Let’s Talk About Blood Pressure

I was recently looking through the site and found that amongst other things, we hadn’t written or even guest-posted an article specifically on blood pressure – pretty appalling for a two year old health and fitness blog. Nevertheless, we will correct that today with a discussion on this topic, since it is important.

What do people know about blood pressure? Most of us have had doctor strap a blow-up cuff to our forearms to inflate and give us a couple of numbers which s/he will say are indicators our blood pressure, but not many of know exactly what it means or why it’s important. As a side note, this used to freak me out slightly when I was a child.

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Back on topic, we hear the words “blood pressure” when people are discussing heart disease and stroke risk in particular, but what exactly is the pressure of our blood, and why does it matter? Right, let’s begin by saying that blood pressure is actually very important. Keeping track of it regularly to make sure it doesn’t get too high can even help increase longevity.

In fact, it is so important that Professor Tom Marwick, Baker Heart and Diabetes Institute director even said that “Blood pressure is probably the most important risk factor in our lives. If people have high blood pressure and are adequately treated, then it really stops being a cause for concern.” Did you know that despite its importance, it only got brought into the limelight half a century ago?

The origins of it being focused on, believe it or not, were World War II. Then US President Franklin Roosevelt had very high blood pressure and died shortly after as a consequence of that. This brought the issue to the limelight, and shortly after, in the 1950s, medication for high blood pressure began to be more widespread.

The main problem with high blood pressure is that it’s relatively symptom free, which means that you might look and feel normal. Scary thought, isn’t it? The only way you can usually tell if you’re at risk is if you have your doctor put one of those inflatable cuffs on your arm to measure it. People with high blood pressure will be told to consume less salt, do more exercise and lose a bit of weight before going on medication.

While this discussion has been fruitful, it will be bad if we did not describe what causes the pressure in the first place. Our heart acts as a pump that works by sucking blood in, contracting, then pushing blood out. The suck in and the push out create two different pressures in our circulation, and these are represented by the two numbers you get for a blood pressure reading.

It might sounds extraordinary, but there are lots and lots of blood vessels that cover a long distance. Blood pressure is simply the friction, also known as resistance that occurs when blood is pushed through the vessels. Think about water in a pipe – same principle. If the pressure gets very high suddenly, it’s possible for one of the arteries to burst.

The easiest way to explain, apart from the pipe analogy, is with a balloon. If too much pressure is put too quickly, the balloon will burst. This is the same with blood vessels. If that happens in the brain, for example, it can lead to a haemorrhagic stroke.

Our blood pressure changes naturally throughout the day, but when it’s consistently high, it can increase your risk of heart attack, cause a stroke or even affect the kidneys. An optimal blood pressure reading is under 120/80mmHg (which stands for millimetres of mercury and is a standard measurement for pressure). High blood pressure is usually defined as upwards of 140/90mmHg.

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One confusing thing about blood pressure is that the causes are not 100% certain in every single case. However, there are clear links to some factors such as being overweight, not exercising and consuming too much salt. In the latter case, salt seems to wreak havoc on our blood pressure because our kidneys go into overdrive pumping additional fluid into our blood vessels.

Professor Marwick also explains that people who are overweight have got more blood volume, so it’s similar to the effect of salt. Exercise is important for blood pressure because it not only helps to keep our weight in check but it also helps the arteries relax. If the arteries are too contracted and too stiff then when the heart ejects into them, there’s a very high resistance and that drives the pressure up.

What about the opposite – low blood pressure. Admittedly, I used to have this, and sometimes suffer this these days. This qualifies me to talk about the firsthand effects of having low blood pressure – feeling faint and woozy often. Professor Marwick explained that blood has to be pumped up to the top of the hill to get to the head and if the brain doesn’t get enough blood supply, it can lead to confusion, loss of consciousness and dizziness.

Hopefully this article and consultation with a professional has given you insight into what blood pressure is, and has convinced you the importance of blood pressure and why you should get it tested routinely. Of course, the other thing you can do is lead a healthy lifestyle, and for that the Granite Fitness Masterclass will help greatly.

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Also published on Medium.


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