Bettering My Health by Lowering My Blood Pressure

Tonya O'Bryan shares her story

This article is part of Health Divide: Heart Disease Risk Factors, a destination in our Health Divide series.

Tonya O'Bryan

Photo Courtesy of Tonya O'Bryan / Design by Zoe Hansen / Getty Images

Meet the Author

Tonya O'Bryan is a heart-health advocate who speaks on the importance of regular exercise and eating healthy.

For most of my life, my health was never something that was cause for concern. Sure, I struggled with my weight, and doctors vaguely noted my blood pressure qualified as prehypertension, but I never understood the impact of weight and blood pressure on my heart health.

One day I went to the dentist to have a tooth pulled, and the dentist told me that my blood pressure was too high for them to do it. They recommended that I make an appointment with my primary care doctor as soon as possible.

Around this time, I noticed my coworkers casually talking about their health and taking their blood pressure at home. I work as a health communication specialist focusing on heart disease and stroke prevention, so I explored hypertension online. I realized this was a major cause of concern for me, and I immediately made an appointment with my doctor.

The first thing we talked about was family history. My family never really spoke about our health with one another, so I had no idea that hypertension and diabetes had affected so many of my aunts, uncles, and grandparents.

Tonya O'Bryan

Being diagnosed with high blood pressure is not a death sentence. It's all dependent on what you do with the information that you have available.

— Tonya O'Bryan

My doctor assured me that family history does not solely determine my personal health, and it doesn’t mean my health is doomed. She said that being diagnosed with high blood pressure is not a death sentence. It's all dependent on what you do with the information that you have available.

You can do some things to live a heart-healthier life, so we talked about making lifestyle changes.

Steps Toward a Heart-Healthy Life

I hate the word "diet" because it sounds temporary. I had tried every fad diet out there, and nothing ever stuck. I had to figure out how to respond to stress differently and find workouts that I enjoyed doing, like dancing and swimming. 

I didn’t feel like I could do this alone, and I always wanted a trainer, but I was afraid of judgment. 

I found the book “First Addition, Then Subtraction: Discovering Your Baseline for the Healthiest Version of You,” by Mwangi E. Kwesi, who is a trainer in Atlanta. I met with Mwangi and discussed my goals. I really felt like he saw me, heard me, and met me where I was at. 

There was a book club for his book that I joined. I was able to apply the lessons from the book and do the workouts outlined in the book. I felt comfortable with him. He never judged me or made me feel uncomfortable about my ability or size.

When we started, I could barely do one push-up. Now I can do about 30. I consistently work out five days a week for 45 minutes a day. When you’re working hard on yourself, even if you miss your mark, it gives you the confidence to continue.

We also talked about nutrition. I started by adding healthy foods: broccoli, leafy greens, fruit, and more water. In about two to three months, my taste buds changed. The more I ate healthy foods, the less I craved the less-healthy foods. Portion size was also a big thing for me to learn. 

Advocate for Yourself

As an adult, my blood pressure was often borderline high, but when I would go to the doctor, they would only talk to me about my weight. Sometimes the first thing they would say is, “You need to lose weight”–and we haven’t even had a conversation yet. I felt like I was being talked at rather than talked to.

There was a lack of communication skills and trust between the provider and myself. Healthcare providers need to take the time to get to know their patients. A patient isn’t just some chart; they are a person.

Tonya O'Bryan

I didn’t get high blood pressure overnight. I didn't gain weight overnight. I’m not fixing it overnight. 

— Tonya O'Bryan

After getting on a personalized program with my trainer and taking medication, I am managing my blood pressure with the help of my doctor. I still take two medications every day, but they are in lower doses. I still take my blood pressure twice a day to monitor it.

My advice is to be patient with yourself. I'm 45 now. I didn't get high blood pressure overnight. I didn't gain weight overnight. I'm not fixing it overnight. I know for sure that small changes over time create big rewards. I never saw them coming. One day I woke up and was like, "Oh snap, I'm moving better. I'm more flexible. I don't hear the snap, crackle, and pop today."

It can feel like you have such a long way to go when starting at a deficiency. You have to find wins and celebrate them. Just keep going, and the results will come.

4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. High Blood Pressure Symptoms and Causes.

  2. Li, Al., Peng, Q., Shao, Yq. et al. The interaction on hypertension between family history and diabetes and other risk factors. Sci Rep 11 4716 (2021). doi: 10.1038/s41598-021-83589-z.

  3. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What is Heart Healthy Living?

  4. Yu D, Zhang X, Gao YT, et al. Fruit and vegetable intake and risk of CHD: results from prospective cohort studies of Chinese adults in ShanghaiBritish Journal of Nutrition. 2014;111(2):353-362. doi: 10.1017/FS0007114513002328

By Tonya O'Bryan
Tonya O'Bryan is a Health Communication Specialist in the heart disease and stroke prevention division at the CDC.