Healthy Habits to Prevent High Blood Pressure

Have high blood pressure, or at high risk for it? Building healthy habits can really help your blood pressure levels. In fact, though there is a genetic component to your individual level, lifestyle choices have an enormous impact on blood pressure – for better or worse!

How is high blood pressure dangerous?

Picture this: You’re filling up a water balloon. As you put in more water, the balloon stretches, and the walls start to thin, which makes them much more susceptible to damage (like when you throw it at someone and it bursts on impact!!). On the other hand, a balloon with only a small amount of water in it will be much harder to damage.

High blood pressure (known in medical terms as hypertension) works in much the same way. The increased pressure on the blood vessel walls makes them more susceptible to damage. Vessels can become more stiff and build up deposits of plaque, leading to the blockage of blood that causes heart attack and stroke. High blood pressure can also damage small blood vessels in your kidneys, eyes, and other organs, which in turn damages the organs themselves. And like the water balloon, blood vessels can also weaken and bulge, forming an aneurysm. An aneurysm that bursts can quickly be life-threatening. High blood pressure is also a risk factor for other diseases and health conditions, increasing the risk of diabetes, heart disease, and even cognitive conditions.

These high blood pressure complications are not especially appealing! But the lifestyle choices that keep your blood pressure at healthy levels and help prevent complications can be easy, and even enjoyable.

Simple Changes to Lower Blood Pressure

Get daily exercise or physical activity: A healthy heart and blood vessels can be achieved and maintained with as little as 30 minutes of daily activity. You can even break this up into smaller blocks – there is significant evidence that multiple, short bouts of activity have the same health benefits as one longer one. So if a brisk half-hour walk doesn’t sound good, you could try a 10-min walk in the morning and evening, and another 10 minutes of exercise or even active chores like vacuuming to hit your 30 minutes. If it’s been a while since you’ve been active or exercising, please chat with your doctor prior to starting a new exercise routine, especially if you have health problems.

Make healthy food choices: Choose fresh foods that are as close as possible to their natural state. That is, pick lean steak over salami. Eat more whole foods, like fresh fruit and vegetables, lean proteins, legumes (beans, lentils, etc.), and fewer pre-prepared foods, as these are generally higher in sodium, cholesterol, and trans fats. Choosing foods with no added sugars will also help. Don’t forget to include beverages in this category too!

Achieve and maintain a healthy weight: Carrying extra body fat can cause blood pressure to rise, and increases physical stress on the body’s systems. Even a small amount of weight loss can have a big impact on blood pressure levels, and additional weight loss can lead to additional improvements. The above two ideas will certainly help with this.

Choose healthy stress management strategies: Gentle physical activity like walking or tai chi, meditation and breathing exercises, keeping a journal or working on arts and crafts are all healthy relaxation ideas. Take some time to have some fun!

Avoid unhealthy stress management: Two common but unhealthy stress management choices that many people make are alcohol and tobacco use. Keep your alcohol consumption under one standard drink per day for women, and two for men. And we all know that tobacco use is deadly – spiking your blood pressure is just one reason why.

Sleep well: Restful sleep is key to stress management. Poor sleep quality can impair your body’s ability to regulate stress hormones, which can lead to increases in blood pressure. On average, adults under the age of 65 should get 7-9 hours of quality sleep each night. Adults over 65 should get 7-8 hours of quality sleep each night. If you have trouble getting this amount of sleep, or don’t wake up feeling rested, please talk to your doctor about this. It’s one of the single biggest things you can do to improve your health!

Taking action in any one of these areas can make a significant difference. Making more than one of these choices on a regular basis will help you easily control your blood pressure, and potentially even prevent the need for medication. What’s one change that you can make today?

The Golden Rule of Exercise

Ever heard the saying “no pain, no gain”?

I bet you have. And when it comes to exercise, I’m here to tell you, this is a big fat lie. While it can sometimes be difficult to tell the difference, different “pain” feelings can mean very different things for your body.

Unfortunately, when it comes to exercise, pain has long been considered a part of the experience. Sore knees, aching backs, bum shoulders that catch, stab, or just don’t move very well anymore… The idea was that if things weren’t hurting, you weren’t working hard enough. Apply this to a different situation: Would you put your hand on a hot stove to make sure you were cooking well enough? Doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it? You can actually have a far more effective workout when you aren’t hurting, because you will be able to continue to exercise on your regular schedule, and not limp around for three days. So our Golden Rule: No Pain (or, If it hurts, don’t do it).

Feelings of intense exercise should occur in areas powering movement, mainly muscles and/or lungs.

But exercise isn’t always pleasant, and can be downright uncomfortable, especially as intensity increases. The physical sensations that come with intense exercise or physical activity – burning muscles, bursting lungs or shortened breath, or a stitch in the side – are not particularly pleasant at the time. But the “pain” of working hard during exercise should not last. When you stop and rest, these feelings should subside, leaving you pain-free, or at worst, somewhat fatigued. In the days following an intense workout, you may also feel stiff and sore through the muscles, a short-term state known as Delayed-Onset Muscle Soreness, or DOMS.

Any aches and pains arising during or after exercise that are different than these should be brought up with your doctor or an exercise physiologist ASAP to make sure you stay safe and injury-free. Some of the most common feelings that should prompt this discussing (during or after a workout): joint pain, back pain, pain in areas that may not be related to a workout – anything that seems unusual, really. These are often indicators of tissue damage. Further, if you have a history of injury, or a chronic health condition, you may experience slightly-to-very different feelings during exercise or physical activity than someone who is assumed healthy. If this is the case, definitely talk to your doctor or an exercise physiologist about how to get exercise safely and what to look out for.

Feelings of injury or damage are often felt in joints, and can last for days after activity.

It’s important to distinguish between these two types of pain, because the “pain” of appropriate and/or intense exercise can actually prevent the pain that coincides with tissue damage and long-term aches, pains, and injury by conditioning the body to be better able to respond to physical stress. Next time you’re moving and something isn’t feeling great, take a moment and consider what kind of whether you’re feeling the burn of hard work, or whether you might actually be doing some damage, and then apply the Golden Rule as needed.

In order to move well and stay healthy and injury free, you have to get and stay pain free. Continuing to exercise when you feel pain will likely increase that pain, may create further tissue damage, and make it more difficult to exercise or get through your normal daily activities. In the long run this will be detrimental to your overall health and fitness, mental health, and ability to make progress. All of this makes exercising when you’re in pain a bad idea! So when in doubt, seek help. Better to have an extra appointment and stay safe and feel good, than push through pain until something breaks.

Strength Training Leads To Success

Want faster progress towards your health and fitness goals? Try some strength training!

People often gravitate towards cardiovascular exercise when starting a new health and fitness habit. And there is nothing wrong with that. Cardio (or aerobic exercise) is a great choice and can significantly increase your fitness levels and improve your health.

Eventually though, if all you are doing is cardio, you will eventually plateau. That is, you’ll stop making progress, even if you spend more and more time doing it. Awesome that you got yourself fit enough to have that problem! But kind of a bummer if you’re not where you want to be yet.

Good news though. Many people find that when they start adding even a little bit of strength or resistance training, they kick start their progress again. Adding strength training doesn’t mean adding more time to your exercise plans either. It can be a good substitute for some of your cardio exercise, and a good strength training workout can take as little as 20 to 30 minutes once you get the hang of it.

Some of the biggest benefits of strength training include:

  • Improved metabolic rate: Your metabolism determines how much energy you burn daily, in the form of calories. Muscle tissue does burn more calories than fat does, so if you have more muscle mass, your daily calorie burn will automatically be higher, so you will more easily manage your body weight and body composition.
  • Improved blood sugar control: Strength training helps manage blood sugar in a couple of different ways. First, it increases the amount of muscle mass we have. As mentioned above, more muscle mass requires more energy (in this context, blood sugar or glucose) to exist. This alone can change the way your body draws glucose from the blood. Additionally, a single strength training workout will impact blood sugar levels (again, more energy is required). If you are diabetic and use insulin, it’s important to monitor your blood sugar levels before and after a workout (and even during), especially when you are new to exercise or changing your program.   Bottom line, improving your body’s ability to lower blood sugar level on its own.
  • Decreased joint pain/improved joint function: Your muscles play a large part in keeping your joints happy and healthy. Strong muscles that activate that the right times will help the joints stay supported and pain free. This means less back pain, knee pain, shoulder pain – you name it.
  • Toning up: Most people on this site are looking for how to improve health and/or daily quality of life – looks are not our focus here, and I want to emphasize that healthy does not have a “look”! Adding strength training to your exercise program can make a huge difference to health and quality of life. It also changes your muscle tone, which can result in a change in appearance that gives you a positive mental boost. It’s the icing on the cake.
  • Improved self-confidence: “Empowered” is somewhat of a buzzword, but I think it fits here. When you realize can pick up heavy things and survive, new doors open up. Personally, I’ve dealt with anxiety throughout life, and getting physically stronger, for me, made life a lot less scary.

Of course, this is not an exhaustive list, and as each person is unique, you may feel the benefits of strength training in your own way. But they will be there, for sure. Carve out some time – it’s worth it!

Not sure how to get started with strength training? HealthFit Coaching has a easy, not scary, online exercise program that is individualized and tailored to suit your needs, goals, and starting points. Check it out!