributes to stroke, and increases the risk of peripheral vascular disease (obstruction of the large arteries in the arms and legs, resulting in pain and possible tissue death which may lead to amputation). Chewing tobacco isn’t much better because it raises blood pressure, harms the arteries, and increases the risk of a wide variety of cancers. Tobacco is also a factor in dementia. Basically, there’s nothing good about it. If you use tobacco products, talk to your doctor. Although quitting isn’t easy, there are products and programs that can help.

Stress less

Stress has both direct and indirect effects on blood pressure. Work, family, health, and your personal life may affect your overall stress level, causing poor-quality sleep and unhealthy food choices, both of which can contribute to hypertension. Finding ways to manage stress helps you cope more effectively with day-to-day life and simply makes you feel better.

You can reduce stress in a number of ways. One of the best strategies is to engage in regular exercise. For starters, put on your sneakers and take a walk. Yoga is another excellent stress reducer, and many people find that a meditation practice helps to calm the mind and body.

Even simple breathing exercises can help reduce stress. Try taking long, slow breaths: Inhale to a count of four; then exhale to a count of eight.

Enlist your family and friends

Having the support of family and friends can keep you on track with your lifestyle changes, turning eating well and exercising regularly into a shared and social experience. Let your family know that by choosing a healthy way of life, you have made a commitment to your well-being, both now and into the future. Emphasize that you need their help and positive support. If they decide to get onboard, that’s fantastic; if not, don’t let that discourage you.

It may help to ask a friend to meet you for a walk or at the gym so you can maintain a regular exercise program. But don’t make your plans subject to anyone else’s obligations. Do it for yourself, and you’ll find that it gets easier over time.

If your workout buddy can’t make it one day, don’t use his absence as an excuse to slack off. You owe it to yourself to stick with your program, no matter who else comes along for the ride. After you get going, you’ll feel great!

Follow your doctor’s orders

If you’ve been diagnosed with hypertension, be sure to follow your doctor’s advice and keep regular appointments, including an annual physical exam. Take any prescribed medications as directed and keep track of your own blood pressure. If you have any concerns about the medication or treatment your doctor recommends, ask questions.

Blood pressure medication is not a one-size-fits-all proposition. Thanks to the variety of medications available, your doctor can almost always find an option, or a combination, that works for you.

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