By Dr. Michael Rocha, New Bedford Wellness Initiative 

Do you want to hear a secret for Heart Month?  

The best medicine for your heart is absolutely free.  

That’s right, you heard me. Free. If only these proven medicines had real marketing money.  

Yet, we remain searching for the magic pill or procedure as if there is an easy alternative. Medication commercials make us think that they will make us live happily ever after if we just take the pill. Yes, some medications and procedures are lifesaving or add to our health but we forget too quickly that we have ways to be well.  

Here it goes.  

What we eat, how we move, social interactions, harmful behaviors such as smoking, and our stress lead to hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol and ultimately result in heart disease and strokes. There it is the nutshell, the secret. Sounds too easy, right?  

Our diet is one of the leading causes of both a healthy heart or a sick heart. Of course, many are trying to sell us a quick fix diet which is confusing us. Which diet is the best? The simple truth is a whole foods Mediterranean diet has been shown in clinical studies to be our best diet to avoid heart disease. That means more fruits, veggies, nuts, fish, chicken, whole grains such as brown rice and less red meat, dairy, sugar, and processed foods. In fact, there is evidence that simply a combined seven fruits and veggies a day will reduce blood pressure by 10 mmHg! For more information, visit Gaples Institute on the internet for free and easy-to-understand information on what to eat for your heart.  

I don’t like the word exercise; it causes people to think that they have to go to the gym. Some people love the gym which is fine but we all can move our bodies. Some people have physical limitations. They need to find creative ways to keep moving including things that can be done seated. Also, movement doesn’t have to be extreme. Walking is one of the best ways and it can be done inside your own home or simply around your neighborhood. Ideally about 4,500 steps or 20 minutes a day goes a long way.  

In March, we will resume our Walk with a Doc around Buttonwood Park on Saturday mornings. All are welcome. Walk at your own pace and as far as you wish. Park benches give people that need a break a spot to rest and then resume.   

We are living through a pandemic. Our social interactions have been more challenging but we know that loneliness is a disease. Our heart is not just physical and the heart has always been associated with our emotions. Reach out to people, even if we can’t always be physically present due to COVID. We can still call, write, email, text and zoom. Be safe during the pandemic, but remember how important our relationships are for our mental and physical well-being.  

Our background stress level is high during this pandemic. However, we have some ways to combat the uncomfortable feelings that we may be experiencing. Eating healthy, moving more, and connecting are already three ways.   

Unfortunately, when we are stressed, we sometimes use things such as smoking, alcohol, or unhealthy food to treat how we are feeling. These all lead to feeling more unwell, either short or long-term. There are many ways to replace these habits, it’s not easy. Sometimes it takes many tries or professional help to beat them. To start, try focusing on things such as music, reading, art, physical activity, or other hobbies in place of one of these habits that we want to replace. If it doesn’t happen right away, don’t give up!   

Small changes make a big difference, commit to making a change that you feel you can do. One last heart secret is gratitude, even in these difficult times, we all have many things to be grateful for.   

Wishing everyone a happy and healthy Heart Month. 

Dr. Rocha is Director of Heart Failure Services at St. Luke’s Hospital and Director of Echocardiography Laboratory at Hawthorn Medical. 

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