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Know Your Numbers: How to Properly Take Your Blood Pressure

Blood pressure cuff

The new blood pressure guidelines from the American Heart Association mean that 46%—almost half—of all American adults have high blood pressure. But how do you know if you are among them? The obvious answer is to take your blood pressure. But, you have to make sure you are doing it the right way. "There are several factors that could give you a bad reading," said John Ryan, MD, a cardiologist with University of Utah Health. "You also shouldn't take a single reading and rely on those numbers."

That's right; your blood pressure can fluctuate so it's important to take more than one reading to get an accurate picture. The AHA recommends that a person take two to three blood pressure readings a minute apart and then average the numbers to get an accurate reading. Also, you should track your blood pressure over a series of days—at the same time each day—to get a clearer picture. "This is especially necessary if you already know you have high blood pressure," said Ryan. "This way you can see if the interventions you are making are working to bring your blood pressure into a healthy range."

What you are doing, or what you were doing, can also give you a bad reading. Yes, what you WERE doing. You shouldn't exercise, smoke, or ingest any caffeine within 30 minutes of taking your blood pressure. All three can affect the numbers. And you should be still for at least 5 minutes before taking a reading. "Quiet your body by sitting or lying down," said Ryan. "Quiet your mind as well as stress or anxiety can raise your blood pressure too."

The kind of monitor you use is important as well. It should measure your blood pressure with a cuff that fits snuggly around your bicep. Monitors that take your blood pressure via fingertip or wrist do not provide reliable readings. Also, it should be validated by the Association for the Advancements of Medical Instruments. If you are unsure if it is, ask your doctor or pharmacist for help.

Once you know your accurate blood pressure you can take steps to keep it in the healthy range or bring it back down if it's higher than it should be. Eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, avoiding alcohol and tobacco, and reducing your sodium intake are just a few of the things you can do to keep your blood pressure under control. "Improving your overall health will improve your heart health," said Ryan.