How much diet and exercise can lower your blood pressure

Got high blood pressure? You’re in good company.

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Nearly half of U.S. adults have hypertension, according to the most recent guidelines from the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology.

That means that many people who had “prehypertension” according to the old guidelines now have “stage 1 hypertension.” Most of them don’t need to start taking drugs to lower their pressure (that depends on other risk factors). Instead, the guidelines recommend a healthy lifestyle.

Why? Because it works. Here’s how much your systolic pressure (the higher of your two blood pressure numbers) could fall with diet and exercise, according to the new guidelines:

1. Eat a DASH diet: 11 points

Don’t want to count servings? Start by filling half your plate with fruits and vegetables.

A DASH-style diet does it all: protects your heart, piles on the fruits and veggies, and cuts unhealthy carbs. It’s not only low in saturated fat, sugar, and salt, it’s also rich in nutrients like potassium, magnesium, calcium, and fiber.

Click here for our chart of DASH serving sizes and other tips.

2. Exercise: 5 points

Any kind of exercise helps.

All forms of exercise will lower blood pressure, but the best evidence is for aerobic activity. Aim for 90 to 150 minutes a week of aerobics (brisk walking, biking, running, etc.) and/or resistance training (biceps curls, leg presses, etc.).

If you’re starting with walking, here’s how to ramp up the intensity gradually.

3. Lose weight: 5 points

Dropping extra pounds can lower your pressure.

Losing excess weight helps lower blood pressure. Expect about a 1 point drop in systolic pressure for every 2 pounds you lose.

4. Cut salt: 5 points

Most sodium comes from packaged and restaurant foods that don’t even taste salty.

To lower blood pressure, cut your sodium by 1,000 milligrams a day, ideally to 1,500 mg a day. Start with these seven foods.

Bread. About 100 to 200 mg of sodium per slice is typical. Pepperidge Farm and some other brands make it easy to stay at the low end.

Cheese. Most types have 150 to 250 mg of sodium per ounce. Try Swiss (just 40 to 60 mg) or fresh mozzarella (80 to 100 mg) or just 1 “slim cut” or “thin” slice of your favorite variety.

Poultry. The salt solution that’s often added to raw chicken or turkey can add 120 mg of sodium to the poultry’s 80 mg of (naturally occurring) sodium. So avoid poultry with labels like “Contains up to 15% of a solution.”

Deli meats. Just 2 oz. can pile 500 to 700 mg of sodium on your sandwich. Get Boar’s Head’s (or another brand’s) “low-sodium” meats that are sliced at the deli counter (about 50 to 80 mg in 2 oz.).

Soup. Most soups deliver 600 to 900 mg of sodium per cup. Try Imagine, Pacific, Dr. McDougall’s, Amy’s Organic, or Trader Joe’s “Light in Sodium” or “Reduced Sodium” soups instead (200 to 400 mg).

Pizza. You can easily get 1,000 mg of sodium in 2 slices. Go light on the cheese, and replace meat with veggies (not olives).

Restaurant entrées. Many pack 1,000 to 2,000 mg of sodium. Save half for later. And add a side salad or other veggies to boost potassium.

5. Get more potassium: 4 to 5 points

Another reason to eat more vegetables: potassium.

The goal: Get 3,500 to 5,000 milligrams of potassium a day. You’ll get the most bang for your calorie buck with fruits and vegetables. Some examples:

Calories Potassium (mg)
Baked potato with skin (1 small) 130 750
Beet greens (½ cup cooked) 20 650
Yellowfin tuna (4 oz. cooked) 150 600
Sweet potato with skin (1 small) 130 540
Wild Coho salmon (4 oz. cooked) 160 490
Spinach (½ cup cooked) 20 420
Banana (1) 110 420
Low-fat plain yogurt (6 oz.) 110 400
Fat-free milk (1 cup) 80 380
Cantaloupe (¼) 50 370
Lentils (½ cup cooked) 120 370
Pinto beans (½ cup cooked) 120 370
Tomato sauce (½ cup) 30 360
Avocado (½ cup) 120 360
Spinach (2 cups raw) 10 340
Shelled edamame (½ cup cooked) 100 340
Peach or nectarine (1) 60 290
Brussels sprouts (½ cup cooked) 30 250
Orange (1) 70 240
Romaine lettuce (2 cups raw) 10 230
Apple (1) 100 200

6. Limit alcohol: 4 points

Limiting alcohol helps keep your pressure in check.

If you drink, stop at one drink a day for women or two for men.

Photos (top to bottom): Jennifer Urban/CSPI, © Monkey Business/, © Sashkin/, Kate Sherwood & Jennifer Urban/CSPI, © yuliyatrukhan/, © Africa Studio.

The information in this post first appeared in the January 2018 issue of Nutrition Action Healthletter.

Find this article interesting and useful?
Order a copy of Safe & Easy Steps to Lower Your Blood Pressure. Nine out of 10 Americans will eventually have high blood pressure and, with it, an increased risk of stroke, heart attack, diabetes, dementia, and more. Eating the right diet, losing weight, and exercising can keep your pressure under control. And, if you do have hypertension, it can lower your pressure as much as—or more than—prescription drugs. This booklet, from the editors of Nutrition Action, shows you how. (48 pages)

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8 Replies to “How much diet and exercise can lower your blood pressure”

  1. If a person with systolic hypertension (who had not previously engaged in any of the above 6 measures) instituted all of them, should they expect to see a total reduction in their systolic pressure of 34–35 points (i.e., the total sum of all of the point reductions listed for each of the measures)? Or should they expect to see more, or see less?

    1. Hi Denis. It’s hard to say exactly how much of a total reduction, but it would be expected to be less than the total sum. It depends on a number of factors, including how high one’s blood pressure is at the outset.

      1. Thanks for your reply. That is more or less what I had expected, but it is good to have received confirmation.

  2. The reason I no longer support CSPI is that I don’t believe they “tell it like it is” as they claim. Otherwise they wouldn’t include dairy in their diet recommendations, or meat in any form. Not only is dairy unhealthy for humans, dairy farms are a major source of land and water pollution and they contribute to global warming. Please check out the Physician’s Committee, instead, and read the new edition of Colin Campbell’s China Study.

    1. It’s so silly to instruct others to avoid dairy as unhealthy; this sounds like a religious belief rather than a scientifically informed one. Regarding your other point, risk to the planet for environmental reasons is always relative to other protein and food sources.

  3. Question: Do other types of salmon, including farmed salmon, have any potassium, and if so, how much? Also, do other forms of milk not have the equivalent amount of potassium as skim milk? Ditto for other types of yogurt. To not list these items, if they have similar amounts of potassium to the foods that you listed, is misleading. Not everyone who needs to get their blood pressure down also needs to lose weight.

    1. While not a complete answer, I found the following on the Internet at Healthy Eating:

      “A 3-ounce serving of canned salmon contains 292 milligrams of potassium and 16.7 grams of protein. The same serving of sockeye salmon supplies 347 milligrams of potassium and 21.6 grams of protein. Atlantic farmed salmon provides 326 milligrams of potassium per 3-ounce serving, as well as 18.8 grams of protein. A 3-ounce portion of wild Atlantic salmon supplies the most potassium with 534 milligrams, which is slightly more than 10 percent of what you need each day. Wild Atlantic salmon contains 21.6 grams of protein.”

      As for potassium, my understanding is that the amount in non dairy milks can and will vary from product to product, and even in some cases will change from year to year for the same product. Check the nutritional labels for potassium content (some list it and some don’t). Alternatively, you can contact the manufacturer directly for the information.

  4. I don’t have a dairy craving very often and I’ve been using plant based protein for several years now. I recently started using pea protein milk substitute and like it. It not only tastes comparable but has a better nutritional profile for me (I’m low in potassium.)
    I’d like to know more how it’s produced and what the pluses and minuses are in production, e.g. how much water does it take, etc.

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