March-April 2011 | Health

Heart to Heart

How a Bethesda cardiologist keeps his ticker in top shape.

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Several years ago a nurse working with Dr. Greg Kumkumian expressed concern that the Bethesda cardiologist had gained weight and looked unhealthy.

“It made me realize that I needed to change my lifestyle, or else I was going to go down the same road as some of my patients,” says Kumkumian, who at the time worked marathon days with long drives between far-flung medical sites. He exercised rarely and ate poorly—often downing a quarter-pounder with cheese, fries and a soda while stuck in traffic.

During his 10-year career, Kumkumian has helped numerous people get their heart health back on track by providing life-saving procedures and consultations. At the same time, he has seen patients die after failing to make changes that help the heart, such as eliminating smoking, losing weight, exercising and maintaining a healthy diet.

Following that conversation with his co-worker in 2007, Kumkumian decided to start practicing what he preached. He began his transformation by getting a job close to his Bethesda home, one that allows him time to care for himself as well as his patients. He now works at Maryland Heart, P.C., in Bethesda and is the medical director of the coronary care unit at Bethesda’s Suburban Hospital, a member of Johns Hopkins Medicine.

Today, at 48, Kumkumian weighs less, his blood pressure is lower and his cholesterol readings have improved. “I feel much better and have more energy,” he says.

What He Does

Regular exercise: Instead of an occasional run, Kumkumian now generally exercises three to four times weekly for three hours total. That aligns with the American Heart Association’s recommendations of at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise each week.

Research indicates that exercise can reduce the risk of heart disease by conditioning the heart, lowering blood pressure, improving cholesterol readings and reducing sugar levels in diabetics, according to Kumkumian. “Probably the biggest benefit,” Kumkumian says, “comes from aerobic-type exercises in intervals typically longer than 15 minutes.”

Each week, Kumkumian runs 10 to 15 miles over two to three days and plays an hour and a half of basketball. He also plays racquetball monthly and occasionally lifts weights. In order to fit in his exercise, Kumkumian sometimes runs home from Suburban or takes his three young sons on part of a weekend jog.

Stress management: Kumkumian’s improved work situation—as well as regular exercise—keeps his stress in check, which he says benefits the heart.

Eats Mediterranean: “The data we have indicates that a Mediterranean diet—fish, chicken, fruit, vegetables, legumes, unsalted nuts, water—can reduce the risk of heart disease,” Kumkumian says. So that’s what he opts for now, rather than a Western diet full of fried foods, salty snacks, red meat and unhealthy oils such as butter. In doing so, he minimizes his sodium intake, which should be kept under 1,500 milligrams daily, according to the most recent recommendations from the American Heart Association.

Kumkumian often grabs a salad and water at the hospital cafeteria for lunch, and snacks on unsalted nuts. With his current job, he can make it home in time to eat a healthy dinner with his family, often grilled chicken, vegetables and fruit.

Bottom line: Kumkumian has dropped 25 pounds, and at 5 feet 10 inches now weighs 195. The weight loss “affects everything,” Kumkumian says, including blood pressure, cholesterol levels, risk of diabetes and risk of heart disease. His blood pressure is now a healthy 125 over 75 (from 135 over 80). His cholesterol also has improved, with his levels of HDL, or good cholesterol, rising from 32 to 36, and his levels of LDL, or bad cholesterol, remaining on goal (based on an individualized risk analysis) at around 105.

Yet he still considers himself a work in progress. His good cholesterol remains lower than the 40 or higher reading generally recommended for men (50 or higher for women). To further improve his heart health, Kumkumian plans to take 1,000 milligrams of fish oil daily in lieu of eating fish, which he dislikes. He also plans to rework his breakfast, which now includes the occasional Danish. “The best information we have says that losing weight, exercising regularly and following a heart-healthy diet can make a tremendous difference in terms of risk for heart disease,” Kumkumian says. “I keep trying to do better.”

Leah Ariniello is a Bethesda-based writer who frequently writes about health issues. To suggest future subjects for this column, e-mail