Making a few simple changes to your routine can help you get a handle on hypertension.
Your blood pressure reveals a lot about your health. It offers a glimpse into your risk for a range of conditions, including blood clots and diabetes complications. High blood pressure can also damage your arteries by making them less elastic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This can reduce the flow of blood and oxygen to your heart.
Because of this, you should be getting your blood pressure checked during your annual exams. Anything below 120/80 mm Hg is considered within the normal range, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). If your readings are usually higher, you may be on your way to hypertension — if you’re not there already.
Unfortunately, high blood pressure often has no obvious symptoms. You can have it without knowing, which is why doctors refer to it as a silent killer. And to complicate things, a good reading today doesn't mean you’re set for the year. While some health measures change slowly, blood pressure can fluctuate rapidly. It can go up and down by as many as 40 points per day, says Briana Costello, M.D., a cardiologist at the Texas Heart Institute. Everything from your mood to your activity level affects your blood pressure.
Chances are you’re aware of some things that can put pressure on your cardiovascular system such as smoking or eating foods high in salt. But did you know that many seemingly small choices you make may also cause damage?
Here, we break down some not-so-obvious habits that may be causing your blood pressure to rise.
1. Bingeing negative news
Our bodies have a built-in fight-or-flight response to stressful situations. You’ve probably felt it during a sudden event, such as a near-miss car accident.
When faced with such situations, your body releases stress hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol. In the short term, these help by raising your heart rate and blood pressure and boosting energy supplies. This can help you get out of a dangerous moment quickly.
However, if daily stressors are triggering the release of these hormones regularly, your blood pressure may be too high too often.
Fortunately, you may be able to remove some not-so-noticeable stressors from your life. Or at least minimize them. For example, do you often use social media or tune in to cable news for several hours a day? Do you get sucked into political commentary or debates?
If what you’re watching or reading is keeping you perpetually sad, angry, or stressed, it’s a problem, says Alexander Postalian, M.D., a cardiologist at the Texas Heart Institute. And with social media use increasing, researchers are beginning to see the impact. Heavy use is linked to health issues, including high blood pressure.
One study published in the Journal of School Nursing, for example, found that young people who spent 14 hours or more each week online had elevated blood pressure. Those who spent less time online had better readings.
That’s not to say you shouldn’t keep up with the news, of course. As long as your TV or internet habits don’t get you worked up, you’re okay.
Try limiting your online scrolling to a set number of minutes per day. Or go back to the old-fashioned way. Subscribe to your local newspaper or just watch the nightly updates. Adults 65 and older watching limited amounts of cable news (fewer than 90 minutes a day) didn’t see significant spikes in stress, according to a study in the International Journal of Aging and Human Development. “In general, if someone feels well and relaxed, then their mental state is not burdening their cardiovascular system,” says Dr. Postalian.
Another way to stay informed: Call friends and family for news updates. Talking to people you love can be an antidote to high blood pressure.
2. Staying up late to watch one more episode
Sleep is an important piece of the healthy-heart puzzle. Staying up to catch one more episode of your favorite TV show may seem innocent enough, but if you make it a habit, those lost z’s can add up.
“Short sleep cycles can increase the amount of cortisol and other stress-related hormones in your body, which can make your blood pressure higher and more difficult to control,” Dr. Postalian says.
In fact, just one night of restless sleep can increase blood pressure the following day, according to a study from the University of Arizona, Tucson. So get to bed and save that episode for another night.
3. Eating fried foods
Taking in more calories than you burn causes your body to move energy into fat storage. “Some of this fat can be seen from the outside, but a large part of it is inside the body — wrapping vital organs and wreaking havoc,” Dr. Postalian says.
And it's not just the quantity of calories. It’s the source: Fried food is a prime offender. People who eat the highest quantity of foods like fries and fried chicken are twice as likely to have high blood pressure, according to a 2020 study in Nutrition Research and Practice.
Frying might seem relatively harmless, but research has shown that in some fried foods, oil can account for up to 40% of the weight. That oil simultaneously overloads you with calories and causes oxidative stress — a process that can damage your arteries and contribute to high blood pressure.
So as much as you can, stick with foods that have been baked, boiled, sauteed, grilled, or seared with minimal oil. And while you’re add it, check the label on your salad dressing, too. Many popular options are high in sugar, calories, and unhealthy fats.
“The addition of [excess] salad dressing will shoot the calorie count through the roof, potentially even higher than a hamburger or french fries in some circumstances,” Dr. Postalian says.
The goal: Choose a dressing with fewer than 70 calories per serving, he recommends. And use it in moderation.
4. Camping out on the couch
The more you rev your heartrate, the stronger your heart becomes. Keeping your butt glued to your chair — whether it’s in an office, car, or living room — keeps your body at a low idle. It doesn’t challenge your heart at all. The possible result: higher blood pressure.
Regular activity, on the other hand, makes your heart stronger, which will pump more blood with less effort, according to the Mayo Clinic. This can ease the force on your arteries and lower your blood pressure.
To help keep blood pressure in check, aim to break up long periods of sitting with brief bouts of brisk walking. Or choose another activity such as resistance exercise that gets your blood flowing for a few minutes each hour. This is affective for lowering blood pressure, according to a review in Hypertension.
Just don’t pick an exercise you hate. “Find something that you enjoy doing so that it doesn’t become another stressor,” Dr. Costello says.
5. Ignoring your blood pressure
If you’re 50 or older or have been diagnosed with a heart condition, you might consider monitoring your blood pressure at home, say Dr. Postalian. You may want to give yourself weekly or even daily readings, especially if you’re being treated for cardiovascular issues.
This jibes with advice from the AHA, which recommends home monitoring for all people with high blood pressure. Regularly checking yourself can help you spot problems early, and it can help your healthcare provider know if your treatments are working.
By itself, monitoring won’t lower your blood pressure, of course. But it will help you catch spikes that might otherwise go undetected. Talk to your provider about setting an at-home test schedule that works for you.
Ultimately, blood pressure is manageable. But it all begins with smart habits.
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