Pop quiz: What's your blood pressure? If you don't know, you could be among the 78 million American adults who have hypertension. That's not a group you want to belong to: High blood pressure is the number one risk factor for stroke and a major contributor to heart disease. I urge every woman to start tracking her BP now—and that includes young adults; a study funded by the National Institutes of Health found that 19 percent of people ages 24 to 32 had dangerously elevated blood pressure levels. (See the box at right for what's ideal and what's not.) The good news: You can
control high BP. Overwhelming research has demonstrated that easy, natural methods for lowering blood pressure really work, and that even small reductions can significantly lower your cardiovascular risk.
Start by incorporating these six habits into your daily life
Get a Grip
The American Heart Association recently reported that simple hand grip exercises may help lower BP by as much as 10 percent. It doesn't take much time to see results: Gripping and releasing a small rubber ball 2 minutes at a time, for up to 15 minutes, three days a week for eight to 12 weeks, can lead to improvements. According to a separate report, the benefits to blood pressure may be greater than those seen with resistance training. Although researchers don't fully understand why this action has such favorable effects, they believe the repetitive motion may improve blood vessel elasticity.
Find Time for Fido
Nothing beats relaxing with my black Lab, Rosie. And the blood-pressure-reducing power of pets has been frequently documented: One study of more than 5,000 people revealed that pet owners had significantly lower systolic blood pressure than the petless, even when owners and nonowners had an almost identical body mass index. The presence of pets may help even when you're in a stressful situation: A study in Psychosomatic Medicine found that when people were asked to complete challenging math problems, those with a pet by their side had smaller spikes in blood pressure—and performed better.
A glass of beet juice a day could keep the heart doctor away. A 2013 study showed that drinking eight ounces of beet juice could lower a person's systolic blood pressure by an average of 10.5 points within 24 hours—only a few points lower than the reduction found with some blood pressure meds. Beets contain high levels of nitrate, which the body converts to nitric oxide. In turn, nitric oxide helps improve blood flow.
Pack in Potassium
Countering the effects of salt in your diet, this mineral helps flush sodium out of your system and, as a result, relaxes the walls of your blood vessels. A surprising source of potassium: raisins. A small 2012 study revealed that snacking on a handful of the dried fruit three times a day for 12 weeks lowered pre-hypertensive participants' systolic blood pressure by an average of 4.8 percent.
When people who weren't taking medication for their hypertension practiced deep breathing (six breaths in 30 seconds), they reduced their systolic blood pressure by an average of 9 points for a short period of time, according to a study in Hypertension Research. But scientists think long-term reductions may be possible if you practice it regularly for weeks or months. (Controlled breathing may engage the calming parasympathetic nervous system, which can reduce your heart rate and nudge your blood pressure down.) Start by placing one hand on your belly and inhaling deeply, breathing in until you see your lower belly rise. Then breathe out slowly. Repeat until 30 seconds is up.
Lace Up Your Walking Shoes
Getting your heart pumping is a proven way to lower BP, but new research shows that you don't have to go all out to achieve benefits. A 2013 study compared more than 48,000 people in the National Runners' and National Walkers' health studies, and found that walking 30 to 60 minutes a day led to a 19 percent reduction in hypertension risk—roughly the same result among people who ran 15 to 30 minutes.
DIY Blood Pressure Screening: Read It Right!
These days anyone can measure her BP with a blood pressure cuff and a smartphone. And if going to the doctor seems to make your heart rate jump, you may get more accurate numbers on your own; in one study, women's systolic blood pressure was, on average, 13.5 points higher at the doctor's office. To get the most reliable numbers every time, keep these three rules in mind.
For precise readings, once a month at the same time of the day, measure your blood pressure three times in a row and take the average of those numbers. (Shoot for the time when you're most relaxed.) Fluctuations in BP throughout the day are normal, and consistency will help ensure accuracy.
Don't drink coffee before taking a reading. Studies show that caffeine can temporarily boost your numbers by 3 to 15 points.
Wait 30 minutes after exercising to give your BP a chance to stabilize. During vigorous exercise, systolic blood pressure can shoot up as high as 220 mm Hg.
Illustration: Mark Allen Miller
What Hypertension Does to Your Body
The effects can go well beyond your heart.
Hypertension can cause blood vessels to narrow or rupture, leading to stroke. But it can have more subtle neurological effects, too, like mild cognitive impairment, including short-term memory lapses.
High blood pressure can damage the delicate blood vessels in your eyes, resulting in vision problems.
Although the link between high blood pressure and sexual dysfunction is more commonly seen in men, researchers now say that elevated BP may be the cause of increased vaginal dryness and a bottomed-out sex drive for some women.
When high BP damages arteries and the tiny blood vessels within your kidneys, dangerous levels of waste can accumulate in your body. Over time, this could lead to kidney failure.
Healthy blood pressure helps your body excrete excess calcium. But when BP rises to unsafe levels, you may lose too much, increasing your risk for osteoporosis and broken bones.
Next: 5 health risks Dr. Oz won't take—and neither should you