They say an apple a day keeps the doctor away. But Dr. James Fox, an interventional cardiologist at Traverse Heart and Vascular, knows it takes much more than that. With February being National Heart Month, heart health awareness is at a high. We’re hearing about how to eat right. How to exercise more. And Dr. Fox has great tips for that. However, he also recommends something you might not expect.

Dr. James Fox

“People who are more prone to a higher stress level—who can’t let go of a problem or issue, who internalize and dwell on those things—tend to have worse health outcomes,” Dr. Fox says.

Studies at an advanced level have shown someone with a “Type-A” personality is prone to have more heart issues with worse outcomes. Therefore, Dr. Fox stresses to his patients the importance of learning not to worry and to be more relaxed. But he acknowledges sometimes that’s easier said than done, as he can’t tell patients specifically how not to stress.

Dr. Fox has been treating Traverse City area patients for more than 15 years. He grew up in a household of medical professionals (his father was also a cardiologist). Because of that, he had an early awareness of cardiac disease.

“One of the things that was very clear and emphasized at an early age was taking care of your own health,” he says. His parents believed in “daily exercise and watching your diet and controlling your weight to the best you could.”

His father transitioned from military care to preventative cardiology around the time that cholesterol was recognized as a cause of coronary artery disease and heart-related complications. It was then that Dr. Fox was exposed to the importance of watching dietary fat intake and cholesterol intake. “Some of my earliest memories are sitting around the dinner table hearing conversations about this,” he says.

Now, over half of Dr. Fox’s patients see him for coronary artery disease. When asked how not to become a patient of his—besides managing your stress levels—his answer is simple: Exercise at least a half hour a day, and try to eat healthily. “Mostly eat fresh,” he recommends. “When you can, eat local. Prep the food yourself when you can.”

Are there any “superfoods” that are best for your heart? Probably not, Dr. Fox says. “There’s this belief that there are these superfoods, and if you eat a hype amount of a particular type of food it will stave off or prevent the development of diseases. And the data that supports that is really not that strong.”

He continues, “It’s more important for people to recognize that they have to eat more of a balanced diet with an emphasis mostly on vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and beans.”

If you are in your 30s, with a family history of poor heart health or high cholesterol, this is particularly important. Dr. Fox urges these people to start paying attention at an age earlier than you’d probably expect. He says to start thinking of, “What am I going to eat that I’m willing to eat for the rest of my life?” and to be proactive in preventing heart issues.

As people get older (middle age/retirement years), he mentions that a lot of people have loss of muscle mass, leading to loss of strength, balance, and heart health.

“This is the age you need to think about protein intake and exercise,” he says. While it doesn’t need to be exercise in a gym, he suggests activities like chopping wood and carrying things—activities that help your heart rate and make your muscles sore. He recommends doing this two to three times a week. “Even brief bouts of short moderate-intensity exercise, 10 minutes here or there. People who do more than about 120 minutes of good stamina-based exercise in a week are probably doing a pretty good job.”

Stamina and balance-focused exercises—such as walking and yoga—that help maintain muscle mass are what he advises for those in their 60s, 70s, and older. “Find something you like to do, and add it to your day,” Dr. Fox says.

So, to sum it up: Exercise frequently. Don’t ignore family heart history. And remember to try and eat an apple a day. But don’t stress if your pantry is empty. Just try again tomorrow!

Written by Courtney Jerome.

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Photo(s) by Angela Brown