Blood pressure: What’s the "normal" range and tips for maintaining it

Blood pressure: What’s the "normal" range and tips for maintaining it

Authored By Anuja Madar
Medically Reviewed By Zach Hermes, J.M., M.D.

Every doctor’s visit usually starts with a few measurements: height, weight, temperature, and blood pressure. While those few tight squeezes around your arm are uncomfortable, getting your blood pressure checked is an important part of monitoring your health. 

Forty-five percent of American adults have high blood pressure (hypertension), according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and that number rises to 57% for Black Americans. Yet an estimated 11 million Americans have undiagnosed high blood pressure.

Unless your blood pressure is extremely high, you likely won’t have any symptoms (vs. low blood pressure, which may cause dizziness, nausea, or lightheadedness). Despite this, untreated high blood pressure can have serious consequences, including kidney disease, heart attack, and stroke.

To avoid high blood pressure, it helps to have a little background about what is considered a normal range, what causes levels to rise, and how to help keep high blood pressure at bay.

Blood pressure: What’s considered high and what happens when it is

Blood pressure is measured with two numbers. The first, systolic blood pressure, measures the pressure against your artery walls when your heart beats. The second, diastolic blood pressure, measures the pressure against your artery walls when your heart rests between beats. 

A normal healthy range for blood pressure is less than 120/80 mmHG, read as “120 over 80.” A reading of 130 over 80 or higher is what’s considered high blood pressure, or hypertension. This happens when the heart pumps blood through your arteries with excessive pressure, which over time can allow “bad” cholesterol to build up in tears in the arterial walls. As a result, arteries are narrower, and the circulatory system has to work harder while becoming less efficient.

What puts you at risk for high blood pressure

Several factors can increase your risk for high blood pressure:

  • Family history of high blood pressure, diabetes, or cardiovascular disease
  • Having high cholesterol or diabetes
  • Being 60 or older (55 for non-Hispanic Blacks)
  • Lack of exercise
  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • A diet high in salt, saturated and trans fats, and sugar
  • Being overweight or obese
  • Constant stress or anxiety
  • Smoking, vaping, or being regularly exposed to secondhand smoke

Other factors put BIPOC communities at higher risk including inadequate access to healthcare, food deserts, lower socioeconomic status, physical inactivity, and intrinsic bias.

The impact of high blood pressure

While there are no symptoms of high (vs. low) blood pressure, there are symptoms of hypertension-related organ damage including headaches, vision changes, shortness of breath, chest pain, and leg cramping. Left untreated, high blood pressure comes with risks including kidney disease, heart attack, heart failure, stroke, and dementia. 

It can also impact your wallet. Prescription and patient care costs for people with high blood pressure are two to three times higher, according to the Journal of the American Heart Association, and high blood pressure adds an estimated $131 billion in healthcare spending each year. 

How to maintain healthy blood pressure levels

There’s technically no cure for high blood pressure, but lifestyle changes and medication can help you lower your levels, reduce your health risks, and improve your quality of life.

Move your body: Getting 150 minutes of moderate-intense exercise a week can help strengthen your heart so it can pump blood more efficiently and with less effort.

Pay attention to stress: Chronic stress is bad for many reasons and can also lead to high blood pressure. Try to find an outlet for your stress, whether that’s movement, meditation, breathing techniques, therapy, supportive friendships, or even regular massage. Regular relaxation can benefit your mental health and may help lower blood pressure.

Get your zzzs: Not getting enough quality sleep may make your blood pressure rise. And if you already have high blood pressure, it may make it worse. Learn how having a sleep routine may help you rest better.

Quit smoking: Any time you smoke, your blood pressure and heart rate increase immediately. This includes cigarettes, cigars, vape pens, and smokeless tobacco. Long-term smoking often narrows the arteries, making your heart work harder to pump blood, which may lead to high blood pressure.

Limit alcohol: Drinking alcohol can increase blood pressure and is therefore best in moderation. The American Heart Association suggests no more than two drinks a day for men and one for women.

Reduce salt: Consuming too much salt/sodium can increase your risk of high blood pressure and is usually hidden in processed and packaged foods under names like soda, sodium nitrate, monosodium glutamate (MSG), and disodium guanylate (GMP).

Eat well: Fill your diet with fresh fruits and veggies, nuts, legumes, whole grains, low- or fat-free dairy, skinless poultry and fish, and non-tropical vegetable oils. The DASH method, Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension, focuses on increasing the intake of potassium, protein, calcium, and magnesium-rich foods, which are said to help manage blood pressure. 

Monitor your blood pressure: Find a place where you can sit quietly for three to five minutes. Using an at-home device, check and log your blood pressure twice a day: When you first wake up and just before bed. 

With this basic understanding of blood pressure, what causes levels to rise, and the impact that high blood pressure can have on your health, you’re now able to evaluate your lifestyle for specific risk factors and talk to your healthcare provider about any questions or concerns.


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