Avoiding a Christmas high

If you've gained a few unwanted pounds over Christmas and haven't kept up with your healthy foods, it might be worth checking your blood pressure.

Sometimes known as the 'silent killer', high blood pressure significantly increases your risk of a heart attack or stroke, and the only way to be certain about whether or not you are affected is to have it measured.

Lifestyle factors can have a major impact on our blood pressure. These can include:

• Being overweight

• Smoking

• Eating too much salt (the sodium content is the problem)

• Not having enough potassium in our diet

• Not taking enough exercise

• Drinking too much alcohol

• Being overly stressed.

What does high blood pressure mean?

Your blood pressure figures are an indication of how much pressure your blood is exerting against the walls of your arteries.

Blood pressure is usually represented by two figures and they indicate the highest and lowest pressure the blood exerts during the heartbeat cycle:

• The higher figure is known as the systolic pressure and is the highest force the blood exerts against the arteries when the heart contracts

• The lower figure is known as the diastolic pressure and is the lowest force the blood exerts while the heart is resting between contractions.

The pressures are expressed as 'systolic over diastolic' and the healthy ranges for each are:

• Systolic: 100 to 140 mmHg (millimetres of mercury) (with 135 mmHg or less being ideal)

• Diastolic: 60 to 90 mmHg (with 85 mmHg or less being ideal).

The lower your pressures are within these ranges, the lower your health risks. Your blood pressure is classified as 'high' if, on several separate occasions, it is consistently 140/90 or above.

There can also be a risk if your blood pressure is too low, but this isn't usually a problem unless you frequently experience symptoms such as dizziness or fainting. This may also happen temporarily - for example, when you suddenly stand up - but this is simply the blood pressure dropping for a brief moment as your circulation adjusts to an upright body position. This is quite normal and usually nothing to worry about.

Top tips for maintaining a healthy blood pressure

• Keep up to date with your measurements - take your doctor's advice on how often you should be having your blood pressure checked

• Maintain a healthy weight - this usually means a body mass index (BMI) of between 20 and 25. You can calculate your BMI here: http://patient.info/health/bmi-calculator

Eat a healthy, low-fat, low-sugar diet that is based on wholegrain complex carbohydrates and plenty of fruit and vegetables

• Regular gentle exercise will help, and a minimum aim of at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity activity each week is a great start. Moderate activity is sufficient to make you warm and perhaps a little sweaty, but will not increase your breathing too significantly. Typical examples of moderate activity include brisk walking, light cycling, gardening and active housework

• Watch how much alcohol you drink - stay within the healthy limits of no more than 21 units per week (and three to four units per day) for men and 14 units per week (two to three units per day) for women. Having one or two alcohol-free days per week is also recommended

• If you smoke, try to stop - ask your GP for advice or visit: http://smokefree.nhs.uk

• Reduce your salt intake and try to eat potassium-rich foods on a regular basis

• Positively manage the stresses in your life. You might want to try a few relaxation therapies such as yoga or meditation, or speak to your GP about counselling if it will help.


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