More than half of all American adults have high blood pressure, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). If the condition is left untreated, patients may be at a greater risk of developing heart attacks, strokes or kidney disease. Oftentimes, the warning signs are virtually undetectable, so it is especially important to monitor your blood pressure beyond your yearly check-up in order to maintain a healthy lifestyle. But what exactly is normal blood pressure anyway?
Normal Blood Pressure Range
“When your blood pressure is high over a period of time, it can cause blockages and weakening or leaks in your arteries, which can affect your heart and brain function,” says Willie Lawrence, M.D., Chief of Cardiology at Research Medical Center, Midwest Heart & Vascular Specialists in Kansas City, Missouri, and American Heart Association national volunteer spokesperson. “It can also affect your eyesight, kidneys, sexual function and other major health conditions.”
That’s why Dr. Lawrence advises checking your blood pressure quite often, not just at your annual exam. “It’s important to take your blood pressure daily and preferably at the same time each day,” he says. “Record the results to share with your doctor at your next visit.”
A normal blood pressure reading is less than 120/80 mmHg. The first number, the systolic blood pressure, is the pressure of blood against the artery walls during a heartbeat. The second number, the diastolic blood pressure, is the pressure of blood against the artery walls between heartbeats. The abbreviation mmHg stands for millimeters of mercury, which was used in the first accurate pressure gauges and is still used as the standard unit of measurement for pressure in medicine.
“Either systolic or diastolic blood pressure by itself can be a sign of high blood pressure,” says Sarah Karp, wellness coordinator for the John Hopkins Medical Alliance for Patients, an accountable care organization which compiles educational resources to empower patients about health and wellness challenges. “Recent studies indicate that with every 20 mmHg systolic or 10 mmHg diastolic increase, the risk of death from ischemic heart disease and stroke among people ages 40 to 89 doubles.”
What Blood Pressure Numbers Mean
A normal systolic pressure is below 120/80. An elevated reading is 120 to 129. A reading of 130 to 139 is called Stage 1 hypertension. A reading of 140 or more is called Stage 2 hypertension.
Any reading of 180 or more is called hypertentive crisis, which requires urgent medical attention. Call 911 immediately if you get this reading.
Tracking Your Blood Pressure
Thanks to new advances in technology, there are plenty of tools available to monitor whether or not you have normal blood pressure in the privacy of your own home. You can easily purchase these devices from retailers like Amazon, Target or Walmart. Or simply visit your local pharmacy to inquire about free services they may offer.
There are also apps available for a nominal fee that will monitor your blood pressure range. A few of Karp’s favorites include MyDiary-Blood Pressure Log and Blood Pressure Monitor. If you don’t feel like purchasing an app, you can also sign up to try this simple (and free!) blood pressure tracker from the AHA.
How to Self-Monitor at Home
Before tracking your blood pressure at home, don’t smoke, drink caffeinated beverages or exercise within 30 minutes before monitoring your blood pressure. The AHA recommends sitting with your back straight and supported with your feet flat on the floor. Keep your legs uncrossed and rest your arm on a flat surface.
To reduce the risk of incorrect readings, check two or three times to see if you have normal blood pressure before recording the results. This will help eliminate the risk of human error, giving you the most accurate numbers.
Blood Pressure vs. Pulse
Checking your pulse is not the same as checking your blood pressure. Your blood pressure is the force of your blood moving through your blood vessels. Your pulse, on the other hand, is how many times your heart beats per minute.
“An increase in your heart rate doesn’t cause your blood pressure to rise at the same rate,” explains Karp. “For example, a healthy heart may pump blood to your muscles twice as fast during exercise while only slightly increasing your blood pressure. Therefore, it’s important to keep track of both readings.” It is important to distinguish the difference between the two in order to monitor whether or not you have normal blood pressure.
Who Is at Risk for Cardiovascular Disease and Hypertension
Although high blood pressure can often go undetected, there are several factors that place some people at a higher risk of developing cardiovascular disease than others. “Social, economic and environmental factors play a role in high blood pressure, along with family and community health beliefs and practices,” says Karp. “Everyone is advised to at least periodically check their blood pressure readings, especially those with the following risk factors.”
-People with family members who have high blood pressure, cardiovascular disease or diabetes
-Anyone over the age of 35
-People who eat a lot of fatty foods or food with too much salt
-People who are overweight or don’t get enough physical activity
-People who drink a lot of alcohol or smoke and women who are pregnant or take birth control pills
Lowering Your Blood Pressure
If your blood pressure reading is too high, taking steps to reach a normal blood pressure range may seem daunting at first. But there are some things you can do to get back to a healthy range. Try adopting a plant-based diet, including fruits, vegetables, grains and legumes. Fill your plate with a rainbow of colorful foods, including watermelon, oranges, spinach, broccoli, blueberries and grapes.
A recent study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that eating a vegetarian diet can considerably decrease the risk of cardiovascular disease. In fact, vegetarians in the trial had a 27 percent lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease than people who consume meat and fish.
In addition to eating less meat, you can also add more potassium-rich foods like cantaloupe, potatoes, spinach and mushrooms to your diet. Karp also recommends lowering your sodium intake to one teaspoon per day and focusing on activities you enjoy, such as gardening, walking or hiking, to lower your blood pressure.
Effects of Smoking
According to a study conducted by scientists from Imperial College London, there is overwhelming evidence to support the theory that cigarette smoking causes adverse cardiovascular events and hypertension, increasing the risk of coronary heart disease.
If you just can’t kick the habit, rest assured there are plenty of resources available to help. Try calling 1-800-QUIT-NOW. Buy over-the-counter nicotine patches or gum. Or set a quit date and announce it all of your family and friends.
“Smoking causes both an instant and long-term rise in blood pressure,” says Karp. “Remove triggers like cigarettes and ashtrays. If possible, also avoid people who are smoking and places where you used to smoke. And talk with your doctor about support programs that can help.”
One way to maintain normal blood pressure is to reduce stress. Although it may seem impossible to completely eliminate stress from your life, you can make a conscious effort to change the way you react to stressful situations. Karp recommends incorporating moving meditation into your regular routine to help bring your attention to the present moment.
“Intentional movement can help you to develop a greater sense of control over your thoughts, feelings and actions,” says Karp. “You will start to become more aware of the present moment and feel more relaxed.”
Try this walking meditation to help promote a better mind-body connection.
1. Lift one foot and place it a bit forward of where you’re standing, heel touching the ground first.
2. Slowly shift your weight onto your front leg as your back heel lifts.
3. Lift your back foot off the ground and notice how it feels as you place it in front, heel first.
4. Shift your weight onto your front leg.
5. Repeat for at least 20 steps, focusing your attention on the movement of your legs, your breath, nearby sounds and the scene around you.
Or just breathe. Focusing on your breath is a great way to calm your mind so, eventually, your body will finally relax and follow suit. “Equal breathing is a simple method you can practice,” says Karp, who is also a medical qi gong practitioner. “Get in a comfortable position. Either lie down or place your feet on the floor while seated. Close your eyes. Inhale for a count of four and exhale for a count of four. Repeat for 10 breaths. Gently open your eyes and notice how you feel.”
What Do YOU Think?
What are your favorite stress-busting solutions to maintain normal blood pressure? Comment below!