What is hypertension and why is it dangerous?
“Hypertension is a condition in which the pressure in the blood vessels is persistently high,” explains Dr. Deepak Patel, Clinical Specialist at Vitality. “A healthy blood pressure reading is below 120/80 mmHg. If you have your blood pressure taken on three different days, and all your readings are 140/90 mmHg or higher, it is very likely that you have hypertension. The upshot of this is that your heart must work harder to pump blood through your body. You should talk to your doctor about how best to control your blood pressure.”
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), uncontrolled high blood pressure is dangerous because it can lead to heart attacks, heart enlargement, and eventually heart failure. Hypertension can also damage your blood vessels, and lead to aneurysms (weak spots and bulging in your vessels) and strokes. High blood pressure can also increase your risk of kidney failure, blindness, and cognitive impairment.
Key lifestyle changes that combat hypertension
The WHO offers these five key steps to prevent or manage hypertension:
- Follow a healthy diet: Opt for whole, less processed foods over processed foods; focus on fruit, vegetables, wholegrains, and lean meat; and limit red meat and foods high in salt, added sugar and unhealthy fats.
- If you drink alcohol, stick to moderate amounts: Limit alcohol intake as drinking too much alcohol also increases your blood pressure.
- Move your body: Consistent exercise has been shown to be highly effective in lowering the risk of chronic diseases of lifestyle. Get at least 150-300 minutes of moderate intensity aerobic activity or 75–125 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic activity a week or a combination of both. Also include strength training on two or more days per week and reduce sedentary time for additional health benefits.
- Stop smoking: Smoking has been shown to increase high blood pressure.
- Manage stress in a healthy way: Prolonged periods of stress may have negative health effects on your body.
Managing hypertension with a healthy diet
Terry Harris, dietitian at Vitality, says, “One of the easiest ways to lower your blood pressure and improve your health is to make a few simple changes to your diet. Focus on the following food groups including wholegrains (such as wholewheat bread, brown rice, oats, quinoa and bulgur wheat), a variety of colorful fruit and vegetables, low-fat plain milk and yogurt, legumes, nuts and seeds and lean meat and eggs.”
Harris offers these nine tips to help prevent or manage hypertension through your everyday food choices:
- Incorporate more vegetables into your day – add a salad to meals, snack on vegetable crudités, and incorporate more vegetables into existing recipes (like spinach and mushroom omelettes, wraps or sandwiches with grated carrot, beetroot and cucumber, pasta sauces with pureed carrots, zucchinis and butternut, and so on).
- After meals, serve fresh fruit – instead of sugary desserts – to satisfy sweet cravings.
- Choose wholegrains such as brown rice, oats, popcorn, wholewheat pasta and couscous, wholewheat bread and quinoa instead of the refined alternatives.
- Add beans, chickpeas, and lentils to a salad, stir fry, bolognaise, stew and casserole. To remove excess salt, be sure to rinse canned legumes before using them.
- Use healthy fats such as avocado or salt-free nut butters as a spread instead of mayonnaise, butter or margarine; cook with olive or canola oil; add unsalted seeds and nuts to a salad or a bowl of oatmeal or have the seeds/nuts as a snack.
- Replace salty snacks with fresh fruit, unsalted nuts and seeds, unsalted popcorn and low-fat plain yogurt or a glass of milk.
- Choose protein wisely by having eggs, lean meat, chicken, fish or low-fat plain milk and yogurt instead of the fatty and full cream alternatives.
- Start by simply adding gradually less salt to your food during cooking and at the table. Instead, flavor food with fresh and dried herbs and salt-free spices, ginger, chili, garlic, vinegar or citrus juice and zest instead of seasonings with salt, packet soups and stock cubes.
- Shop smarter by learning to read food labels so you can identify hidden salt in products. Aim to fill most of your shopping basket with minimally processed whole foods. Choose low-sodium versions of products where available.
Exercising with high blood pressure
As far as exercise goes, any physical activity that increases your heart and breathing rate will help to control high blood pressure. Aim to do 150-300 minutes a week of moderate intensity exercise, like going for a brisk walk, or do a workout at a higher intensity for 75-125 minutes per week. The best option is to do a combination of the two such as a circuit workout with bouts of higher intensity, followed by lower heart rate recovery sets in between. You can also incorporate strength training movements at moderate intensity into these cardio sets.
It’s also important to reduce continuous sedentary time per day. “Take more frequent breaks in between your working hours,” suggests Mari Leach, a biokineticist at Vitality. “Walk around the block during your lunch break or do a couple of chair squats between online meetings and be physical in your daily tasks – take the stairs instead of the elevator, mow the lawn yourself, or do some concerted laps instead of just paddling in a pool.”
To keep your blood pressure within a normal range, it’s important to be consistent in your exercise routine. Leach advises that you need to prioritize it and schedule it in your daily planner to become a routine: “It usually takes about one to three months of regular exercise to see a positive change in your blood pressure, but you will feel the benefits from the ‘feel good hormones’ – your endorphins – much sooner.”
Exercise is quite safe for most people who have high blood pressure, but it’s always advisable to get advice from your doctor or an exercise specialist, who can assist with a personalized, safe exercise program. If you don’t feel well, it’s best to take a rest day or use it as an easy recovery or stretch session.
“It’s important to know your health status,” concludes Dr Patel. “Even if you feel fine, visit your GP or a clinic for a general check-up once a year, or book a health check to track your key health indicators on a regular basis. Taking steps towards prevention and early treatment of hypertension will help ensure a healthier heart.”