Experts say these simple lifestyle adjustments can go a long way to keep your levels in check—and ward off a silent killer.
Sometimes called “the silent killer” because it often has no symptoms, high blood pressure is very common in older adults: 69 percent of women and 64 percent of men between the ages of 65 and 74 have hypertension, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And it’s even more common after age 75.
If high blood pressure isn’t controlled, it can damage blood vessels throughout the body and lead to serious health conditions, such as heart attack, stroke, eye problems, or kidney disease. So keeping your blood pressure in check truly can be a lifesaver.
While you can’t control everything that affects your risk—age, gender, or family history—you’re not powerless. Blood pressure can be controlled in most people, and it doesn’t always require prescription meds.
“There are lifestyle changes patients can make to help reduce their blood pressure,” says Laxmi Mehta, M.D., a cardiologist who specializes in preventive care at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. Whether or not they’ll be enough for you depends on your current reading and health history, she says. So as always, the first step is to talk with your doctor.
What Is Normal Blood Pressure?
The CDC recommends:
- Systolic pressure below 120 mmHg
- Diastolic pressure below 80 mmHg
Blood pressure numbers are typically written with the systolic number above the diastolic number, so an example of a normal reading would be 118/76 mmHg, or “118 over 76.”
In general, if your blood pressure is in the prehypertension range—a systolic reading between 120 to 130 mmHg and diastolic between 80 to 89 mmHg—your doctor may suggest starting with lifestyle changes alone.
If your doctor recommends medications, follow those instructions exactly. The great news is healthy lifestyle changes can make treatment more effective.
“Making simple adjustments to improve blood pressure can be quite successful,” Dr. Mehta says.
Here are eight such adjustments to help take control of your blood pressure—and your health.
1. Exercise the Right Way
Exercise is one of the best things you can do for your heart—and for your blood pressure specifically. But what exactly should you be doing? In 2015, experts from the University of Connecticut reviewed current research and recommended the following guidelines:
- Perform at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise like walking, jogging, cycling, or swimming on most—and preferably all—days of the week.
- Do resistance training two to three days per week.
In total, you’ll want to aim for at least 150 minutes of exercise each week. The potential results could be comparable to what you’d find from first-line blood pressure meds, the researchers say, noting that aerobic exercise has been shown to lower blood pressure in hypertensive adults by 5 to 7 mmHg, and resistance training by 2 to 3 mmHg.
Don’t worry if you can’t complete a 30-minute workout at once. “Break your workout into 10-minute increments,” Dr. Mehta suggests. “You need at least 10-minute bursts to get your heart rate up enough to be effective.”
If you’re a beginner, walking is a simple way to build an exercise habit—and your confidence. Try these 10 ways to walk more each day.
Many beginners also find support from a trained, energetic instructor helps tremendously. SilverSneakers offers free gym access and fitness classes with instructors who are trained to work with older adults. Check your eligibility for SilverSneakers here, and see class options here.
2. Lose the Extra Weight
“Weight loss helps reduce strain on the heart,” Dr. Mehta says. “If the heart has to work harder, the blood pressure will be higher.”
But you might not need to shed as much weight as you think. “In some patients, five to 10 pounds can really help,” Dr. Mehta says. “I have had some patients lose 10 pounds and be able to come off blood pressure meds.”
There’s research to back that up. A 2016 study published in Cell Metabolism found that when obese people lost just 5 percent of their weight, their systolic blood pressure dropped 4 mmHg. It also improved other levels of heart health measures, like glucose, insulin, and triglycerides.
Need a little help? Check out the best way to lose weight after age 60.
3. Eat Your Omega-3s
After crunching the numbers from 70 different studies, researchers determined that eating omega-3 fatty acids can help people lower their blood pressure, according to an analysis in the American Journal of Hypertension. The greatest effect was seen in people with untreated high blood pressure, who lowered their systolic levels by more than 4 mmHg and their diastolic by 3 mmHg.
Omega-3s are healthy fats that help reduce inflammation, says Nathan Myers, R.D., a clinical dietitian at James J. Peters VA Medical Center in New York. That’s important, since chronic inflammation can stiffen and constrict your arteries, leading to an increase in blood pressure.
Aim to eat eight ounces of fatty fish or seafood per week, Myers says, adding that a four-ounce serving is about the size of a deck of cards. Options include salmon, tuna, mackerel, herring, sardines, trout, and oysters. Fish like salmon and sardines offer a bonus benefit: The tiny, edible bones inside make them a good source of calcium, which can also help regulate blood pressure, Myers says.
Plant foods can also provide omega-3s. Try ground flaxseed, chia seeds, or walnuts. How about an energizing green smoothie with a healthy dose of omega-3s? Get the recipe here.
4. Limit the Salty Stuff—and Prioritize Potassium
While there’s some controversy about sodium and heart health, the evidence seems to be in favor of limiting sodium to help control high blood pressure, Dr. Mehta says.
Your body wants to maintain a constant level of sodium in your blood, Myers explains. When you take in too much, your blood retains more water than usual to dilute the sodium content to return to its preferred levels. This fluid retention can increase blood pressure.
That’s where another mineral comes into play: potassium. Your body needs balanced levels of potassium and sodium for your kidneys to effectively remove excess fluid from your body. “If the ratio of sodium to potassium is too high, fluid will be retained,” Myers says.
In most cases, eating the recommended servings of fruits and vegetables will help you meet your potassium goals without any problem. That means five servings of vegetables and four servings of fruit per day, according to the American Heart Association.
As for sodium, most people should get no more than 2,300 milligrams per day, Dr. Mehta says, though the number may be even lower depending on your health. As always, it’s best to check with your doctor to make sure you’re on track. One easy way anyone can cut back on salt: Cook with herbs and spices instead.
5. Bring On the Garlic
Garlic doesn’t just add flavor to your food—it might also reduce your blood pressure levels. Australian researchers found that garlic supplements, particularly aged garlic extract, can lower blood pressure to a similar magnitude as standard medications, or about 10 mmHg systolic and 8 mmHg diastolic.
This may be because it triggers the production of nitric oxide. “Nitric oxide dilates, or expands, the diameter of blood vessels,” Myers explains. “This essentially creates more room for blood to flow and reduces the amount of pressure necessary to move blood through the body.”
An added perk of using garlic for flavor: You may help your blood pressure indirectly too. You may be less likely to reach for salt, which can lead to fluid retention, or calorie-rich sauces, which can lead to weight gain.
Need inspiration? Try these recipes for edamame hummus or pesto pasta.
6. Practice Deep Breathing
When you stress or worry too much, your body releases hormones that can raise your blood pressure and heart rate, Dr. Mehta says. But that’s not the only way stress can impact your health.
“We know that people make unhealthy choices when they’re stressed, with their diet, lack of exercise, drinking more alcohol,” she says. “So having stress under control is key.”
Simple breathing exercises can go a long way. When people with untreated hypertension were instructed to take six deep breaths over a 30-second period, their systolic blood pressure dropped by nearly 10 mmHg and their diastolic blood pressure by 3 mmHg, a study from Japan found.
Want to give it a try? Check out our guide to another simple breathing technique that reduces stress. Bonus: It’s impossible not to smile while you’re doing it.
7. Stop After One to Two Drinks
When researchers from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons analyzed results from 16 previous studies, they confirmed that heavy drinking is associated with increased risk of hypertension. The key, though, is that “heavy drinking” is probably less than you think.
Men who drank 31 to 40 grams of alcohol per day—which translates to two to three standard drinks, containing 14 grams of alcohol each—were 77 percent more likely to have hypertension than those who abstained. And women who drank the same amount were 19 percent more likely to have high blood pressure than those who didn’t drink at all.
Doctors aren’t exactly sure how drinking too much alcohol raises your risk of hypertension, but they have some ideas. It’s possible that alcohol activates your sympathetic nervous system, which causes your blood vessels to narrow, according to a review published in the World Journal of Cardiology. Alcohol-induced inflammation may also make it difficult for your blood vessels to relax, contributing to hypertension.
Your move: For heart health in general, stick to no more than one drink per day for women, and two drinks per day for men, Dr. Mehta says.
8. Track Your Blood Pressure Like You Track Your Steps
This strategy may not lower your blood pressure on its own, but it can help you adhere to lifestyle changes—which can ultimately bring it down.
“Tracking your blood pressure will make you cognizant of what it is, and perhaps if that recognition or knowledge changes health behaviors, then maybe it can lower it,” Dr. Mehta says. For instance, you may see your readings creep higher if you start to deviate from your healthy eating or exercise plan—which can prompt you to buckle down.
Investing in an at-home monitor can make it easy to stay informed. Just choose one that uses an arm cuff rather than a wrist cuff, which tends to be less accurate, Dr. Mehta says.
And if you decide to get your own machine, bring it with you to your doctor’s visit every year or two. That way, your doctor can use your personal monitor and compare the reading to what he or she measures in the office, so you’ll know whether your machine is accurate.