High Blood Pressure


Steps You Can Take

You can take steps to prevent high blood pressure by adopting these healthy lifestyle habits.

Overweight and Obesity

More than 2 out of 3 Americans ages 20-74 are either overweight or obese. Overweight and obesity increase your chances of developing high blood pressure and diabetes, which, in turn, increase your chances of developing heart disease. Blood pressure rises as body weight increases. Losing even 10 pounds can lower blood pressure -- and it has the greatest effect for those who are overweight and already have hypertension.

Talk to your health care provider about lifestyle changes that can lower your blood pressure and prevent hypertension. If you are overweight or obese, work with your health care provider to develop a plan to help you reduce your weight and maintain a healthy weight. Aim to reduce your weight by 7 to 10 percent over six months, which can lower your risk for health problems. For example, if you are overweight at 200 pounds, try to lose 14 to 20 pounds over six months. After that, you may have to continue to lose weight to get to a healthy weight.

Are You Overweight?

How do you know if you’re overweight? Two key measures are used to determine if someone is overweight or obese. These are body mass index, or BMI, and waist circumference.

Body mass index (BMI) is a measure of weight in relation to height, and provides an estimate of your total body fat. It applies to both men and women, but it does have some limits.

That’s why waist measurement is often checked as well. Another reason is that too much body fat in the stomach area also increases disease risk. A waist measurement of more than 35 inches in women and more than 40 inches in men is considered high.

Overweight is defined as a BMI of 25 to 29.9; obesity is defined as a BMI greater than or equal to 30. As your BMI goes up, so do your chances of getting high blood pressure, heart disease, and other health problems.

A portion of a body mass index chart is on the right. The full chart is available from NHLBI (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute).

If You Need To Lose Weight

If you need to lose weight, it’s important to do so slowly. Lose no more than 1/2 pound to 2 pounds a week. Begin with a goal of losing 10 percent of your current weight. This is the healthiest way to lose weight and offers the best chance of long-term success.

There’s no magic formula for weight loss. You have to eat fewer calories than you use up in daily activities. Just how many calories you burn daily depends on factors such as your body size and how physically active you are.

One pound equals 3,500 calories. So, to lose 1 pound a week, you need to eat 500 calories a day less or burn 500 calories a day more than you usually do. It’s best to work out some combination of both eating less and being more physically active.

And remember to be aware of serving sizes. It’s not only what you eat that adds calories, but also how much. As you lose weight, be sure to follow a healthy eating plan that includes a variety of foods.

Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH)

Following an eating plan that emphasizes fruits, vegetables, fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products, and whole grains, and that is low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and total fat is even more effective when you also reduce your sodium (salt) intake and calories.

One such eating plan is called DASH. DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension. This is the name of a study sponsored by the National Institutes of Health that showed that this kind of eating plan can help you prevent and control high blood pressure. The study also showed that combining this kind of eating plan with cutting back on salt in your diet is even more effective at lowering your blood pressure.

To learn more about DASH, see Lowering Your Blood Pressure with DASH.

Lowering Salt Intake

In general, the lower your salt intake, the lower your blood pressure. Older adults should limit their sodium intake to 1,500 milligrams (mg) daily (about 2/3 of a teaspoon of salt). The key to reducing the amount of salt we eat is making wise food choices. Only a small amount of the salt that we eat comes from the salt shaker, and only small amounts occur naturally in food. Most of the salt that we eat comes from processed foods -- for example, canned or processed meat, baked goods, certain cereals, soy sauce, and foods that contain seasoned salts, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and baking soda. Food from fast food restaurants, frozen foods, and canned foods also tend to be higher in sodium.

See tips to reduce salt in your diet.

Read Food Labels

Be sure to read food labels to choose products lower in salt. Look for foods and seasonings that are labeled as low-salt or "no added salt." Look for the sodium content in milligrams and the Percent Daily Value. Aim for foods that are less than 5 percent of the Daily Value of sodium. Foods with 20 percent or more Daily Value of sodium are considered high. You should eat no more than about 1 teaspoon, or 2300 mg, of salt a day.

To learn more about reading nutrition labels, see Reading the Label.

Be Physically Active

Being physically active is one of the most important steps you can take to prevent or control high blood pressure. It also helps reduce your risk of heart disease. Getting at least 2 and one-half hours of moderate exercise, or one hour and 15 minutes of vigorous activity, each week, preferably spread out across the week in at least 10-minute intervals, can help maintain or improve your cardiovascular health.

Most people don’t need to see a doctor before they start a moderate-level physical activity. You should check first with your doctor if you

See examples of exercises for older adults at Exercises to Try.

For more on exercise and physical activity for older adults, visit Go4Life®, the exercise and physical activity campaign from the National Institute on Aging.

If You Drink

If you drink alcoholic beverages, do so in moderation. Drinking too much alcohol can raise your blood pressure. Men should limit their intake to 2 drinks per day, and women should limit their intake to one drink per day.

See how drinking alcohol can affect you as you age.

Watch a video on how to cut back on drinking alcohol.

Don't Smoke

Smoking injures blood vessel walls and speeds up the process of hardening of the arteries. It increases your chances of stroke, heart disease, peripheral arterial disease, and several forms of cancer. If you smoke, quit. If you don't smoke, don't start. Once you quit, your risk of having a heart attack is reduced after the first year. So you have a lot to gain by quitting.

See how to start a smoking quit plan geared to older adults.