Understanding Numbers, Part 1: Blood Pressure

This is part 1 of a 4-part series designed to help you better understand some of the tests that you get each year at your physical with your doctor. These numbers are important to your health, and understanding what they mean can help you to improve not only the numbers themselves, but your overall health and wellness.

Blood Pressure (BP) is one of the first measurements taken when you sit down at the doctor’s office. Most people only get their BP checked once a year at their physical, but this is a number that should be checked regularly.

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Blood Pressure is the force of blood pumped against the walls of your arteries. It is measured as two numbers:

Systolic (top number): the amount of pressure when the heart pumps/contracts

Diastolic (bottom number): pressure when the heart is relaxing between beats

Your doctor will read you your number as Systolic / Diastolic, for example, 120/80. Please see the chart below for the different categories of blood pressure:

Category Systolic Diastolic
Normal Less than 120 And Less than 80
Prehypertension 120-129 And Less than 80
High BP (Stage 1) 130-139 OR 80-89
High BP (Stage 2) 140-180 OR 90-120

High Blood Pressure

According to the Center for Disease Control, 1 in every 3 Americans is living with high blood pressure. That’s about 75 million people!

High Blood Pressure is dangerous because it can go unrecognized or undetected for years if you do not get regular blood pressure check-ups. It’s sometimes called the “silent killer”. There are often no symptoms, but it can cause damage to the heart, kidneys, and brain. However if you do have symptoms, they may include:

  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Blurred Vision

If you have elevated blood pressure consistently, you should talk with your doctor about treatment options.

Risks of high blood pressure are severe and scary. Like I mentioned above, many people have no symptoms at all. A lot of the time, these risks come out of seemingly nowhere. These include:

  • Heart Attack: high blood pressure damages the arteries over time, and the arteries can become blocked and prevent blood flow to the tissues of the heart.
  • Stroke: high blood pressure can cause blood vessles in the brain to burst or clog more easily. Strokes are the 4th leading cause of death in America.
  • Heart Failure: increased workload from high blood pressure can cause the heart to enlarge and fail to supply blood to the body
  • Kidney Disease: high blood pressure can damage the arteries around the kidneys and interfere with their ability to effectively filter blood
  • Angina: Also known as chest pain or tightness. Over time, high blood pressure can lead to heart disease or microvascular disease, where angina is a common symptom.
  • Peripheral Artery Disease: artherosclerosis (the build-up of fats, cholesterol, and other substances in and on the artery walls) caused by high blood pressure can cause a narrowing of the arteries in the legs, arms, stomach, and head. This often results in pain or fatigue.

A lot of these can be lumped into the category of general heart disease. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in America today.

Reversing High Blood Pressure

If you have high blood pressure, or fall into the pre-hypertension category, it is important to get your blood pressure checked regularly. It will be up to your doctor as to how often, but most will recommend every 1-3 months. You don’t always have to go to your doctor to do this. Most pharmacies will be able to do a quick BP check, or see if someone at your gym is able to do it.

While you can take medication for blood pressure, you should still make an effort to keep up healthy habits. If you are prescribed medication, be sure to take it properly and regularly. Additionally:

  • Eat a well-balanced, low-salt diet
  • Limit alcohol intake
  • Participate in regular physical activity, such as 150 min per week of moderate intensity activity such as brisk walking. To lower high blood pressure, aim for 40 min of moderate to vigorous activity 3-4 times per week. Include muscle strength training at least 2x per week, as well as flexibility and stretching exercises.
  • Maintain a healthy weight through diet and exercise
  • If you smoke, quit!!!

Blood pressure medication does not have to be a lifelong commitment. I’ve seen many clients start with me while on BP  medication, and then eventually go off of it.  If you have consistent healthy behaviors, are actively working towards improving your blood pressure through lifestyle changes, and get checked on a regular basis, it is possible to reverse your high blood pressure, get it under control, and come off of medication.

Always talk with your doctor about any health concerns you may be having in regards to your blood pressure. Even if they don’t think you need to get it checked more than once a year, it’s better to be safe than sorry!

Part 2: BMI is coming next week! Stay tuned!

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