High blood pressure affects nearly 70 million adults, and only about half of those people are able to keep their high blood pressure under control. High blood pressure can lead to more serious cardiovascular complications, stroke and even death.
The good news is that it is possible to control your blood pressure with the help of regular monitoring by your doctor, medication and/or regular exercise.
Understanding the numbers
Blood pressure is recorded as two numbers written as a ratio. The top number, called systolic blood pressure, is the measurement of the pressure in the arteries when the heart beats. This is also the higher of the two numbers. Diastolic blood pressure is the lower number, and it measures the pressure in the arteries between heartbeats, or when the heart muscle is at rest.
The American Heart Association defines blood pressure categories as follows:
Normal: Systolic less than 120 and diastolic less than 80
Prehypertension: 120-139 systolic or 80-89 diastolic
High blood pressure Stage 1: 140-159 systolic or 90-99 diastolic
High blood pressure Stage 2: 160 or higher systolic or 100 or higher diastolic
Hypertensive Crisis (emergency care is needed): Systolic higher than 180 or diastolic higher than 110
It is important to note that a single high reading does not necessarily mean you have high blood pressure. However, if your blood pressure readings stay above 140/90 over a period of time, your doctor should recommend a treatment program, which will often include prescription medication and lifestyle changes.
Keeping your blood pressure under control with exercise
Lack of regular exercise is closely related to high blood pressure. What’s the connection? Exercise strengthens the heart, which then allows the heart to pump more blood with less effort. The less your heart has to work to pump blood, the less the force on the arteries, therefore the lower your blood pressure will be.
If you are currently inactive and have high blood pressure, adopting a more active lifestyle could lower your systolic blood pressure by four to nine points. For some people, exercise may be enough to reduce or eliminate the need for blood pressure medications. It normally takes one to three months for exercise to have an impact on blood pressure.
If you currently have normal blood pressure, staying active will help keep your blood pressure at a normal level and can help prevent blood pressure-related health problems.
Keeping a healthy blood pressure with exercise doesn’t require hours in the gym. Aerobic exercise (any physical activity that increases heart and breathing rates) is effective at controlling high blood pressure, but strengthening exercises are also beneficial. Find a type of exercise you enjoy, such as:
- Household chores and outdoor work
- Active or competitive sports
- Climbing stairs
- Walking or jogging
Adults should get at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise every week, or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity, or a combination of both. As a general rule of thumb, shoot for 30 minutes of exercise most days of the week. Don’t have 30 minutes all at once? Break it up into two 15-minute segments. The important part is staying active and strengthening your heart.
You should check with your physician before starting any regular exercise routine, but especially if you:
- Are a man over 45 or a woman over 55
- Smoke or recently quit smoking
- Are overweight or obese
- Have a chronic health condition
- Have high cholesterol or high blood pressure
- Have had a heart attack
- Have a family history of heart-related problems
- Feel pain or discomfort in your chest, jaw, neck or arms during activity
- Become dizzy while exercising
- Haven’t been exercising regularly or are unsure if you are in good enough health.
Once you start exercising, monitor your blood pressure regularly to track any changes and to see if what you are doing is helping to lower your blood pressure. You will get the most accurate readings if you check your blood pressure before exercising.