They're numbers you may be familiar with—your physician checks them at most appointments, and if they're too high, you may be on medication to control them. But what do your blood pressure numbers really mean? We'll show you how to understand your numbers, the factors that influence them and how you can keep them within a healthy range.
Understanding your blood pressure reading
Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the walls of the arteries as the heart pumps blood. High blood pressure, sometimes called hypertension, occurs when this force is too high. Health care providers check blood pressure readings using a gauge, stethoscope or electronic sensor, and a blood pressure cuff.
Your blood pressure numbers account for two things: systolic and diastolic pressure. Systolic pressure, represented by the first number, is the pressure in your blood vessels when your heart beats. Diastolic pressure, represented by the second number, is the pressure in your blood vessels when your heart rests between beats. Together, these numbers communicate your total blood pressure and whether you're at risk of developing high blood pressure.
Are you at risk?
Your blood pressure reading will tell you whether you've got high blood pressure, putting you at at risk for heart problems. Here's how to accurately read your blood pressure number:
Systolic: less than 120
Diastolic: less than 80
Stage 1 hypertension (high blood pressure)
Stage 2 hypertension (high blood pressure)
Hypertensive crisis (emergency care needed)
Maintaining healthy blood pressure levels
Now that you know the implications of your numbers, it's important to learn how you can keep them within healthy range. A big part of managing your blood pressure is leading a healthy, active lifestyle. However, medication is sometimes needed as well. Here are some ways to get started.
Lose weight. Blood pressure is directly related to how much you weigh. Even losing ten pounds can cause a positive change in blood pressure. Plus, being overweight can also affect your sleep, which in turn affects your blood pressure.
Get fit, stay fit. Walk, jog, bike, swim or dance for 30 minutes a day most days of the week, and watch your blood pressure numbers go down.
Eat the DASH diet. The Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet encourages those with high blood pressure to eat whole grains, fruits, vegetables and low-fat dairy products and to stay away from foods high in saturated fat and cholesterol.
Cut down on sodium. This small habit change can have an immense impact on your blood pressure readings. Try to limit your sodium intake to 2,300 milligrams a day by reading food labels, eating fewer processed foods and skipping extra salt.
Drink less alcohol. While small amounts of alcohol can lower blood pressure (one drink a day for women and two for men, generally), drinking more than that can raise blood pressure significantly and reduce the effectiveness of blood pressure medications.
Stop smoking. Each cigarette you smoke raises your blood pressure, and quitting greatly increases your life expectancy.
Address your stress. Chronic stress from factors like work, finances or illness can increase your blood pressure. Find ways to manage or eliminate your stress.
Get help. See your physician regularly and monitor your blood pressure at home. Visit our Heart and Vascular Center for extra medical support and advice.