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Modifiable Health Behaviors to Reduce the Risks of High Blood Pressure

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By Dr. Dawn M. Sweet

For adults with obesity, the prevalence of high blood pressure is higher than healthy weight counterparts, with 75 percent of adults with obesity living with a high blood pressure diagnosis.

High blood pressure can be difficult to detect because there are not always warning signs. The American Heart Association refers to high blood pressure as the “silent killer” for this reason. If left untreated or if not managed properly, high blood pressure can have serious implications for cardiovascular health and kidney health, and it can increase your risk of developing chronic diseases such as diabetes. For adults with obesity, the prevalence of high blood pressure is higher than healthy weight counterparts, with 75 percent of adults with obesity living with a high blood pressure diagnosis.

High Blood Pressure Facts

Blood pressure is measured in units of mmHg. This stands for millimeters of mercury, and it measures the pressure. When checking your blood pressure, your health care provider takes two measurements: systolic pressure, which is the pressure in your arteries when your heart contracts; and diastolic pressure, which is the pressure in your arteries when your heart is at rest in between contractions. When your doctor tells you your blood pressure, it is reported as systolic over diastolic, for example, 120 / 80 mmHg.

The American College Of Cardiology and the American Heart Association have provided updated guidelines for normal and elevated blood pressure. For adults, normal blood pressure is less than 120 mmHg over less than 80 mmHg. Elevated blood pressure is considered as a systolic reading in the range of 120 – 129 mmHg and a diastolic reading that is over 80 mmHg. For example, 125 mmHg / 83 mmHg is considered elevated. The new guidelines also include stage 1 and stage 2 classifications. Systolic readings of 130 – 139 mmHg or diastolic readings of 80 – 89 mmHg are classified as stage 1 and systolic readings that are greater than or equal to 140 mmHg or greater than or equal to 90 mmHg as stage 2.

Modifiable Health Behaviors and Dietary Interventions

While a diagnosis of high blood pressure can be worrisome, there are steps you can take to reduce its associated risks. Modifiable health behaviors such as dietary interventions are an important part of managing and preventing high blood pressure.

One effective approach to managing high blood is refocusing your diet to include fruits, vegetables, legumes, seeds, and nuts as part of a healthy eating plan. Recommendations also include reducing processed food intake and adding lean proteins (e.g., skinless fish and poultry), non-tropical vegetable oils, and low-fat dairy.

Reducing your sodium intake is also important because sodium can elevate blood pressure. Shifting to fresh or whole foods and shifting away from pre-packaged, processed foods can help regulate your sodium intake. Consuming potassium-rich foods such as bananas, sweet potatoes, and spinach can also help reduce blood pressure. Limiting alcohol intake is another strategy to reduce blood pressure.

Another effective modifiable health behavior is physical activity. Aerobic exercises like walking, swimming, cycling, hiking, or dancing will improve your cardiovascular health and help your heart to work more efficiently. Exercise is also an important part of weight loss, so adding a structured exercise routine to weekly schedule can help you shed unwanted weight. Other benefits of exercise include improved mood and stress reduction.

Modifiable Health Behaviors: Tips for Success

Reshaping your day-to-day routines to include healthy food choices and exercise can be challenging, but not impossible.

Make healthy food choices accessible. Leave fresh fruit in easy to see and easy to access places. Leave a bowl of oranges, apples, and bananas on your counter. If you prefer to cold fruit, move your fruit bowl to a prominent place in your refrigerator. If you keep cookies or chips on hand, move them to a hard-to-reach place, like the back of the cabinet.

Plan meals ahead of time. Plan meals ahead of time and schedule time to cook into your daily routine. You may not need to cook every day; instead, plan to cook three healthy meals per week, leaving yourself with leftovers for lunch the next day or dinner another night. When you make your grocery list, be sure to identify all the healthy options — legumes, lean protein, fruits, whole grains, healthy fats — and stick to your list. Following a balanced healthy diet can help manage blood pressure. Cook as many meals at home as you can so you have more control over what you consume and the quantity that you consume.

Plan for exercise ahead of time. Before you go to bed, get your workout clothes ready. Place them on your nightstand or in your bathroom so you can change as soon as you get up. If you don’t have time for morning exercise, get your workout clothes ready so you can change into them when you get home from work. If you join a gym or plan to meet friends after work for an exercise class or a walk in the park, pack your bag the night before and put it by the door so you can grab it on your way to work. Or, better yet, put your gym bag in your car after dinner.

If you have high blood pressure, you may not even know it because there aren’t any symptoms. Be sure to know your numbers so that if you do have high blood pressure you can take steps to manage it and reduce its negative health consequences. While medication may be an important part of managing your high blood pressure, modifying health behaviors can also help you successfully manage it. Selecting healthy foods and increasing your physical activity can help lower your blood pressure. Before starting any change in diet or exercise program be sure to consult with your health care provider to determine the changes that are best for you.


About the Author: Dr. Dawn M. Sweet has over 20 years of experience in the field of communication. Dr. Sweet has given several invited talks to and workshops for academic and private sector audiences on the role of nonverbal and verbal communication in achieving positive outcomes and mitigating bias. Her research has been published in several top ranked peer-review journals, and it has been featured on NPR’s River to River / All Things Considered, Buzzfeed, and Science Daily. Her research has also been used to inform expert testimony.

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