Blood pressure guide

Lesley Dobson / 13 March 2017 ( 11 May 2017 )

What is blood pressure, why is it important and how is it measured? Find out.



What is blood pressure?

Blood pressure is the force at which your blood travels through your arteries. Your heart propels your blood each time it beats. The pressure is created when your blood pushes against the walls of your blood vessels.

Bring down your blood pressure

What is a normal blood pressure reading?

Our blood pressure can rise and fall, depending on the physical activity we’re doing, whether we are stressed or relaxed, and on the time of day.

The blood pressure level that we should aim for is between 90/60mmHg and 120/80mmHg  (90 over 60 and 120 over 80). These figures indicate that your blood pressure is at the right level to help keep you healthy.

However, we don’t all have this reading. What is normal for one person may not be normal for another. According to the charity Blood Pressure UK, the most common readings in adults in the UK are between 120/80 and 140/90. If your blood pressure readings are on or between these figures, you should talk to your GP about how to bring them down.

While a blood pressure reading between these two figures doesn’t mean that you have high blood pressure, it’s still a good idea to do whatever you can to stop it rising any further, and to reduce it. This is because even slightly high blood pressure can increase your chances of having health problems.

What causes high blood pressure?

How is blood pressure measured?

Your blood pressure is measured using a device called a sphygmomanometer, which involves having a cuff wrapped around your upper arm. Your doctor or nurse then pumps air into the cuff so that it feels tight around your arm, and reads the measurements from a dial attached to the cuff.

However, this is now a rather old-fashioned way of taking blood pressure. These days it’s more likely that the cuff wrapped around your arm will be attached to a machine that shows the results of your blood pressure test in digital form on a display or monitor.

The letters mmHg which are usually recorded after the figures in your blood pressure reading, stand for millimeters of mercury.

Learn more about how to monitor your blood pressure

What do blood pressure numbers mean?

The first figure in blood pressure reading is the systolic pressure. This shows the pressure recorded when your heart beats and pushes the blood out of its chambers. The second reading is the diastolic pressure. This shows the pressure recorded when your heart is between beats.

If you have blood pressure reading of 120/80 mmHg, this shows that your systolic pressure has been recorded as 120, and your diastolic pressure, when your heart is resting, is 80. Your doctor or nurse may talk about your blood pressure as 120 over 80, and you may see this written as 120/80 (these figures are just used as an example).

Your blood pressure may be temporarily high because you are stressed about something. This could include money or health worries, problems at home, or worrying about family members.

Simply having your blood pressure taken can make it rise. This is known as ‘white coat syndrome’.  This is because in some cases just seeing a doctor in a white coat, or being in a GP’s surgery or hospital can make people stressed, which means their blood pressure may rise, and be temporarily higher than it would be if you were relaxed.

Read more about what blood pressure numbers mean

How to control your blood pressure

There are steps you can take that should help you reduce your blood pressure. These aren’t complicated, and are things you can do at or near home.

10 lifestyle changes to help lower blood pressure

Watch your weight

Your weight plays an important part in controlling your blood pressure. So if you are overweight, losing weight is one of the first steps you should take to reduce your blood pressure.

You could start by keeping a food diary, and noting down everything you eat over the course of a few days. This includes snacks, and the odd biscuit you might sneak from the biscuit tin as you’re passing.

Swap lower calorie food for some of the high-calorie foods you usually eat. So instead of snacks, like crisps and chocolate, choose fruit such as apples, pears, berries, grapes and citrus fruits instead.

Cutting back on salt also helps you lose weight. This is because when you have too much salt in your diet, your body retains fluid. As well as making you feel rather slow and lethargic, it also means that you put on weight.

Visit our weight loss section for help and inspiration

Be active every day

This might seem like a tall order if you don’t exercise very often, but the trick is to look at it as getting yourself moving rather than exercise, and to start small.

For instance, you can begin by doing just 10 minutes of activity each day. The British Heart Foundation has good suggestions for a 10-minute workout that you can do in your living room. You can see these at www.bhf.org.uk

You can also build more exercise into the course of your day. You can choose stairs rather than the lift when you’re out at a shopping centre, park your car further away from the shops than you would normally, and use bags of sugar as weights when you’re putting the shopping away – or at any time.

If you haven’t exercised for a while, it’s important to start slowly, and work your way up to longer periods of exercise. And if you have any health problems that might be made worse by exercising, see your GP before you get started.

How to do more exercise without even noticing

Stop smoking

If you smoke you should really try give up. It’s easier to say than to do, but it’s worth it for your health. Smoking increases your risk of dying early from a range of diseases caused by smoking. These include heart disease, lung cancer and chronic bronchitis. As well as reducing your risk of developing these conditions, you’ll soon start feeling better. 

Read our guide to stopping smoking

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The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated.

The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.