6 Steps for Healthy Blood Pressure During the Pandemic - AvMed

Get control of hypertension—a risk factor for serious COVID-19

Mature Hispanic woman getting her blood pressure taken.

One of the risk factors for a serious case of COVID-19? High blood pressure, also known as hypertension. And that’s a problem for the 108 million Americans whose blood pressure readings are higher than they ought to be. To make matters worse, many people do not even know that they have hypertension—or, if they do, whether they are keeping it under control.

Do you know your blood pressure status? That’s more important now than ever, as we all seek ways to stay healthy during the pandemic. Talk to your doctor about your risk factors. Then learn how managing stress, eating well, and moving more may help lower your risk of high blood pressure—or let you live a healthier life if you do have the condition.

What Is High Blood Pressure?
You know the drill: At just about every visit, your doctor puts a band around your arm and pumps air into it, blowing the band up like a balloon. That’s a blood pressure test, and the numbers on the gauge show how hard your heart is pumping to move blood through your body. When the pressure is too high, your heart has to pump harder, and that strains your arteries—the blood vessels that carry blood away from your heart. Though your blood pressure changes from minute to minute, the longer it remains high, the more likely it will be to cause damage to your heart and other organs. It can even lead to strokes and heart attacks. And uncontrolled high blood pressure is especially serious among several groups: Black people, those over age 75, and those without health insurance, as well as people who are overweight or sedentary.

When it comes to blood pressure, there are two important numbers to know. The first (or top number) is your systolic pressure—that’s the pressure when your heart pumps. The second (or bottom number) is diastolic pressure—the pressure when your heart rests between beats. So your doctor might say, “Your blood pressure is good—it’s 114 over 70.”

But if the numbers are too high, it’s time to be concerned. High blood pressure is diagnosed when your reading is 130 or higher systolic, or 80 or higher diastolic, according to the American Heart Association (AHA).

Follow this advice to keep your blood pressure at a healthy level, during the pandemic and for the rest of your life.

1. Know your stats. A yearly checkup is the single best thing you can do to ensure that your blood pressure stays at a healthy level. Your doctor can tell you what your blood pressure reading is, identify any emerging problems, and prescribe the best course of treatment. In fact, the strongest risk factor for uncontrolled high blood pressure is skipping your annual exam, according to UAB researchers.

Your doctor may advise you to get a home blood pressure monitor to keep tabs in between visits. The AHA has tips for getting accurate readings at home.

2. Take your medication. If your doctor puts you on blood pressure medication, be sure to take  it exactly as prescribed, advises the AHA. Concerned about side effects or having trouble affording your medication (a growing problem for many during the pandemic)? Talk to your health care provider, who may be able to switch your medications or advise you about ways to afford them.

3. Get to a healthy size and stay there. Excess body fat raises your risk of high blood pressure. Aim for a body mass index between 18.5 and 24.9, as recommended by the AHA. If you’re not sure what yours is, check out the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s BMI calculator (go to CDC.gov and type “adult BMI calculator” into the search bar).

4. Watch what you eat. A heart-healthy diet limits sodium, alcohol, saturated fat, red meat, processed meats, sugar and sweetened beverages, while focusing on fruits, veggies, whole grains, legumes and lean protein sources such as fish and skinless poultry. The AHA has a wealth of advice about how to make healthy eating choices that help keep your blood pressure in check.

5. Keep moving. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services advises at least two and a half hours of moderate-intensity exercise a week, or at least an hour and 15 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity. That can be challenging during the pandemic, when gyms may be closed and you’re likely staying close to home. But look for other ways to get your exercise. Some possibilities: doing active forms of yoga (such as vinyasa) at home, jumping rope, raking leaves, riding a stationary bike, or taking a brisk walk.

6. Take it easy. Chronic stress can raise your levels of the hormone cortisol, which can lead to high blood pressure. It’s important to find ways to relieve that stress, especially during the pandemic. Many of our go-to stress relievers—working out at the gym, attending religious services, socializing with friends—are limited right now. So try to carve out mental space to pause and unwind, even if your physical space is limited. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advice and resources for unplugging and seeking help if you are having problems coping emotionally or mentally.