If you spend more of your off-hours playing team sports or taking neighborhood walks than sitting on the couch, you could be doing your blood pressure a favor.
People who engage in physical activity during their leisure time are less likely to experience high blood pressure than those who exercise infrequently, according to a new study in the journal Hypertension.
The study, conducted by researchers at the Shandong University School of Public Health in China, looked at data from 13 past studies that included 136,846 people in the U.S., Europe and East Asia. After following up two to 45 years later (depending on the study), more than 15,600 developed high blood pressure.
Turns out, the way people used their leisure time was linked with their risk of developing high blood pressure. Researchers found that people who exercised four or more hours a week during leisure time were 19 percent less likely to develop hypertension, and those who exercised one to three hours a week during leisure time were 11 percent less likely to develop hypertension, compared with those who exercised one hour or less a week.
Interestingly, researchers did not find an association between lower risk of hypertension and physical exertion while on the job; they noted work-related physical activity likely involved heavy lifting, repetitive tasks and standing for long periods of time.
"Hypertension is a risk factor for cardiovascular and kidney disease -- thus, it is important to prevent and control hypertension," study researcher Wei Ma, M.D., Ph.D., an associate professor at the university, said in a statement. "To try to lower your risk of high blood pressure, you should exercise more in your leisure time."
Meditation can help maintain a calm and focused mind, but one side benefit of that relaxation could also help with blood pressure. When relaxed, the body produces more nitric oxide, <a href="http://www.npr.org/2008/08/21/93796200/to-lower-blood-pressure-open-up-and-say-om">which in turn helps blood vessels to open up, reducing the pressure of the blood flowing through</a>.
Adopt A Pet
Research shows that <a href="http://www.webmd.com/hypertension-high-blood-pressure/guide/5-ways-pets-improve-your-health">pet owners have lower blood pressure</a> (also: lower cholesterol and heart disease risk), thanks to the anxiety-reducing qualities of an animal companion.
Work On Your Marriage
In one 2008 study in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine, <a href="http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-500368_162-3955956.html">researchers found that happily married adults had better blood pressure</a> than happily single and unhappily married adults.
This one's a no-brainer, but exercise is one of the best ways to lower blood pressure. There are many ways that the simple act of moderate exercise can improve your blood pressure (and overall health). First, it helps with other risk factors for hypertension, like extra weight and stress. But exercise also improves the strength of your heart so that <a href="http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/high-blood-pressure/HI00024">it can more effectively and efficiently pump blood, which lowers the pressure on the arteries</a>.
Stick To One Or Two Drinks
Moderate drinking -- one drink for women and men over 65 and two drinks for younger men -- can actually help reduce blood pressure. <a href="http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/high-blood-pressure/HI00027">But more than that has the opposite effect</a>, according to the Mayo Clinic.
Monitor Your Caffeine
There is some evidence that caffeine can temporarily increase blood pressure, though it's unclear if there is a long-term effect. The <a href="http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/high-blood-pressure/HI00027/NSECTIONGROUP=2">Mayo Clinic recommends</a> checking blood pressure 30 minutes after a cup of coffee or caffeinated soda to see if the effect remains.
Quit Smoking -- And Smokers
Of course, for this and many other reasons, you should quit smoking. But even second-hand smoke can have a damaging effect on your blood pressure <a href="http://www.heart.org/HEARTORG/Conditions/HighBloodPressure/UnderstandYourRiskforHighBloodPressure/Understand-Your-Risk-for-High-Blood-Pressure_UCM_002052_Article.jsp">because it damages arteries</a>.
Choose Pressure-Lowering Foods
Several foods have been found to naturally lower blood pressure. Things like chili peppers, chocolate, beans and bananas have all been proven to lower blood pressure in humans or in trials with rats. <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/28/raisins-and-7-other-foods-lower-blood-pressure_n_1382535.html#slide=817449">Read on for more here</a>.
Keep Weight Under Control
Eating well is essential to maintaining healthy blood pressure, but even if you live on <a href="http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/03/28/raisins-and-7-other-foods-lower-blood-pressure_n_1382535.html#slide=817449">beans and bananas</a>, extra pounds could harm you. In fact, one Italian study found that <a href="http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/09/070928180348.htm">hypertension in overweight patients was a secondary condition, caused by the excess weight</a>. In other words, once the weight was lost, the high blood pressure went with it.
Stay Away From Salt
Perhaps the best known advice for healthy blood pressure is maintaining a low sodium diet. Follow the <a href="http://health.gov/dietaryguidelines/faq.asp">USDA's Dietary Guidelines for Americans</a>: a max of 2,300 mg of sodium for healthy, young adults -- or 1,500 mg a day or fewer for those who are over 50, African-American or suffering from diabetes or chronic kidney disease.