One in three American adults has high blood pressure. High blood pressure occurs when the vessels that carry blood are put under more pressure than they should be. This makes the heart work harder and adds persistent wear and tear to blood vessels—putting those with hypertension (the medical term for blood pressure that's 140/90 and above) at risk for serious health problems, such as heart attacks, heart disease, stroke, kidney disease and cognitive issues.
That's scary enough. But worse yet, high blood pressure can be a silent killer, as it may not be accompanied by any signs or symptoms. And even when people are aware, research from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) suggests that only about half of those diagnosed with hypertension have it under control.
Related: 4 Foods to Lower Blood Pressure
But why is that, since there are natural ways to lower blood pressure through diet and exercise? "Part of the problem is that people aren't being screened for high blood pressure—and those who are often don't realize that they can control high blood pressure—or even where to start," says Cordialis Msora-Kasago, R.D.N., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
So begin here. Take back your health with these research-approved ways to tame high blood pressure.
Work your heart to make it stronger. With regular exercise, the heart is able to pump more blood with each beat, which lowers your heart rate. Exercise also boosts your body's overall efficiency, which means the heart doesn't have to work as hard to get oxygen and nutrients to all your tissues. This has many benefits: research shows that being physically active lowers blood pressure and prevents those within the normal or prehypertensive range (blood pressure between 120/80 and 139/89) from putting themselves at risk.
In some, exercise works to lower blood pressure even when medications cannot. According to a study published in Hypertension, 50 patients with resistant hypertension (defined as high blood pressure that doesn't respond to taking three or more types of medication designed to lower blood pressure) who walked on a treadmill at a 3 percent grade three times a week for eight weeks were able to lower their systolic blood pressure (the number on the top of a blood-pressure reading) by 6 mm Hg (a measure of pressure). Additionally, they lowered their diastolic blood pressure (the number on the bottom) by 3 mm Hg.
How much exercise is enough? Experts recommend being active for at least 30 minutes each day on most days of the week—but if you can find more time to move, the benefits to your heart increase. For example, a 2017 review in Hypertension found that for every 150 minutes that participants exercised per week, their risk of having high blood pressure went down by 6 percent. So if you can move more, do it!
While aerobic exercise (e.g., walking, running or riding a bike) is a tried-and-true form of exercise, any activity that gets your heart rate up is beneficial. For example, a review published in the Journal of the American Heart Association found that resistance exercise—such as lifting weights—lowered diastolic blood pressure more than aerobic-style workouts. And feel free to think outside the box: one study in hypertensive women over the age of 70 found that gardening twice a week for 50 minutes was enough to help lower their average blood pressure. The best type of activity to do is the activity you know you'll stick with—whether that's running, gardening or something else entirely.
Try It: 7-Day DASH Diet Meal Plan
No one food is the cure for or the cause of hypertension. But research has consistently shown that—after exercise—sticking to healthful eating patterns can help to curb blood pressure.
Most research points toward the DASH diet as an eating pattern worth following for heart health. The DASH diet emphasizes fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, fish, poultry and low-fat dairy—and limits red meats, processed foods, sugary drinks and alcohol. Since the original DASH diet study was published in 1997, clinical trials have found the DASH diet to be most effective at lowering systolic and diastolic pressure (by an average of 7.6 mm Hg and 4.2 mm Hg respectively), according to a 2016 review in Hypertension.
Why does it work so well? The DASH diet contains more nutrients that may help lower blood pressure than the typical American diet, such as potassium, magnesium, calcium and dietary fiber. And it naturally lowers sodium intake—a mineral thought to increase fluid retention and inflammation—by limiting packaged foods like chips and processed meats. Plus, some research suggests that following the DASH diet helps with weight loss, another benefit that may help control blood pressure.
The DASH diet is based on a 1,600- to 2,600-calorie day. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics describes it as the following: 7 to 12 servings of fruits and vegetables, 6 to 11 servings of grains (e.g., whole-wheat bread, oatmeal, brown rice); 2 to 3 servings of low-fat dairy products; 6 or fewer servings per day of lean meat, poultry and fish; 2 to 3 servings per day of fats and oils (avoid trans fats and limit saturated fat); 3 to 5 servings per week of nuts, seeds and legumes.
This amount of produce is way above the norm—more than half of Americans do not even eat their recommended 2 cups of fruit and 2-3 cups of vegetables daily—so it can be tough making the switch. (Studies have estimated that only about 20 percent of people with hypertension comply with the DASH diet after being advised to follow it.) But that doesn't mean it's impossible. What matters most is making incremental changes you can stick to. Learning how to flavor foods without salt can really help. "The DASH diet is blander than we're used to," notes Msora-Kasago, "but using spices and garlic can really add a lot of flavor."
Being under pressure may contribute to hypertension. Stressful situations cause the release of hormones that increase your heart rate and make your blood vessels narrow—a lose-lose for those concerned about their numbers. The long-term effects of constantly being under fire are yet to be determined, but there's some research to suggest that taking steps to reduce stress is beneficial. For example, a 2017 review found that practicing qi gong, which involves breathing exercises, gentle movement and meditation, was just as effective as traditional exercise or yoga in reducing blood pressure.
Plus, logging enough sleep per night may help lower both stress and blood pressure. What's enough? At least six hours of sleep a night. Getting less than that may increase your risk of having hypertension by 17 percent, according to a 2017 review in Sleep Medicine.
There are natural, effective ways to lower blood pressure—but there is no one-size-fits-all approach. The first step is to have your blood pressure routinely checked. Then, find a routine that is sustainable and enjoyable for you—and has your doctor's stamp of approval.