Lowering your blood pressure by modifying your lifestyle and eating habits reduces your risk of cardiovascular disease, including having a fatal heart attack or stroke
High blood pressure (hypertension) is a leading and highly treatable cause of illness and death due to cardiovascular disease. Almost one third of Australians aged over 50 years have high blood pressure and nearly one out of two Australians have high blood pressure when they reach 70 years of age.
What is blood pressure?
Blood pressure is the force of blood pressing against the walls of the blood vessels (arteries) that deliver oxygen-rich blood from the heart to all parts of the body. Your heart contracts to force blood around the body and rests briefly between each heart beat. So, when someone takes your blood pressure, two measurements are obtained (e.g. 120/80 mmHg, said as “120 over 80”):
- Systolic – pressure in the artery as the heart contracts. This is represented by the top, higher number ('120').
- Diastolic – pressure in the artery when the heart is relaxing and being filled with blood. This is represented by the bottom, lower number ('80').
Hypertension occurs when the blood is being pumped through the arteries with more force than normal or when the arteries are calcified (smaller or narrowed). High blood pressure usually does not give any warning signs; you can feel perfectly well yet still have high blood pressure.
Monitoring your blood pressure
Since you cannot see your blood pressure, it is important that you have it checked at least yearly, or more frequent checks if you are over 40 years of age, have a history of high blood pressure, diabetes or any other risk factors for cardiovascular disease.
Individual blood pressure goals can vary widely depending on whether other risk factors for cardiovascular disease are present. Your doctor should discuss your recommended goal levels with you. You can use the following as a guide when your blood pressure is checked by a nurse or doctor.
Classification of blood pressure levels
For people with no cardiovascular disease, diabetes or kidney disease
|Systolic (mmHg)||Diastolic (mmHg)|
|Normal||Less than 120||Less than 80|
|Normal to high||120–139||80–89|
|High ('hypertension')||140 and over||90 and over|
National Heart Foundation of Australia (National Blood Pressure and Vascular Disease Advisory Committee). Guide to management of hypertension 2008. Updated December 2010.
What causes high blood pressure?
For most people, there is no specific cause for high blood pressure but the risk of serious problems associated with high blood pressure is increased by:
- High blood cholesterol.
- Being overweight.
- Physical inactivity.
- High salt intake.
- Family history of high blood pressure.
- High alcohol intake.
For a minority of cases (about 10%) high blood pressure is related to another medical condition.
Tips to control your blood pressure
It is recommended to:
- Have your blood pressure checked during routine visits to your doctor.
- Make healthy diet and lifestyle choices to do regular physical exercise (30 minutes per day of brisk walking), sit less, lose excess body fat for a healthy body weight, reduce your alcohol intake, quit smoking and minimise physical and emotional stress by relaxing and thinking positively.
Enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods from these five groups every day by eating:
- Plenty of vegetables (include different types and colours) and legumes/beans.
- Grain foods, mostly wholegrain and/or high fibre varieties (e.g. breads, cereals, rice and pasta).
- Lean meats and skinless poultry (removing any visible fat), fish, eggs, tofu, nuts and seeds.
- Milk, yoghurt, cheese and/or their alternatives (mostly reduced fat).
To achieve and maintain a healthy weight, it is also important to:
- Limit intake of foods containing saturated fat, added salt and added sugars.
- Select predominantly polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats such as oils, spreads, nut butters/pastes and avocado.
- Drink plenty of water and if you choose to drink alcohol, limit your consumption.
If diet and lifestyle changes are not enough to reduce your blood pressure, you may also require medicines. There are numerous blood pressure medicines and in some instances, a number of them may be required long term. If high blood pressure remains uncontrolled, a renal denervation procedure may help to lower your blood pressure.
High blood pressure and salt
Eating too much salt can increase the risk of hypertension because the sodium in salt makes your body retain more water.
Our kidneys remove excess sodium from the body. They help keep our blood pressure normal. Too much salt can gradually damage our kidneys making them become less able to remove the excess sodium.
You can get your daily recommended requirement from the natural salt in fresh foods.
To avoid adding it to your diet:
- Avoid manufactured or processed foods that have salt added, such as potato chips, sausages and canned soups or packet meals.
- Read nutrition information labels and choose foods labelled ‘no added salt’, ‘low salt’, ‘salt reduced’, including breads and cereals.
- Do not add salt to your food at the table or to your cooking.
If you have kidney disease or are taking other medicines, consult your GP before changing your salt intake. Also, check with your GP before starting an exercise program. Exercises involving lifting heavy weights and body presses should be avoided by people with high blood pressure. If exercise causes you pain or discomfort, stop immediately and see a GP.
The contents of this fact sheet were last updated in 2013
While reasonable efforts have been made to ensure the accuracy of this material, the information is provided on the basis that persons undertake responsibility for assessing the relevance and accuracy of its content. In particular, readers should seek independent professional medical advice from their general practitioner or specialist in relation to their own individual circumstance or condition before making any decisions based on this information. The material also includes summarised guidelines or recommendations based on information provided by third parties. The Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute disclaims to the extent permitted by law, all liability including negligence for claims of losses, expenses, damages and costs that the reader may incur (or suffer) from acting on or refraining from action as a result of all information in these materials.