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Ester Marsh column: What is blood pressure?

Today, I will be talking about blood pressure.

Getting your blood pressure checked is a requirement each visit at your doctor’s office. So, what is considered normal?

This is what the American Heart Association says: A normal level for systolic (the top number) is less than 120 and diastolic (the bottom number) is less than 80. Elevated levels are between 120-129 for systolic and less than 80 for diastolic. High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, stage one is considered anything between 130-139 for systolic and 80-89 for diastolic. High blood pressure stage two is when your systolic number is 140 or higher and over 90 for diastolic. Hypertensive crisis, where you need to go to the doctor immediately, is when your systolic number is higher than 180 and/or the diastolic is higher than 120.

So what are those numbers referring to? The top number, systolic, measures the pressure your blood is putting on your artery walls when the heart beats. The bottom and lower number, diastolic, measures the pressure on your artery walls when the heart is resting in between beats. Blood still flows, of course, but without the pressure of the heartbeat.

At the J.F. Hurley Family Y, we have a blood pressure machine, and I always joke it’s one of the most used pieces of equipment in the fitness center. Many times, I have had to explain to people that their systolic is elevated a lot because they just came from a workout where their heart rate was elevated. If you need to check your blood pressure regularly, wait at least 30 minutes after a workout. And for accuracy, take it twice, waiting one to three minutes in between. When taking your blood pressure, sit with your legs unfolded, relax, breathe deeply and don’t talk while the test is in process. My blood pressure runs typically 110 over 70 but I have to say, I have a touch of “white coat syndrome!” White coat syndrome is where there is a big change from your regular blood pressure when it is taken by a physician or other health professional. Especially when I am with a new doctor or nurse, I have had it as high as 130 over 70! As with all your visits, talk to your health care professional, ask why they are doing certain things and what you can do to help improve it.

The Mayo Clinic recommends the following lifestyle changes you can make to lower your blood pressure:

  • Lose extra pounds and watch your waistline. The extra weight around your waistline can put you at greater risk for high blood pressure.
  • Exercise regularly, preferably 150 minutes a week, which is about 30 minutes a day most days of the week. Next week, I will be covering a six-week challenge called the Strong Challenge which is free to join for everyone and the minimum is 20 minutes a day for 5 days per week. Especially for someone who has been sedentary, it’s hard to go to 30 minutes most of the days, but 20 minutes, 5 days a week is doable!
  • Eat a healthy diet, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, low-fat diary products. Check out the DASH diet (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension). Eating this way can lower your BP up to 11mm Hg.
  • Reduce sodium in your diet. Even small reductions can improve your heart health and reduce BP.
  • Limit alcohol consumption. Positive effects on BP is one drink for women and two for men. That protective effect goes away when you drink more than that. And if you do not drink at all, don’t start just because it has positive effects in moderation. There are so many other things you can do to lower BP without drinking alcohol.
  • Quit smoking. Each cigarette you smoke increases your blood pressure for minutes after you finish.
  • Cut back on caffeine. There is still a lot of debate on this. They do know that when people are not used to caffeine, it will raise their BP. For people who regularly drink coffee, they may not experience any difference. If you have high BP and drink caffeine, check your BP within 30 minutes of drinking a caffeinated beverage. If it goes up 5 to 10 mm Hg, limiting or eliminating caffeine may be beneficial for you. Make sure to talk to your doctor about it.
  • Reduce your stress. Especially during this pandemic, stress levels have risen for everyone. Try to find out what stresses you out and try to find ways to deal with it, focusing on issues you can control.
  • Monitor your blood pressure and see your doctor regularly.
  • Get support. Family, friends, your local YMCA and gym can give you the emotional boost you need.

And focus on kindness, respect and understanding, especially during these times.

Ester Hoeben Marsh is health and fitness director of the JF Hurley Family YMCA.

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