If you are my patient and your blood pressure is consistently in the unsafe range at your visits, it would be unethical of me to let you leave without discussing medication to get good control of it quickly. But that is not the end of the story – I also talk with my patients about lifestyle changes they can make that are realistic, can be put into action immediately, and which will benefit their overall health and chronic health conditions. I love it when we can dial back the medication or eliminate it altogether because of lifestyle changes - those are the wins worth celebrating!
Chronic health conditions are those that last a year or longer, may limit your daily activities, and require medical follow up - things like high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes. Successful management of these conditions typically requires regular follow up with your healthcare provider (sometimes a few times a year), and often prescription medication. But there is a semi-secret weapon that we can use to manage, or even prevent, these conditions: lifestyle changes.
Regardless of any specific diagnosis that you may have, here are some lifestyle changes that anyone can consider putting in place today to improve your health tomorrow.
· Take a walk. The American Heart Association recommends that the average adult get 30 minutes of exercise five times per week. Here’s the beauty part: anything that gets your heart beating faster and gets you to break a sweat counts! Yard work, shoveling snow, playing with the kids, walking the dog – they all count. (If you have been advised by your provider to avoid strenuous activity, this recommendation is not for you.)
· Pass on the salt. I have found that a lot of my patients think that if they aren’t adding table salt to their food, they are okay. A lot of folks don’t realize how much salt is in packaged food – even if it doesn’t taste salty. I tell my patients to avoid (or cut back on) anything that comes in a box, a can, or that is frozen; sodium plays a big role in the preservation process and can drive your blood pressure up.
· Take the worst parking spot. This is an EASY one! If you need to increase your activity levels, next time you are in a parking lot, park as far away from the door as you can. It is an easy way to increase your activity – and every little bit counts.
· Drink water. The water conversation is another one that surprises me. Many people don’t know how much they should be drinking each day (two liters at least, for the record). A lot of people also don’t care for the taste of plain water. It’s totally okay to jazz it up a little bit (twist of lime or lemon, small amount of powdered drink, muddled fruit and herbs), as long as you hit your targets each day.
· Are you getting enough fiber? Start reading labels of the foods that you are eating and see where things stack up. Many people are not even close to getting enough fiber each day; women should aim for 25g per day, and men 30g. Having the right amount of fiber in your diet with help lower your cholesterol, lower your risk for colorectal cancer, and will also lower your risk for the dreaded diverticulitis. To give you an idea, a banana has about 3g of fiber; other good sources of fiber include whole grain foods, nuts, and cereals. A word of caution: if you find that you need to increase the fiber in your diet, do it slowly over couple of weeks. If you increase it too fast, you are likely to have a significant amount of gas and abdominal discomfort while your body breaks down the big fiber payload.
· Are you getting enough sleep? Too many people are not getting the rest that their body needs to repair and recharge. You make sure your phone is always appropriately charged – why should you treat yourself worse than you treat your phone? The amount of sleep needed daily varies so much that there is not really a magic number. Instead of focusing on a number, check in with yourself; do you feel generally refreshed when you wake in the morning? Do you feel like you’re dragging and have a hard time focusing?
It should be said that with all of these recommendations, if you have been told by a healthcare provider that you need to avoid any of these activities, you should by all means skip the specifics (or ask your provider about what the safe amount is for you to do). Otherwise, pick one or two to start implementing today to benefit your health tomorrow.