Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.
Here are some numbers that matter to you: The number of clean meals you prepare and eat each day. The number of workouts you squeeze into each week. The number of pounds you can leg press in the gym. But if you’ve never given thought to your blood pressure numbers, your health could be in trouble.
Over 30 percent of American women have high blood pressure, or hypertension, a major risk factor for heart disease, stroke, heart failure and kidney disease, according to the newest reports from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). And it’s not just a condition for the elderly or out of shape: Women of all ages and fitness levels are impacted, and you may not even aware of it.
“High blood pressure is known as the silent killer because many people don’t feel anything when their blood pressure is high,” says the University of Miami’s Ralph Sacco, MD, president of the American Heart Association (AHA). “Everyone should know their numbers. Just as you know your weight and waist size, you should know what your blood pressure is.”
The good news is that more people with hypertension are now keeping it under control, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. And the best way to beat high blood pressure is by doing what you may already do – live the Oxygen lifestyle. “You need to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight, a healthy dietary pattern, a lower sodium intake and to be physically active,” says Denise Simons-Morton, MD, PhD, a heart disease expert with the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) and author of numerous heart-disease-prevention studies. “If all those are done together, you can really improve your blood pressure.”
Eat Clean to Lower Your Digits
You may already know that too much sodium in your diet is one of the risk factors for high blood pressure. But here’s a staggering stat: For every gram of salt that Americans reduce in their diets daily, 250,000 fewer new heart disease cases and more than 200,000 fewer deaths would occur over a decade.
And it’s not just the salt shaker causing problems. As Simons-Morton points out, about 75 percent of our dietary sodium comes from processed foods. “You need to use fresh foods and season them yourself or really read the labels,” she says. Sodium can lurk everywhere from cereal and ice cream to prescription medications and antacids. The AHA recommends consuming less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day – equivalent to less than a teaspoon of salt or a cup of tomato sauce. And when you’re reading labels in the grocery store, be weary of low-fat products too. While they may seem like a good idea for fat loss, many are actually loaded with bad-for-your-heart sodium.
Cutting back on sugary drinks can help control blood pressure too; a study published recently in Circulation found that cutting out one 12-ounce can of soda or fruit drinks can drop systolic blood pressure by 1.8 points and diastolic blood pressure by 1.1 points. Another new study in the Journal of the American Society of Nephrology discovered that the more fructose people consumed, the higher their blood pressure was.
The best foods for healthy blood pressure, according to the NHLBI, are:
- Fruits and vegetables (at least eight to 10 servings per day*): Add berries to oatmeal and tomatoes to pasta (instead of high-sodium sauce); make colorful veggie kabobs.
- Low-fat dairy products (two to three servings per day*): Go for smoothies with yogurt and skim milk after workouts.
- Whole-grain, high-fiber foods: Go for steel-cut oats, plain popcorn and brown rice.
- Nuts, seeds and beans: Add to salads and stir-fries.
- Skinless poultry and lean meats: Ask your butcher for the leanest cuts.
- Fish, especially fatty fish with omega-3s such as salmon and trout (at least twice a week*): Grill with lemon pepper.
*Based on a 2,000-calorie-per-day diet
Don’t Skimp Out on Strength Training
Sure, cardio is important in preventing hypertension — you need at least two hours and 30 minutes of moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise each week, according to guidelines from the AHA and NHLBI. But you need to lift weights too. “Several weeks of resistance training has been shown to reduce resting systolic and diastolic blood pressure by three to four percent,” says Julia Valentour, programs coordinator of the American Council of Exercise (ACE). “Although this may seem like a small amount, a reduction in systolic blood pressure of 3 mm Hg in average populations has been estimated to reduce cardiac, stroke and all-cause mortality.” In other words, those small changes could mean you live a longer life.
Related:10 Reasons to Strength Train
Valentour explains that because strength training prepares your muscles for everyday activities like lifting and carrying, it helps your body to become accustomed to such movements, which means you’re also less likely to experience a spike in blood pressure in your daily activities while you’re not even training.
When you are in the gym, however, Valentour suggests doing circuits, which will give you the benefits of both cardio and strength training. Her favorite circuit includes these exercises:
- Chest press
- Leg extension
- Shoulder press
- Biceps curl
- Leg curl
- Triceps press
- Seated row
- Calf raise
- Abdominal crunch
- Lower-back movement (e.g., supermans)
Warm up for five to 10 minutes, then do one set of each with 30 seconds rest in between for 12 to 15 reps per exercise. Use a weight that can be lifted for at least eight to 10 reps. Increase the weight when you can perform more than 15 reps, and do the circuit two to three times per week.
During your lifting sessions, it’s also key to never hold your breath. While some experts suggest inhaling during the eccentric phase (such as when you lower a dumbbell during a biceps curl) and exhaling during the concentric phase (such as when you lift a dumbbell during a biceps curl), the most important thing you should be keeping in mind is that you need to continue breathing; holding your breath will limit the oxygen supply to your muscles and heart and spike your blood pressure.
But remember, there can be too much of a good thing as overtraining can increase blood pressure too, says Valentour. If you’re feeling aches, headaches, an increased heart rate and insomnia after several days or weeks of hard workouts, it’s time for a rest day or two.
Your Blood Pressure During Your Workouts
Although exercising ultimately lowers blood pressure, your systolic over diastolic actually increases while you’re mastering the elliptical or lifting a dumbbell, explains Sacco. “Just as your pulse goes up when you’re trying to get into that fat-burning stages, your blood pressure can go up as well,” he says. While this is normal, especially for fit and active women, make sure you’re listening to your body while you train. If you feel faint, your blood pressure could be too low from dehydration. So if you do feel dizzy or lightheaded, take a break for some water or call it a day. Otherwise, says Sacco, plan to check your blood pressure before exercise for the most accurate reading.
Drop Fat (and Your Heart Risks!)
Need another reason to live the Oxygen lifestyle? Losing even just a few pounds can reduce your blood pressure and have other health benefits too. A study published in the Annals of Internal Medicine found that losing 20 pounds can drop diastolic blood pressure by 7 millimeters of mercury and systolic blood pressure by 5 mm; a 10 pound loss can mean a diastolic drop of 2.7 mm.
Take a slow and steady approach to weight loss, losing no more than a half-pound to two pounds a week, recommends Simons-Morton. And avoid yo-yo dieting, which has been shown to increase blood pressure. “The best weight loss approaches combine both diet and physical activity,” she says. “Pay attention so that your calories out exceed calories in.”
Reduce Stress for Better Blood Pressure
A bad day at work or a spat with your BFF could mean bad news for your blood pressure. As the NHLBI reports, stress can spike blood pressure in the short term; long bouts of stress, meanwhile, can wreak long-lasting havoc on your numbers (and lead to weight gain, especially around your midsection!). While your gym sessions are one great way to cut stress, try these others the next time you’re feeling frazzled:
- Give yourself more time to get things done. Instead of rushing between your workouts, meals, work projects and social commitments, prioritize your schedule and plan ahead. What is the one thing you must get done today after your workout, for example? Make it the focus.
- Learn to accept things you can’t change, like your favorite machine already being used at the gym. If there’s something you can do about your problem (such as a backup exercise or “working in” with another person), come up with a plan. Otherwise, don’t dwell on situations you can’t control.
- Say “thank you” more often. Try it at least once every day.
- Eat a square of dark chocolate after lunch. The American Chemical Society recently found that eating one-and-a-half ounces of dark chocolate a day for two weeks reduced levels of stress hormones.
- Call a funny friend after the gym. Physiological researchers in California found that just the anticipation of laughter decreases stress hormones.
DIY: Check Your Blood Pressure
If your doctor has advised you to monitor your blood pressure at home (a doctor will also tell you how often to check it), follow these steps from the AHA:
- Choose a time before your workout, or at least 30 minutes after a workout (physical exertion can make your levels spike and gives a false reading).
- Be still and sit straight up with your feet flat on the floor, your arm on a flat surface and the middle of the cuff around your upper arm.
- Take two or three readings one minute apart and record the results.
What’s Your Number?
When you or your doctor measures blood pressure, your reading will show up as two values: The AHA considers anything below 120 over 80 to be optimal, and active women might have even lower numbers. “I know people who can be at 90 over 60 and are perfectly fine,” says Sacco. “It all depends on how you are feeling when blood pressure is too low.”
Check with your doc if your monitor is showing a large spike or dip in your numbers. 120 – 139 over 80 – 89 is considered prehypertension 140 – 159 over 90 – 99 is considered stage 1 high blood pressure 160 or higher over 100 or higher is considered stage 2 high blood pressure Values higher than 180 over higher than 110 mean you need emergency care. So go for 120 over 80 or lower, and keep in mind that a single high reading doesn’t necessarily mean that you have high blood pressure. Have your doc investigate.