Every time you go to the doctor, one of the first things they probably do is wrap that band around your arm that gets tighter at first and then loosens back up. Then, they may give you two numbers and tell you that they’re either good, too high, or too low. You probably already know they’re testing your blood pressure. But, outside of knowing that too high or too low is bad for your health, you may not fully understand what those numbers mean, and that’s ok. (We don’t all go to med school!)

Today, we’re going to do a deep dive into what blood pressure is, what those numbers mean, and how you can keep your blood pressure healthy. This way, the next time your doctor measures your numbers, you should know exactly what they’re talking about!

What is Blood Pressure?

Blood pressure is a measurement of the pressure placed on the walls of your blood vessels (mainly your arteries) by the blood traveling inside your body. Without blood pressure, your blood can’t circulate throughout your body, which would cut off the supply of unoxygenated blood to your lungs and oxygen-rich blood to your other organs. Blood pressure also plays an important role in helping white blood cells and antibodies travel to keep your immune system strong. Other important ways blood flow and circulation influences the body deal with the spreading of nutrients through the body and removal of waste in your system.

How is Blood Pressure Measured?

One’s blood pressure is determined by a few different factors. First and foremost, it’s affected by the pressure in the arteries during the pumping of the heart. Secondly, it’s affected by the pressure in the arteries when the heart rests between its beats. Ultimately, health care professionals measure blood pressure by measuring these pressures, which leads to the two numbers you hear. In terms of units, blood pressure is measured by millimeters of mercury (mmHg).

What Do Blood Pressure Readings Mean?

So, now that we know what blood pressure is and how it’s measured, what do the numbers mean?

What Does the Top Number Mean?

The first number you get in a blood pressure reading is called the systolic blood pressure. This number refers to the amount of pressure placed on your artery walls when your heart beats (during systole). The systolic blood pressure number often gets the most attention by medical professionals since it has more of an effect on our risk for cardiovascular disease, especially as we age.

What Does the Bottom Number Mean?

The bottom number for a blood pressure reading is known as the diastolic blood pressure. This number refers to the amount of pressure placed on your artery walls when your heart rests (during diastole). While this number may not get as much attention as the systolic blood pressure number, if it’s too high or too low, it can still cause medical issues.

What is a Good Range for Blood Pressure?

Generally, there’s a lot of focus on what level of blood pressure is too high, since that’s more common. (About half of Americans have high blood pressure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.) But, it’s important to know what a good blood pressure range is.

What’s a Healthy Systolic Blood Pressure Number?

For systolic blood pressure, you should try to be under 120 mmHg. An mmHg between 120 and 129 may be considered elevated, depending on your diastolic pressure. If your systolic blood pressure number is over 130 mmHg, you’re in stage 1 of hypertension (high blood pressure). If it reaches 140mmHg, you’re in hypertension stage 2. An mmHg over 180 puts you in a hypertensive crisis. Alternatively, if your systolic blood pressure is below 90 mmHg, you have hypotension (low blood pressure).

What’s a Healthy Diastolic Blood Pressure Number?

Since health care professionals take your diastolic blood pressure when your heart is resting, these readings should be lower than those for systolic blood pressure. Healthy diastolic blood pressure rates are usually below 80 mmHg, though you can have elevated blood pressure if your systolic reading is between 120 to 129 mmHg and your diastolic reading is below 80 mmHg. You are considered to be in hypertension stage 1 if your diastolic blood pressure is between 80 to 89 mmHg. If your diastolic reading is 90 to 120 mmHg, that means you’re in hypertension stage 2. You’ll be in a hypertensive crisis if your diastolic blood pressure goes above 120 mmHg. If your diastolic blood pressure is 60 mmHg or lower, it is too low.

Why is an Unhealthy Blood Pressure Reading Unhealthy?

Many people don’t even notice they have high blood pressure. This is partially what makes it so dangerous. Without regular checkups or checking yourself at home, you may miss the signs of low-level hypertension. When you have extremely high blood pressure, you may see additional symptoms, like chest pain, arrhythmia, or severe headaches to name a few. But, the true danger of hypertension is the conditions that are linked to it, like heart attack, stroke, and other very serious diseases.

Hypotension usually isn’t considered dangerous unless symptoms appear. Low blood pressure may not show any signs and may have “benign” causes like some over-the-counter medicines, some high blood pressure medications, or pregnancy. Some more severe causes of hypotension may be heart failure, liver disease, blood loss, or sepsis. If you experience any symptoms of hypotension, you should see a doctor, as this could be a sign of chronic, extremely low blood pressure. These symptoms may include dizziness, nausea, fainting, unusual thirst, blurred vision, cold/clammy skin, or fatigue.

How to Maintain a Healthy Blood Pressure

When it comes to having a healthy blood pressure, the best and most effective method is to live a healthy lifestyle. This means eating right and exercising. Eating heart-friendly foods, like avocados, is one smart way to maintain a healthy blood pressure. Cutting back on sodium, quitting smoking, and giving up alcohol can also be very helpful. Additionally, losing weight can lower your blood pressure since your heart shouldn’t have to work as hard to pump blood.

The best way to have a healthy blood pressure is to live a healthy lifestyle, meaning eating right and exercising.

At the same time, monitor your cholesterol, since high cholesterol is often tied to hypertension. Getting exercise or taking up heart-healthy activities, like meditation, has also been shown to help keep your blood pressure lower and healthier. In general, these activities can help you manage stress and make you happier, which can protect your heart.

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With all the lifestyle, diet, and exercise suggestions out there to maintain a healthy heart and blood pressure, it’s clear that the healthier you are, the healthier your heart is. Considering how difficult it can be to spot hypertension before it becomes serious, that makes preventing high blood pressure all the more important. While everyone should look to maintain good heart health, understanding what blood pressure is and how to read it is key to knowing where you stand and what to improve!