Give a Little Love to Your Heart
The importance of heart health comes into focus every February with American Heart Month. This year, The Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention is placing the spot light on hypertension (high blood pressure).
Did you know that nearly half of adults living in the United States are suffering from high blood pressure and 1 of 3 don’t even know it? Hypertension is often referred to as the silent killer because many individuals are asymptomatic, meaning they experience no signs or symptoms that would indicate a problem. Not only is uncontrolled high blood pressure a primary risk factor for cardiovascular disease and stroke (the most common and costly of CVD risk factors), recent evidence suggests that it can lead to severe changes in brain structure and function resulting in cognitive impairment and dementia. Needless to say, the earlier we act, the better.
You might be asking, what's a normal blood pressure? According to the 2018 clinical practice guidelines a blood pressure less than 120/80 mmHg is considered normal or healthy.
Here a few simple, everyday actions that can help you keep your blood pressure at a healthy level.
Eat a Nutrient-Dense Diet
If you’ve ever been diagnosed with high blood pressure, you may be familiar with the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet. The DASH diet is endorsed as an effective diet for controlling high blood pressure by the American Heart Association, the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, and the United States guidelines for treatment of high blood pressure.
The DASH dietary pattern emphasizes fiber-rich vegetables, fruit, whole grains, low-fat dairy, lean meat, fish, nuts, seeds, legumes, and healthy fats like avocado and olive oil coupled with reduced sodium, saturated fat, and sugar intake. The DASH diet is very similar to the Mediterranean dietary pattern with added emphasis on reduced sodium intake (recommend less than 2,300 mg/day based on a 2,000 calorie-a-day diet; 1,500 mg/day shows even greater reductions in blood pressure).
It’s amazing just how quickly sodium can add up if you’re eating a lot of pre-packaged or fast-foods. Take a look at this infographic, The Salty Six, from the American Heart Association.
Regular physical activity makes your heart stronger. There is ample evidence that exercise not only helps reduce blood pressure which reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, but it can help lower your stress levels and improve overall quality of life.
Current recommendations for adults include 150 to 300 minutes of moderate intensity activity per week such as brisk walking or bicycling, or 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity per week like running, swimming, group fitness classes like bootcamp or HIIT training, or sports like singles tennis, soccer, or martial arts. Additionally, 2 days of strength or muscle building activity per week such as lifting weights or using your own body weight for resistance training (e.g. push-ups) is recommended.
Choose an activity that you enjoy because if exercise feels like punishment you won’t stick with it and it’s unlikely to become part of your every day life. Exercise can be social and a great way to connect with family and friends or it can provide time alone to listen to your favorite music, podcast, or audiobook. Make it fun!
Manage your Stress
Stress is pervasive in our society. For some individuals the surge of adrenaline and cortisol is a motivator, bringing about better, faster performance. For others, stress can be debilitating, wreaking havoc on the immune system resulting in chronic inflammation and ultimately, chronic illness.
The link between stress and high blood pressure is not totally clear, but stress becomes a problem when it starts negatively influencing our everyday behaviors. Risk factors associated with high blood pressure like excessive consumption of alcohol, tobacco use, and a poor diet are influenced by emotional and psychological stress.
There are many ways to manage stress in a healthy and productive way, including exercise which might seem counterintuitive. Although, exercise is a form of physical stress and it may feel like the last thing you want to do, there is some evidence that working-out stimulates the production of endorphins which act as the body’s natural painkillers and feel-good neurotransmitters. Additionally, researchers have shown that while exercise initially elevates the body’s stress response, individuals experience lower levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline after bouts of exercise, suggesting that exercise can be a modifier of stress.
A nutrient-dense diet, regular exercise, and effective stress management are important tools for maintaining cardiovascular health. It’s important to check your blood pressure regularly and it’s never too early to start because young people can have high blood pressure too (1 in 4 adults age 20 to 44 have high blood pressure according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).
When's the last time you checked your blood pressure? There's no better time than now. Give your heart a little love.
High Blood Pressure. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Website. https://www.cdc.gov/bloodpressure/5_surprising_facts.htm. Updated November 9, 2020. Accessed February 1, 2021.
Whelton PK, Carey RM, Aronow WS, et al. 2017 ACC/AHA/AAPA/ABC/ACPM/ AGS/APhA/ASH/ASPC/NMA/PCNA guideline for the prevention, detection, evaluation, and management of high blood pressure in adults. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2018;71(19):e127-e248.
Rêgo ML, Cabral DA, Costa EC, Fontes EB. Physical exercise for individuals with hypertension: It is time to emphasize its benefits on the brain and cognition. Clin Med Insights Cardiol. 2019;13:1-10.
Ozemek C, Laddu DR, Arena R, Lavie CJ. The role of diet for prevention and management of hypertension. Curr Opin Cardiol. 2018;33(4):388-393.
Hackney AC. Stress and the neuroendocrine system: the role of exercise as a stressor and modifier of stress. Expert Rev Endocrinol Metab. 2006;1(6):783-792.