Walk the walk, preaches New Bedford area cardiologist Michael J. Rocha

Michael J. Rocha, MD, FACC, may live in Dartmouth, but his heart belongs to New Bedford, his hometown.

Preventive cardiology is the passion of the board-certified cardiologist who practices at Hawthorn Medical Associates.

A 1993 graduate of New Bedford High School, Rocha earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from UMass Dartmouth and his medical degree from UMass Chan Medical School in Worcester. At Tufts-New England Medical Center in Boston, he completed his residency and fellowships in cardiology and in heart failure and cardiac transplantation. He is a fellow of the American College of Cardiology.

Rocha is the director of the New Bedford Wellness Initiative (nbewell.com), which he established in 2014, and is among the physicians who lead its weekly Wellness Walks at Buttonwood Park. (The Wellness Initiative’s in-person weekly classes in cardiovascular exercise, yoga, meditation, smoking cessation, and nutrition are on hiatus due to COVID-19, but some are available online.)

According to the 2021 County Health Rankings and Roadmaps from the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute, Bristol County ranks among the least healthy counties in Massachusetts. Rates of obesity, smoking, diabetes, and lack of leisure-time physical activity are higher in Bristol County than in the commonwealth as a whole. Clearly, many Bristol County citizens would benefit from the interventions Rocha recommends.

Making lifestyle changes such as exercising regularly, quitting smoking, reducing stress, making nutritious food choices, and controlling blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol will improve a person’s health generally, while also preventing four out of five heart attacks.

In 2020, Rocha received a Myra Kraft Community MVP Award, named for the late wife of Robert Kraft. In honor of his devotion to volunteering, the Kraft family and the New England Patriots Foundation made a $10,000 donation to the Boys & Girls Club of Greater New Bedford. Rocha serves on the board of directors of the club where, as a kid, he learned to play basketball. He was among 26 honorees selected from more than 250 nominations throughout New England.

A trombonist, he performs with the Southcoast Brass Band, the Buttonwood Brass, and the Southcoast Jazz Orchestra.

New Bedford Light: You’re the founder of the New Bedford Wellness Initiative. Do you continue to lead walks? How many people participate on a given weekend?

MR: In 2014, we did a walk one weekend, and I think we had probably about 20 people, 15 people, and we did a walk once a month during that period of time. Then we jumped on board with the national — well, it’s now international, but at that time it was pretty much national — Walk with a Doc program that started with (Dr.) David Sabgir in Columbus, Ohio. 

For probably the last five years, I think, we’ve been every week, other than during the pandemic where we had a couple of timeouts. We’ve got about 30 walkers, at least, each week now. It’s been a nice way to connect, and especially during COVID, you know, when you’re outside, the risk is lower.

… It’s not just the walking; it really creates community. We all kind of look out for one another. … Obviously COVID was probably the No. 1 topic that most of the docs had to deal with or answer questions, you know, ‘What about the vaccine? What about how to protect ourselves?’ … At the beginning of the walk, we still kind of talk about something health-related. I’ve had an opportunity with a couple of nurse practitioner students that I’ve had — it’s given them an opportunity to present to a group.

It’s something that I definitely look forward to. It’s been nice that we’ve had five or six other docs that participate. … We’ve partnered with the LGBQT (community). We’ve kind of participated and co-hosted the Pride Walk once a year, and I think we’re doing some more events this year. We’re definitely open to other groups that may want to participate and kind of work with us, because it’s all about getting people healthy.

The schedule is on our website — it’s nbewell.com — and then on our Facebook group page, we always put it up. We still have an email blast once a week. So, people can go to our website, they can sign up and get a weekly email.

NBL: What is the distance all the way around the park?

MR: Just about 1.92 miles. I think it is one of the best parks to walk. For some people that may have to take a break, there are benches. And the other thing is that because of the way it’s situated with the parking lot, people can just do a quarter-mile, half a mile, or a mile and call it a day. Some of these people that are coming out to walk have significant underlying health issues that … we want to make sure that they feel comfortable. For a lot of folks that may suffer from various things — either heart, lungs, orthopedic issues — they need to feel comfortable that they’re included. 

NBL: Many people have experienced the stress-relieving benefits of exercise during the COVID lockdown and beyond. Is that an additional factor arguing for exercise as a contributor to better health?

MR: If you could bottle up walking and exercise or any kind of physical activity, it would probably be much better medicine than anything you can get at the pharmacy. And you’re exactly right. It’s not just good for your physical well-being, lowering your blood pressure and maybe getting your diabetes numbers better. But there’s a … psychiatrist in Boston, John Ratey (M.D.) who talks about how it’s like getting a dose of Prozac. It really is, because it affects your neurotransmitters.

One of the things that I’ve seen especially coming out of this pandemic, just this morning seeing patients, is that people are really struggling with re-entry. They’re struggling not just with the fact that they may have heart disease, but they’re struggling with depression. They’re struggling with being very deconditioned and that’s making it hard for people to get moving again.

So hopefully we can get more people over the next several months that use this as a re-entry process to get themselves moving a little more, but yeah, the mental health aspect of things and the benefits of walking or exercise can’t be underestimated.

NBL: How do social determinants of health such as economic stability and access to quality health care affect SouthCoast’s citizens?

MR: Pretty much in every aspect. The issue is that most of our health isn’t determined in the (physician’s) office or in the hospital. The different things that affect our health are really what our access is to eating well, moving well, and our social connections. I think that for the SouthCoast, we struggle in a lot of different ways that are very similar to many of the other cities that are similar in size … they’re all about the same: Springfield, Brockton, Fall River. They’re all struggling in the same ways, and I think that creating a healthier community is going to cut down on the rates of diabetes and the rates of heart and lung disease.

Live Well San Diego has a wonderful model, and they’ve done some very simple things to really make major impacts in health care. For example, they said, ‘OK, we’re struggling with people having heart attacks. We’re going to really work on diabetes and hypertension,’ and all of those things, and they cut the rates of heart attacks down. And it wasn’t just through medications, but really creating a community that’s healthier. And they also espouse in some of their materials that there are three behaviors (poor diet, smoking, lack of movement) that are responsible for four chronic diseases that are responsible for 50 percent of any community’s deaths: cardiovascular disease, pulmonary disease, cancers, and diabetes.

It’s kind of a different way to look at what your risk factors are. It’s really getting back more to the root causes. Why do you have high blood pressure? Why do you have diabetes? We’re always thinking about these as being risks for heart disease or heart attacks, but we really need to get back to focusing on ‘How do we get healthier?’ …

So many of the things that we talk about are multifactorial, not just health care at schools and in government … I know the health department invited a speaker recently to talk about how racism in many communities affects — in ways that we don’t even think about racism — our well-being and health, access to these things. I think that having these discussions is going to be important, community-wise, to really change the way we do things.

What we really need to focus on … is high-quality primary care. Any community that does really well with public health has high-quality and accessible primary care, and you know, we have a deficit in our community of primary care providers, especially within the city of New Bedford, we really just don’t have enough.

NBL: Studies have shown that making music, especially with others, contributes to health and well-being. Can you comment on that?

MR: When you’re doing things that you enjoy to do, that bring meaning to your life and a sense of purpose, it makes a huge difference for your mental health. Music does affect both sides of your brain, so you’re kind of working the right and the left sides of your brain. Our need for being in community and playing with others is … a very important social thing that we do. And I’ve been so fortunate, moving back to this area, to play with friends. After going through medical training and coming back, it really has been a lift and a boost. I wouldn’t know what I would do without music.

NBL: Do you sometimes get discouraged at the lack of progress toward better health in Greater New Bedford? 

MR: Measurement of impact is very hard because these things usually take a long period of time to see hard impact. So, if you’re looking to see if you’re going to cut down the number of heart attacks or strokes, or cancer, you really need to study things for a long time. And you can’t always see those hard outcomes. However, I think that every little bit counts. What keeps you going is … when somebody shows up with a walker, and someone shows up for the first time and then comes back, that had not been participating in the walk or whatever they might be doing. Or if you’re out to dinner, and some people pick the salad … I think that our influences have to be at chipping away each time. 

Certainly, you could look at it and say, ‘Well, you know, we still have these problems.’ And if you look at it from the macro level, you could be discouraged. But I think that you have to plant the seed … we have this world where everything’s supposed to happen overnight, and it doesn’t anyway. It takes a long period of time. 

You know, we think that ‘Oh, we had one rally’ or ‘We had one Heart Walk,’ and it doesn’t work that way. What you have to do is, you have to have a presence and keep coming back. And at the beginning we had, you know, sometimes we’d have 10 walkers or if it was bad weather, it was maybe five to 10 walkers, but we kept going. I think that the joy is in all those little battles that you win or those little smiles or those ways that people change. And if you pay attention, there’s a lot of those things that happen. And I think that if we multiply those things, and more people buy into that concept, that’s where you see a bigger change.

NBL: What was it like to be honored with the Myra Kraft MVP Award? 

MR: I was honored and humbled. … The Boys & Girls Club is someplace that was important to me as a kid and fortunately there was an opportunity for me to really give back there, being on the board. … We were doing most of our (Wellness Initiative) programming live there before the pandemic, and unfortunately have had to switch most of our yoga and various things to online.

I really was appreciative of that recognition, but in a way, really for everybody I work with … nothing happens without being able to work with groups of people that have really been committed. … For me, it’s a real privilege, and I’m grateful to give back. I also think that most importantly, it’s recognition for everybody I work with, not just for myself.

NBL: How did growing up in New Bedford provide a foundation for your professional endeavors and volunteerism?

MR: I’m very grateful to New Bedford, and for the school system and the opportunities that I had at the Boys & Girls Club. The opportunities to both learn and work with a diversity of the population here has really been something that has benefited my professional development and also been something that caused me to want to give back to the area. I felt like I was given every opportunity by being from New Bedford, and I’m glad to have grown up here.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Learn more about the New Bedford Wellness Initiative at nbewell.com or the group’s Facebook page.

Joanna McQuillan Weeks is a freelance writer and frequent contributor to The New Bedford Light.

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