woman taking her blood pressure

What is Blood Pressure and Hypertension?

Blood pressure is a term that everyone is familiar with, but not many people actually understand what it is and the impact it can have on their health. Blood pressure is essentially exactly what it sounds like - your blood’s pressure! Specifically, it is the pressure of blood pushing against the walls of your arteries. High blood pressure, also known as hypertension, occurs when the force of blood against artery walls is too high. This can be due to either your heart needing to pump more blood than normal, your arteries being too narrow, or even a mix of them both.

Blood pressure is higher when your heart is pumping blood (systolic pressure) and lower when it is at rest (diastolic pressure). Blood pressure readings will show both of these numbers in millimeters of mercury (mm Hg).

  • Top number (systolic pressure): The first, or upper, number that measures the pressure when your heart beats.
  • Bottom number (diastolic pressure): The second, or lower, number that measures the pressure between beats (when your heart is at rest).

Hypertension occurs when systolic blood pressure (SBP) reads higher than 130 mm Hg and/or your diastolic blood pressure (DBP) reads higher than 80 mm Hg.

American Heart Association High Blood Pressure Chart Image: American Heart Association

How Prevalent is High Blood Pressure?

For most, blood pressure is something you only think about once a year at your annual physical exam. Though, with nearly half (46%) of adults in the United States having high blood pressure, it’s becoming increasingly more important for people to regularly monitor and measure their own blood pressure.

Even though it is common among Americans, approximately 1 in 3 adults in the U.S. with high blood pressure aren’t aware they have it, and only 1 in 4 adults with hypertension have their condition under control. High blood pressure is often referred to as “The Silent Killer” due to the lack of warning signs or symptoms and the health issues that it can cause further down the line. The higher your blood pressure levels, the more risk you have for developing other health problems. Hypertension can lead to heart disease (such as congestive heart failure), stroke, heart attack, and dementia, among others, some of the leading causes of death in the United States.

Blood Pressure in Minorities

There are some clear disparities in blood pressure rates among ethnicities, whether it be in the rate of hypertension development or management. Hypertension has been seen to be more prevalent in Black adults than White adults, with the lowest hypertension rates in Asian and Hispanic adults. While hypertension rates are lower in Hispanics and Asians than Whites, the rate of control is vastly different. In an NHANES survey, hypertension control rates among non-Hispanic white adults (55.7%) was significantly higher than non-Hispanic blacks (48.5%), non-Hispanic Asians (43.5%), and Hispanic (47.4%) adults. Social disparities such as income and access to healthcare no doubt play a key role in the rates of blood pressure control among Americans.

Please note that while there is a program fee to participate in the Gateway Region YMCA’s Blood Pressure Self-Monitoring program, the Y is committed to reducing or covering the cost of the program through financial assistance or grant funding for eligible participants in order to make it more accessible to everyone.

Fluctuations in Blood Pressure

Blood pressure can be influenced by a number of things, and a high/low blood pressure reading isn’t always cause for panic. Below are 9 of the common culprits that could affect a blood pressure reading.

White-coat Syndrome

To a lot of people, seeing a doctor is nerve-wracking and anxiety-inducing. This anxiety (white-coat syndrome) is known to increase a person’s blood pressure, leading to white-coat hypertension. This is so common that about 15-30 percent of people with high blood pressure readings at the doctor are actually experiencing white-coat hypertension. This is one of the many reasons why it’s important to monitor your own blood pressure, as it is likely to show a lower number when you measure it in a comfortable environment than what’s being shown at the doctor.

Caffeine Intake

Caffeine is known to increase blood pressure for a short period of time. Researchers are still uncertain on what causes this spike. While caffeine will raise your blood pressure in the short-term, it has not been known to negatively affect your blood pressure in the long-run. In fact, there’s even evidence to suggest that caffeine has the opposite effect! Researchers found that “drinking 3–5 cups of coffee daily is linked to a 15% reduction in heart disease risk and a lower risk of premature death."


A person’s blood pressure typically increases when exercising due to the need to push the flow of oxygen-rich blood throughout the body. It’s normal for a person’s blood pressure to measure between 160 and 220 mm Hg while exercising, but if you notice your blood pressure reading consistently lower or higher than that range, be sure you consult with your doctor.


Do you feel your heart start to beat faster and faster when you’re in a stressful situation? That’s due to your body producing a surge of hormones that raise your blood pressure temporarily while stressed, causing your blood vessels to narrow and your heart to beat faster. While this raises your blood pressure in the short-term, there is no proof that stress alone causes hypertension in the long-term. Though, if you continually react to stress in unhealthy ways, you do have a higher risk of high blood pressure, heart attack, and stroke

Time of Day

Just like you, blood pressure has a daily routine! Your blood pressure is lowest while you’re sleeping and at rest, and rises as you wake up. Its peak is typically midday, and then it begins to drop again by midafternoon and evening. Consult with your doctor if you start to notice your blood pressure consistently recording higher levels in the morning or at night, as that may be a sign of irregular blood pressure patterns

Full Bladder

It might sound ridiculous, but it’s true! Having a full bladder can add 10-15 points to your blood pressure reading. Be sure to take your blood pressure after you empty your bladder in order to eliminate this common error.


Known as gestational hypertension, many women experience higher blood pressure during their pregnancy, starting at around 20 weeks and ending when a woman gives birth. 6-9 percent of pregnant women will develop gestational diabetes. Blood pressure self-monitoring is recommended for pregnant women to avoid further issues developing during and after pregnancy.


Did you know that the weather can even cause your blood pressure to fluctuate? Your blood pressure is typically higher in the winter compared to the summer. Low temperatures cause blood vessels to temporarily narrow, increasing blood pressure since more pressure is needed to force blood through narrowed veins and arteries. Sudden weather changes can also be the cause of blood pressure changes, such as a weather front, storm, changes in humidity, atmospheric pressure, etc. These blood pressure changes due to the weather are typically more common in people aged 65 or older.


Different types of medications influence changes in blood pressure. Always talk to your doctor for help with knowing what medications are right for you.

Preventing and Managing High Blood Pressure

The good news is that, in most cases, you can manage your blood pressure to lower your risk for serious health problems. Many people with high blood pressure can lower their blood pressure into a healthy range, or keep their numbers in a healthy range, by making lifestyle changes. Below are a few steps you can take to help manage your blood pressure:

Consume less sodium in your diet.

Make sure you’re checking your packaged foods for their sodium content, as those can be a major culprit of hidden sodium. The American Heart Association recommends to keep daily sodium intake at 2300mg or less, and those already diagnosed with hypertension should keep sodium to 1500mg/day or less.

Exercise Regularly.

Exercising regularly is a major contributor to improving blood pressure and reducing the risk of hypertension. The amount of exercise that a person should be getting each day depends on a number of factors, including age, health conditions, gender, etc. But, generally getting at least 150 minutes of physical activity each week (about 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week) will improve a person’s health and blood pressure. Click here to see how much you should be exercising based on your goals, needs, and lifestyle, according to the USDA.

Explore Cardio Classes at the Y

Explore Strength Classes at the Y

Check your medications.

Certain medications are known to increase/decrease blood pressure. Make sure you check with your doctor to see if there are changes that should be made to help with your blood pressure regarding the medications you are taking.

Don't smoke.

Among a number of other health issues, smoking has also been seen to raise one’s blood pressure. Avoid smoking in order to improve your blood pressure reading.

Limit your alcohol intake.

Consuming more alcohol than the recommended amount can lead to both short-term and long-term increases in one’s blood pressure. The USDA recommends that adults of legal drinking age should drink in moderation, limiting themselves to 2 drinks or less per day for men and 1 drink or less per day for women.

Reduce your stress levels.

Since stress raises blood pressure, it’s important to prioritize activities and routines throughout your day that will help reduce stress, whether it be breathing exercises, reading, taking a bath, yoga, etc. Get started by watching our Stress Management 101 video below!

Get more sleep.

Adults are recommended to regularly get at least 7 hours of sleep per night. Getting less sleep than that can cause several health issues to arise, one being hypertension. Younger adults and those recovering from sleep debt or an illness are recommended to get 9 or more hours of sleep. One way to help you sleep better? Yoga! Click here for some yoga poses that will stretch you right to sleep!

Blood Pressure Self-Monitoring Tips and Instructions

Now that you know all about blood pressure and the causes of high blood pressure, you’re ready to start monitoring your own blood pressure! Before you sign up for the Gateway Region YMCA’s Blood Pressure Self-Monitoring (BPSM) program, here are some tips and instructions from the American Heart Association that will be helpful to know when getting started with monitoring your blood pressure.


American Heart Association Blood Pressure Instructions Image Image: American Heart Association

Be prepared.

Avoid drinking caffeine or alcohol, smoking, and exercising within 30 minutes of measuring your blood pressure. Also, be sure you empty your bladder first!

Sit correctly and remain still.

Sit up with your back straight and fully supported (sitting in a dining room chair, opposed to a couch, makes this easier). Keep your feet flat on the floor, and do not cross your legs. Your arm should be propped up on a flat surface, with the upper arm level with your heart. Avoid moving around too much.

Measure at the same time every day.

Since your blood pressure fluctuates throughout the day, it’s essential that you measure your blood pressure as close to the same time every day as possible.

Take multiple readings and record the results.

Due to the many different factors that can fluctuate your blood pressure, there is plenty of room for error. It is important to measure your blood pressure multiple times to ensure consistent, accurate results. Plus, make sure you write the results down so you don’t forget!

Don't take the measurement over clothes.

It might seem like common knowledge, but it can be easily forgotten. Wear a short-sleeved shirt or tank top for easy access to your upper arm!

Blood Pressure Self-Monitoring at the Gateway Region YMCA

Now that you know the ins and outs of blood pressure and how to self-monitor it, you’re ready to sign up for a blood pressure self-monitoring program! The Gateway Region YMCA’s Blood Pressure Self-Monitoring (BPSM) Program is designed to help individuals with hypertension lower their blood pressure. It is an evidence-based program that combines blood pressure self-monitoring, nutrition education seminars, and personalized support. Research has shown that measuring blood pressure at least twice a month over a period of four months can lower blood pressure in many people with hypertension. But, we know that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, so our Heart Healthy Ambassadors are committed to finding out what works best for you!

Are you ready to take the next step with us? Visit this link to answer a few questions about your health history to see if you qualify for the program! Click below to learn more about our Blood Pressure Self-Monitoring Program.

Learn More