Pauline had just returned home from a family trip to Ireland in 2006, when she was told that her blood pressure was raised. ‘I’d made an appointment to see my GP after noticing my ankles looked puffy,’ she says. ‘After taking my blood pressure, my doctor told me that it was high and that the swelling could be down to that. He gave me a blood pressure monitor to take home, and told me to record my numbers every day,’ she says. At her follow-up appointment, Pauline was diagnosed with hypertension – the medical term for high blood pressure – and prescribed three different daily medications to help bring it down.
‘A healthy blood pressure reading is a sign that your heart is functioning well,’ says GP and lifestyle medicine expert Dr Sonal Shah. ‘Hypertension, on the other hand, can damage your organs, which is why it’s important to manage it.’ Along with age, race and family history, weight is a major factor in raised blood pressure. The good news is, as your diet and activity levels also play a part, there’s a lot you can do to reduce your risk.
Many, many Slimming World members find that losing weight lowers their blood pressure, says Slimming World dietitian Jennifer Kent, and it’s not just people who’ve lost stones and stones. ‘Losing five to 10 per cent of your body weight can be really beneficial,’ she explains. ‘So aiming for that is a great starting point for reducing blood pressure.’
At 17st 8lbs, Pauline was aware her weight might be a factor, but as she’d tried dieting over the years without long-term success, she’d given up hope of improving her health by slimming down. ‘Then, in October 2013, I went to see a dermatologist, and the nurse taking my medical history asked me to step on the scales,’ says Pauline.
I grimaced and asked if I really had to – I was the heaviest I’d ever been and didn’t want to share that number with anyone.
Realising that she was deeply unhappy about her weight, Pauline decided to give weight loss another try.
‘One of my friends had been losing weight steadily and I asked what she was doing to get such fabulous results,’ she says. ‘When she told me it was all down to Slimming World, I had to find out more.’ Pauline has coeliac disease and has to eat a gluten-free diet, so she wasn’t convinced the plan would be suitable. ‘I phoned up Helen Moore, the Consultant of my local Slimming World group in March, Cambridgeshire, and asked her all about it,’ Pauline says. ‘Helen was really helpful and reassured me that the plan could be easily adapted to my dietary needs.’ So, on 8 January 2014, her daughter Rebecca’s birthday, Pauline went along to her first Slimming World group. ‘It seemed like a happy day to begin my weight loss journey,’ she says.
‘I loved everything about Food Optimising, especially how I was completely in charge of what and when I ate, and that I never had to go hungry,’ Pauline says.
She started pulling out her favourite Slimming World Magazine recipes and stories for inspiration, and tried new dishes every night – from curries and vegetable dhal to diet cola chicken. As well as eating for weight loss, she was also making great choices for her blood pressure. Dr Sonal Shah says: ‘A balanced diet that’s rich in fresh fruit and vegetables, healthy protein and wholegrains is recommended for helping to reduce high blood pressure. And foods high in potassium, such as bananas, sweet potatoes, spinach, pulses and chicken, are also beneficial.’
Three months into her Slimming World journey, when Pauline had lost almost 2st, she had an operation to treat a hernia. ‘The anaesthetist made me aware that, at around 16st, there was a higher risk of complications,’ she says.
In the end, the operation was a success, but it made me realise I needed to continue slimming not just for my blood pressure, but for my overall health, too.
As Pauline continued going to group each week, she made lots of new friends. Soon, they were meeting at the local park every Wednesday and walking to group together. Getting more active is another way to help lower high blood pressure, explains Jennifer Kent. ‘Exercise has an anti-inflammatory effect, boosts blood flow, relaxes blood vessels and can reduce stress – all things that can help,’ she says. ‘And, on top of that, doing regular activity supports your weight loss.’
When Pauline reached her target of 11st 4lbs in August 2015, her husband, Colin, found his wardrobe space getting a little crowded! ‘I’d always been into fashion, but as my weight crept up, I’d resigned myself to covering up in a few uninspiring baggy outfits,’ says Pauline. ‘After getting to target, I couldn’t stop shopping!’ By now, her blood pressure readings were often in the healthy range, but she occasionally felt light-headed, so Pauline made an appointment to see her GP. She was asked to take multiple daily blood pressure readings at home for a week and send her doctor the results – then she got a phone call. ‘It was the doctor, telling me he’d reviewed my readings and that my light-headedness had been caused by my blood pressure medication – I no longer needed any!’ she says. ‘It was a really wonderful moment.’
Pauline’s been at target for more than four years now and can’t believe how much her life has changed. ‘My daughters, Rebecca and Rachel, are always telling me how much younger I look, and I feel younger, too. I have more energy than I know what to do with and I’m happy knowing that my blood pressure is under control.’
With her new-found confidence, Pauline took the bold step to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a counsellor. ‘Many people in their late 60s are slowing down,’ she says. ‘I’m volunteering for a charity, raising money for my doctor’s surgery and studying to become a therapist! By making simple lifestyle changes, I’ve turned my health around and opened up a whole new chapter in my life – it’s my biggest achievement yet.’