What is blood pressure? It’s the amount of pressure your blood exerts against arteries and veins as it circulates, according to the CDC, and it’s typically measured in two ways: Systolic blood pressure is the pressure exerted when your heart beats. Diastolic blood pressure is the pressure on your blood vessels in between beats. Healthy blood pressure is typically at or below 120 systolic and 80 diastolic (or 120/80), according to the Mayo Clinic. However, when your blood pressure is higher than 120/80, it means that your heart is working harder than it should—thus putting you at risk for a number of heart complications ranging from heart attack to stroke.
The good news is you can work to lower your blood pressure. Mariell Jessup MD, FACC, FACP, FAHA, cardiologist and American Heart Association (AHA) "Go Red for Women" staff expert, recommends committing to manageable steps that you can incorporate into your life. Her go-to tip? Aim to get 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise during your week. That comes to just 20 minutes a day.
Now, there are a lot of other things you can do to manage your blood pressure levels or attempt to lower them over time. These include lowering your stress levels, reducing sodium consumption, limiting alcohol intake, and having regular checkups. "One reason your blood pressure can increase is because of stiffer, smaller arteries and veins," says Dr. Jessup, adding that sodium can contribute to this stiffness.
Moderate-intensity exercise, however, helps strengthen the cardiovascular system by widening arteries and veins and strengthening the heart. A stronger heart, according to the Mayo Clinic, can pump more blood with less force, which lessens the pressure on your arteries. This in turn leads to lower blood pressure, and it's why exercise is so highly recommended by cardiologists like Dr. Jessup. The AHA lists brisk walking, biking below 10 mph, dancing, gardening as examples of moderate-intensity exercise.
Your heart health benefits from a total body approach, but if you're just getting started on a heart health journey, physical activity is an excellent and sustainable place to start. Starting small is better than taking on more changes than you can sustainably practice. So if you're looking for a simpler lifestyle change to embark on for your blood pressure—start with 20 minutes of exercise a day. This could also look like 40 minutes every other day, or whatever combination works for you. But, according to Dr. Jessup, frequency is more important than intensity. This means that a 3-hour bike ride once a month isn't as beneficial for your heart health as a daily 20-minute power walk, run, or cycling session.
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