When your blood pressure creeps into the danger zone, how do you deal? Let us guess: You start with dietary tweaks, like cutting back on sodium, and if that doesn't work, you add another med to your morning routine. If that sounds familiar, you may be setting your heart up for trouble: It's tough to stick to diet-based strategies for BP control, and drugs are a pricey back-up plan, according to a new American Heart Association study review.
The good news: There are plenty of out-of-the-box ways to bring your numbers down. While these aren't giving you license to abandon your healthy eating habits or doctor-prescribed meds, these tips are license to enjoy life—and lower your BP while doing it.
|Seek the sun|
Doesn't a sunny day just warm your heart? Turns out, it may keep it healthy, too.
In a new study, researchers at the University of Edinburgh found that people exposed to UV rays experienced a significant drop in blood pressure—even before their vitamin D production kicked in. The reason: Sunlight converts nitrate stored in your skin to nitric oxide, a compound that helps dilate your blood vessels, says study author Dr. Richard Weller. Although you should still use sunscreen daily (click here to find the best kind for your skin type ), Dr. Weller says this finding may illuminate the link between sunlight and the lower risk of heart disease seen in previous research.
|Visit the zoo|
You don't have to adopt a puppy to enjoy the BP-lowering benefit of animals (although we'd certainly support that decision!). When people in a Japanese study visited a zoo, their systolic blood pressure (the top number) dropped 6 percent, and their diastolic (the bottom number) decreased by 8 percent.
Why? Observing the animals wakes up your parasympathetic nervous system, which reduces your blood pressure to help counteract stress-induced adrenaline spikes.
"We know that human warmth and contact is important in relieving stress and lowering blood pressure," says Dr. John Elefteriades, chief of cardiothoracic surgery at Yale New-Haven Hospital. "Animals can serve the same purpose."
Take this trick even further and sweat with your pet! Here are 10 ways to get you and your buddy moving.
|Lend a hand|
Adults who volunteer at least 200 hours a year—roughly 4 hours per week—are 40 percent less likely to develop high blood pressure than non-volunteers, finds a recent Carnegie Mellon University study.
The benefit is two-pronged: "Volunteer activities provide opportunities to make healthy social connections," says study author Rodlescia Sneed, PhD. "It also can give you perspective about your problems. Yours might seem less disastrous."
By learning to cope with challenges in positive ways, you avoid the negative physiological effects of stress, says Dr. Sneed. The most beneficial volunteer activities are likely the ones you enjoy, she says. Search for a local organization that fits your interests at voluntermatch.org .
|Meditate at work|
Chained to your desk all day? You can still cut stress: Workers who meditated in their office chair for just 15 minutes showed a significant decline in blood pressure, according to a recent study from Australia. "Meditation may quiet the sympathetic nervous system—the fight-or flight part," says Dr. Elefteriades. That equals less release of epinephrine, a hormone that raises your blood pressure.
Not sure where to start? Download a guided meditation app for your smartphone, like Smiling Mind (free) or The Mindfulness App ($1.99). Hint: Squeeze in your "ohms" during your lunch hour, so you can switch off your office phone—and therefore eliminate distractions—as the study participants did.
Think you're not the meditation type? Find the kind that matches your personality, here!
|Hug your husband|
Love really is a drug. Women who frequently hug their partner tend to have lower blood pressure than those in less affectionate relationships, a study in the journal Biological Psychology reveals.
The benefit may stem from the bonding hormone, oxytocin, which not only helps you feel calm, but also may dampen sympathetic nervous system activity in your heart and blood vessels, says study author Kathleen Light, PhD.
"We haven't verified the optimal hug frequency and whether hugs need to be long," she says. But her lab has shown that practicing "sensitive warm touch"—for example, massage—with your partner three times a week for 30 minutes can lead to higher oxytocin and lower BP. (Hey, remember romance? Give these 10 Little Things Connected Couples Do a try.)
Tune up your BP with music. A new study in the Netherlands Heart Journal found that musicians have lower blood pressure than non-musicians, possibly because playing an instrument is as physically demanding as exercise (especially if you pick percussion!).
Not your thing? Jamming to music—even if you're not making it—may also keep your numbers from topping the charts: In a recent Japanese study, people who regularly sang along with and stretched to music saw a significant decline in their blood pressure. One theory: Music may increase dopamine release in the brain, leading to a blood pressure drop, according to Italian researchers, who found that people who listened to Mozart had lower BP than those who sat in silence. (Like how easy this is? Then you'll love these 34 Little Health Tricks With Big Results.)
|Get a grip|
Hitting the treadmill isn't the only exercise that does your heart a solid. Isometric handgrip exercises—squeezing a spring-loaded handgrip device for 2 minutes at a time, repeated for a total of 12 to 15 minutes—can help control your blood pressure, according the American Heart Association study review.
Why it works: After you contract your muscles for a couple of minutes, your body has to restore blood flow to your hands—which may improve blood-vessel function, the researchers say. Do this routine at least three times a week in addition to your normal workouts. Try Zon hand grips ($8, amazon.com ).