blood pressure cuff
Know your numbers, and spare your heart. WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

By Harold Kim
For Montclair Local

Editor’s note: This series will be written by practitioners at Summit Medical Group (SMG) on health-related topics. The following article is by Dr. Harold Kim, a cardiologist with SMG in Montclair and Chief of the Division of Cardiology at Hackensack Meridian Health – Mountainside Medical Center.  He enjoys spinning and kick-boxing to get his heart pumping.


We all know someone who has been affected by heart disease or stroke. For nearly a century, cardiovascular disease has been the leading cause of death worldwide in both men and women.    

The good news is the majority of heart attacks and strokes can be prevented with education and action. Last year we made an important leap forward: The American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association (AHA) issued a new set of guidelines lowering the definition of high blood pressure, also known as hypertension, to 130/80 mmHg.

Previously, we started raising red flags at 140/90. Normal blood pressure is now defined as less than 120/80. This means that nearly half of Americans may now be diagnosed with high blood pressure.  The change may have the biggest impact among young adults, 20 to 50 year-olds, who probably did not think they had to worry about being at risk for cardiovascular disease for a few decades.

Here is why I think stricter guidelines will finally make the difference we need. A few years ago, when a 45-year-old man with a stressful job was a couple pounds overweight and had a blood pressure reading of 132/85 we told him to come back in a year. Today, doctors are diagnosing that same patient with stage 1 hypertension. The bottom line is: treatment starts earlier.

This does not mean we need to prescribe more medications. Early intervention starts with making heart-healthy lifestyle choices: eating a nutritious diet, decreasing or normalizing sodium intake, engaging in regular physical activity, maintaining a healthy body mass index (BMI), and getting healthy sleep!

First, when it comes to diet, many cardiologists recommend following a diet called DASH—Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension—which emphasizes vegetables, fruits, low-fat dairy, and low-sodium foods, as well as moderate amounts of whole grains, fish, poultry, and nuts. You can eat red meat, sweets, and fats in small amounts.

Healthy eating can significantly reduce your overall health risk. Over time, your systolic blood pressure, which is the top number, could drop by as much as 14 points. This can make the difference between elevated and normal blood pressure or Stage 1 and 2 hypertension.

The second way to improve cardiovascular health is to keep moving. A lot of patients often ask what is good exercise. The AHA recommends at least 150 minutes of moderate exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise per week—or some combination of the two.

Moderate exercise includes anything from brisk walking (3 miles per hour or faster) to water aerobics or ballroom dancing.  If you are up for a challenge, vigorous intensity activities include jogging/running, singles tennis, bicycling (10 miles per hour or faster), and jumping rope.  Personally, I enjoy high intensity interval training such as boxing/kickboxing and spinning which I do 3 to 4 times a week.  I have discovered group classes are fun and hold me accountable. You could even learn a new skill such as a jab, cross, and hook.

In February, during American Heart Month, we should all be reminded of the old adage: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. If you do not know your blood pressure numbers, schedule a check-up with your primary care physician.

Heart disease does not wait until retirement to start, but rather builds slowly over time. Start thinking about your cardiovascular risk today. Together, we can take care of your heart from the start.