Is it coincidence that the month of February is assigned Heart Health Month, being that Valentine’s Day is smack dab in the middle of it? Heart Day, as some have come to call it over the years, is the date our attention is drawn to the center of our being; not just emotionally, but physically. How we manage our heart health is a subject many haven’t even put on their radar until something goes wrong with the “pump” of our body.
Health is Wealth
“I take care of my heart”, you may be saying to yourself, “I talk to patients about it all the time”. Our intentions may be good, but the reality is often lacking. Heart health becomes even more important when related to individuals whose work centers around providing services for the health and well being of others. With the high levels of stress and burnout facing many of today’s physicians and providers, the concern for the health of these individuals is growing exponentially. A recent study published in 2015, set out to determine if health care professionals truly follow their own advice. 1 Over 1,100 questionnaires were completed and the overwhelming response suggests their mental, diet and exercise habits are not up to the standards recommended to their patients. Working below your optimal physical and mental abilities can negatively impact patient care, set the stage for chronic illnesses and ultimately impact your earning potential.
Self Care is Equally Important as Patient Care
Though we know we must exercise to strengthen the heart, we may feel stressed on how to fit working out into our lives. Don’t dismiss the opportunities that are with us each day. Start by walking to the opposite side of the building, taking the stairs, or standing up and doing a full-body stretch. Along with raising our heart rate and the strength it provides, it’s important to remember that the legs are actually the “second heart” of the body, assisting the main pump in returning circulation to the upper regions. These all contribute to quickening our heart rate, and releasing tension in our muscles, allowing for better circulation. But where to start?
- Set a goal: Whether it is to run a 5k, compete in a triathlon or to make it to the gym four days per week, setting a goal will keep you accountable and give you a feeling of accomplishment once you’ve reached it.
- Do something you enjoy: Choosing activities you enjoy like walking outside, playing a sport, dancing with you spouse or children, will increase the likelihood you will keep exercising in the long run.
- You don’t need hours: One of the biggest misconceptions is people think in order to see results they need to spend an hour or more exercising everyday. The reality is it is possible to experience the benefits of moving after just 5 or 10 minutes. Check out this link for a playlist of some great exercise routines you can do without any exercise machines in as little as 3 minutes.
Just as important as physical self-care, most physicians and providers who invest in mental self-care find it actually makes them more productive throughout the day. Creating space and time for meditation and other relaxation techniques may seem like adding another item to our already overloaded to-do list but it can be highly effective. Here are a few relaxation techniques:
- Deep breathing through your nose engages the abdominal muscles and allows them to fully expand. Push in your abdomen to expel your breath. Release your abdomen to let the fresh air back in.
- Progressive calming is performed by using the deep breathing described above and in a seated or laying down position, concentrating on various parts of your body. Starting at the top of your head and working your way down consciously let go of tension in your scalp, eyes, cheeks, chin, neck, shoulders, arms, chest, back, pelvis, hips, thighs, calves, ankles feet and toes.
- Guided imagery and meditation can be achieved with the help of a recording or your own imagery. Imagine yourself in a favorite, peaceful place. Start with deep breathing and progressive calming if it helps you get to the point of meditation easier.
- Group meditation often helps ensure you’ll make time for meditation on a regular basis. Be sure to sit still long enough (10-20 minutes) so you experience the benefits of the exercise.
And don’t forget about chocolate! The benefits of high percentage dark chocolate have been circulating in the media for quite awhile. It’s now a fact that eating dark chocolate (more than 85 percent cacao) rich in compounds known as Polyphenols has assisted those with Peripheral Artery Disease (PAD). As published in the Journal of the American Heart Association2, an Italian study showed people with PAD who ate 40 g (1.5 oz.) of dark chocolate a day were able to walk 11 percent farther, and for 15 percent longer than those who ate the same amount of milk chocolate. As well, researchers looked at markers of oxidative stress in the blood and found improvement in those who ate dark chocolate. As if that isn’t enough, with consistent use, our tempting medicinal treat is also linked to significantly lowered blood pressure, lowered risk of both stroke and the effects of stress. Along with all of this evidence, statistics are showing the list of additional benefits is impressive.
Disclaimer: As with any natural substance there are precautions to take. So if you are allergic to cocoa or chocolate, this may not be for you.
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1 Ahmad et al. (2015). Diet, exercise and mental-wellbeing of healthcare professionals (doctors, dentists and nurses) In Pakistan. PeerJ 3:el250; DOI 10.7717/peerj.1250