Adopting Healthier Habits

Be active

Not only does regular exercise help prevent high blood pressure but it’s also a proven treatment for existing hypertension.

The American College of Sports Medicine reviewed 40 studies on the effect of exercise on blood pressure. With regular aerobic exercise, participants were able to reduce their systolic and diastolic pressures an average of 11 and 9 mm Hg, respectively. Although many studies focused on high-intensity exercises like running, several evaluated the impact of moderate activities such as walking. Surprisingly, moderate-intensity training provided the same or even better blood pressure–lowering benefits.

Study after study has shown that aerobic exercise — walking briskly, running, or cycling — provides a host of other health benefits, including weight loss and reduced cholesterol levels. Experts recommend that you get at least 30 minutes of moderate physical activity on all or most days of the week. Longer sessions can yield even greater health rewards. But it’s important to start any exercise program slowly and to gradually build up the intensity level and length of sessions. People with heart disease or other health problems should consult their doctors before starting an exercise program. (The Harvard Medical School special health report “Exercise: A Program You Can Live With” offers in-depth information on starting and maintaining an exercise program that suits your abilities and lifestyle.

Attain a healthy weight

Not only can being overweight raise your blood pressure (see “Obesity”), but it can also increase your risk for diabetes, arthritis, sleep apnea, and some cancers. Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight is an important step in fighting these and many other illnesses.

People with hypertension who are more than 10% over their ideal weight may be able to reduce their blood pressure by weight loss alone. According to the May 2003 JNC report, you can reduce your systolic blood pressure by 5–20 mm Hg for every 22 pounds you lose. A smaller weight loss can have an effect, too. Losing as few as 10 pounds can reduce your blood pressure.

Stress less

Even though it’s vital to survival, stress has a bad reputation. When you perceive stress, your sympathetic nervous system triggers the “fight or flight” response to prepare your body for action. A release of hormones quickens your heart rate and breathing, and extra blood is pumped to your muscles and organs to provide them with a burst of energy. Stress keeps drivers alert, helps students excel, and spurs competitors to win. But ongoing stress has harmful long-term effects, including raising your blood pressure.

One study suggests that mental stress not only affects blood pressure, but may also thicken artery walls, a condition that can trigger heart attacks and strokes. If you are often tense, the following stress reduction strategies can help.

Get enough sleep. Lack of sound sleep can affect your mood, mental alertness, energy level, and physical health.

Exercise. Physical activity alleviates stress and reduces your risk of becoming depressed.

Learn relaxation techniques. Meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, guided imagery, deep breathing exercises, and yoga are the mainstays of stress relief. Your local hospital may offer meditation or yoga classes, or you can learn about these techniques from books or videotapes. (Harvard Medical School’s “Stress Control” special health report describes a variety of stress relief techniques. For more information, see To get started, try a quick relaxation exercise (see “Quick stress relief exercises”).

Strengthen your social network. Studies show that social ties significantly protect health and well-being. Try to connect with others by taking a class, joining an organization, or participating in a support group.

Learn time-management skills. These skills can help you juggle work and family demands.

Confront stressful situations head-on. Don’t let stressful situations fester. Hold family problem-solving sessions and use negotiation skills at work.

Nurture yourself. Treat yourself to a massage. Truly savor an experience: Eat slowly, focusing on each bite of that orange, or soak up the warm rays of the sun or the scent of blooming flowers during a walk outdoors. Take a nap. Enjoy the sounds of music you find calming.

Talk to your doctor. If stress and anxiety persist, talk to your doctor about whether anti-anxiety medications could be helpful.


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