Ester Marsh: What exactly is blood pressure?

Published 12:00 am Saturday, January 21, 2023

Besides the ab machine and flexibility machine, the blood pressure machine is in the top for most usages per day at the Y.

It is very important to keep your blood pressure in check. So, what is considered normal? This is what the American Heart Association says: Normal levels are less than 120 for systolic (the top number) and less than 80 for diastolic (the bottom number). Elevated numbers are 120-129 systolic and less than 80 diastolic, high blood pressure (hypertension stage one) is 130-139 over 80-89, and high blood pressure stage two is 140 or higher over 90 or higher. Hypertensive crisis is where you need to go to the doctor immediately when it is higher than 180 and/or higher than 120.

So what are those numbers referring to? The top number, or systolic, measures the pressure your blood is putting on your artery walls when the heart beats. The bottom and lower number, or 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.

Many times, I have had to explain to people that their systolic (top number) is elevated because they just came from a workout.

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. While taking your blood pressure, sit with legs unfolded, relax, breathe deeply and don’t talk while 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,” where there is a big change from your regular blood pressure from when it is taken by a physician or other health professional.

The morning I had my throat surgery, my BP was 159 over 95! I told them it’s usually in normal range, the nurse said they see it all the time due to anxiety of surgery. 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, preferable 150 minutes a week which is about 30 minutes a day most days of the week.

• Eat a healthy diet, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy 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 woman 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 positives 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, but 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 regularly drink coffee 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. Try to find out what stresses you out and try to find ways to deal with them focusing on issues you can control. Try yoga, meditation or tai chi. They teach you to breathe deeply and relax fully.

• Monitor your blood pressure and see your doctor regularly.

• Get support — family, friends, your local YMCA or gym can give you the emotional boost you need.

And as always, focus on kindness, respect and understanding and just breathe…

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