Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2002;66(3):457-458

What is blood pressure, and what ishigh blood pressure?

Blood pressure is the amount of pressure (force) blood exerts on the walls of your arteries. Arteries are the “pipes” that carry blood from your heart to all parts of your body. High blood pressure, also called hypertension, happens when your blood puts extra pressure on the walls of your arteries. This extra pressure can increase your risk for stroke, heart disease, and other health problems.

To measure your blood pressure, your doctor wraps a piece of material called a blood pressure cuff around your upper arm, pumps air into the cuff, listens to the movement of your blood with a device called a stethoscope, and watches an instrument called a manometer.

Your blood pressure is high if the pressure reading is above 140/90 mm Hg. The first number (140) is the systolic pressure, and the second number (90) is the diastolic pressure. Systolic pressure is the amount of pressure when the heart pumps blood into the arteries. Diastolic pressure is the pressure in the arteries when the heart relaxes between each pump action.

Who gets high blood pressure?

People who have family members with high blood pressure are more likely to get high blood pressure. Black people are more likely to have high blood pressure than white people. Asian people are least likely to have high blood pressure.

Some people can get high blood pressure because of a medicine or because of damage to an organ, like a kidney. Most often, the exact cause of a person's high blood pressure is not known.

High blood pressure often starts in young people (between 20 and 30 years of age). It becomes more common as people get older.

Can I still get high blood pressure if I exercise?

Athletes and other people who exercise regularly are less likely to have high blood pressure and heart problems than people who don't exercise. However, even if you exercise regularly, you can get high blood pressure, so you should have your blood pressure checked regularly.

What can I do if my doctor tells me that I have high blood pressure?

Your doctor might check your blood pressure a number of times, perhaps for a few months, to be sure that you have high blood pressure. You might also have a physical exam and, most likely, some lab tests to be sure that there is no damage to your heart, kidneys, or other organs.

If your blood pressure remains high, your doctor might talk to you about lifestyle changes you can make. Here are some things your doctor might suggest:

  • Avoid tobacco, alcohol, and caffeine.

  • Lower the amount of salt and fat in your diet.

  • Eat foods that are high in potassium, like potatoes, and bananas and other fruits.

  • Lose weight if you are overweight.

  • Use relaxation techniques, like deep breathing or meditation, to reduce stress.

  • Increase aerobic activity, like running, bicycling, or fast walking.

Your doctor might ask if you use any herbs or weight-loss remedies. Some of these can increase blood pressure.

Will medicine that lowers my blood pressure affect my exercise?

Many blood pressure medicines have no major effect on exercise. Ask your doctor if your medicine will cause any problems with exercise.

Tell your doctor if you have any side effects from your blood pressure medicine. There are many types of blood pressure medicine, and your doctor can find one that works well for you. Don't stop taking a blood pressure medicine without first talking to your doctor.

If you have high blood pressure, you can still exercise as long as you control your blood pressure by making lifestyle changes and, if needed, taking a blood pressure medicine.

If I am a competitive athlete, are there medicines I should not take?

If you take part in college sports or other athletic events that require drug testing, tell your doctor. Your doctor will know not to give you any blood pressure medicine that you should not take.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association, the U.S. Olympic Committee, and other groups have banned the use of some high blood pressure medicines. You can find a complete list of banned substances on the Internet at

Where can I find more information about high blood pressure?

Information about heart health, diet, and exercise is available on the Internet. Here are a few good Web sites:

  • (American Academy of Family Physicians patient education Web site)

  • (American Heart Association Web site, which contains information on all types of heart health, including recipes)

  • (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute's hypertension information site)

  • (A good source of information on exercise and dietary changes that can help people with high blood pressure)

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