America's blood pressure is way too high. In fact, nearly one in four men between the ages of 35 and 44 have hypertension, as well as 12 percent of men between 20 and 34, according to the American Heart Association. It's so bad that the Institute of Medicine is urging the government to start trying to shake salt out of our diet, since too much of this key taste enhancer can cause you to retain water in your blood, which adds volume and boosts blood pressure. This, in turn, exposes you to a greater risk of heart attack, stroke, and even erectile dysfunction. But sodium isn't the only culprit. Smoking, excessive drinking, inactivity, and bad food choices can also make your arteries burst at the seams. Worse, you may never know what hit you. "Many men don't pay attention to their blood pressure until they're older," says nephrologist George Bakris, M.D., president of the American Society of Hypertension. "But you don't experience symptoms until it's very high."
But there's good news amid the gloom: Keeping your blood pressure out of the danger zone doesn't have to be just about restraint. Use our expert advice to find your perfect — and perfectly fun — pressure-release valves.
Swing by the candy store
You may be able to significantly lower your blood pressure with nothing more than a daily dose of dark chocolate. In a 2008 Italian study, people who had both prediabetes and high blood pressure managed to do just that by eating 31/2 ounces of dark chocolate each day for 15 days. They lowered their systolic BP (the upper number) by 4.5 points and their diastolic (the lower number) by 4.2 points, thanks to the flavonoids—antioxidant compounds—found in dark chocolate. A sustained improvement of that extent could lower your risk of cardiovascular problems by 20 percent over 5 years.
But you need to eat the right type of chocolate. Darker chocolate contains more antioxidants and less of the sugar that may counteract chocolate's beneficial effects, according to research from Yale. Choose dark chocolate with a minimum of 65 percent cacao, such as Ghirardelli's Intense Dark 72% Cacao Twilight Delight Bar ($4, ghirardelli.com).
Take her to bed
Keep your blood flowing by hopping into the sack two or more times a week. Men who do are 65 percent less likely to develop cardiovascular disease, compared with those who have sex less than once a month on average, according to a recent New England Research Institute study. In a 2006 study at the University of Paisley, Scotland, people who had sex at least once over a 2-week period had lower blood pressure than those who engaged in no sexual activity, and their blood vessels responded better to stress.
But going solo won't help you out. While researchers are still examining why intercourse is so much better than other kinds of stimulation, they believe it has to do with the intimacy. Oxytocin, a hormone associated with intimacy and reduced stress, is released during sex and particularly during orgasm. Intercourse may be more intimate than other kinds of fooling around, which may lead to a more effective release of oxytocin, says Stuart Brody, Ph.D., the study's author. Sex can also be a great workout, burning up to 60 calories per half hour in bed. Raise the calorie burn with vigorous sex.
Crank the tunes
Music is a perfect tool for loosening your arteries. Listening to 30 minutes a day of "rhythmically homogeneous" music (that is, anything with a steady beat), combined with breathing exercises, can lower your systolic blood pressure by more than 4 points after 3 months, according to a 2008 Italian study. Breathing in and out with an inhale/exhale ratio of 1 to 2 while listening to slow, steady music relaxes your vessels, says Randall Zusman, M.D., director of the hypertension division at the Massachusetts General Hospital heart center.
The key is to cue up the right type of music, says Michael Miller, M.D., who coauthored a different music study in 2008. That study found that when people relaxed and breathed steadily while listening to music they found pleasurable — whether it was Mozart or Maroon 5 — the linings of their blood vessels dilated by 26 percent. Those who listened to music that made them anxious experienced a 6 percent narrowing of their blood vessels. It's your emotional connection with the music that may be key to a lower BP, Dr. Miller says.
Fire up the game console
Pumping 23,000 rounds of ammo into space aliens should do wonders for your stress and, by extension, your blood pressure. But sorry, you need to stand up from the couch to make video games count. The American Heart Association officially stamped its seal of approval on Nintendo's motion-sensor-based Wii Fit Plus and Wii Sports Resort games in May, recommending them as legitimate ways to stay active.
Timothy Church, M.D., chairman of the American Heart Association's physical activity committee, says playing certain Wii activities, such as boxing and jogging, is as good as hitting the gym — as long as you're playing with at least moderate intensity for a minimum of 150 minutes a week. This can lower your systolic blood pressure by 2 to 5 points. "Some of the activities in Wii Fit can qualify as your 30 minutes a day of physical activity," he says. "You'll be sweating buckets."
Toast your health
Danish researchers who analyzed data from 75,000 men found that those who had two drinks a day were 31 percent less likely to develop coronary heart disease. That's because alcohol, in modest amounts, makes your arteries larger and more pliable, which in turn lowers your blood pressure. But don't have more than two drinks — doing so will raise your blood pressure. Scientists still don't understand why, but Dr. Zusman thinks it could be related to alcohol's adverse effect on other blood-pressure-regulating pathways. Limit your daily intake to two 12-ounce beers, two 5-ounce glasses of wine, or two 1.5-ounce drinks of liquor.
Laugh it up
Whether you're ROFLing or just LOLing, you're doing your arteries good. Laughing at a funny movie causes blood vessels to dilate by 22 percent, according to a 2006 study from the University of Maryland. The physical act of laughing causes the tissue forming the inner lining of your blood vessels to expand, allowing for an increase in bloodflow and reducing blood pressure, says Dr. Miller. "The magnitude of change is similar to the benefit you might see with aerobic activity, but without the aches and pains," he says.
You should be laughing at least 15 minutes a day to benefit from this link. And tepid, forced chuckles won't do it—to maximize the blood-pressure effect, you should be doing full, real belly laughs. So if Internet humor isn't doing it for you, crack open your high school yearbook. That's usually good for a laugh.
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