ARE you working your heart into an early grave? According to the World Heart Federation (WHF), at least four out of five premature deaths from heart disease and stroke - together, the leading cause of death in Malaysia and worldwide - could be prevented by being physical active, eating healthily, and not smoking.
So the answer is most likely "yes" if your job keeps you in the office for so long that you haven't the time or energy to exercise; or it stresses you out so much that you take frequent smoking breaks to cope; or you tend to skip breakfast and starve through lunch in order to finish one last piece of work after another, only to binge on the nearest available comfort food after that.
If that's the case, you need to consider making some heart-friendly changes at work. There's no better day to start than today.
Heart at work
This focus of this year's World Heart Day is on changing attitudes towards cardiovascular health at work.
Most of us spend over half our active hours at work, so where we work and what we do there has a great impact on our physical, mental, and social health.
The workplace can be a prime breeding ground for stress (deadlines, deadlines); depression ("Why didn't I get promoted!?"); back problems and repetitive stress injuries; and unhealthy eating habits (sugary, fatty snacks at multiple tea breaks, unbalanced hawker meals). In other words, it can be an environment that gets you down while increasing your risk of heart disease and stroke, among other diseases.
Or, it can be a healthy and enabling environment that integrates health promotion, education, and screenings into employee schedules. In other words, an environment that promotes all-round wellness while reducing your risk of chronic diseases. The benefits of the healthy option are many and obvious:
It saves lives. Almost half of those who die from chronic diseases die during the productive periods of their lives (ages 15 to 69). Since many of the causes of these diseases are controllable, a few gentle prods and timely screenings can make a big difference.
It increases personal well-being. Physically active employees are full of endorphins - mood-boosting hormones that create a sense of wellness. As a result, they enjoy their work more, experience increased concentration and mental alertness, often have better rapport with colleagues, and cope better with tension. In short, they are much more pleasant to work with.
It has social benefits. Group activities with colleagues or outside work are great ways to meet people outside your usual team and expand your network of friends. Feeling healthy and developing new skills builds confidence and can help you feel more in control of your life.
It pays back. It takes a healthy workforce to power a healthy business. Tangible benefits include increased productivity; reduced absenteeism, organisational conflict, and medical costs (for both employers and employees); fewer workplace injuries; a positive corporate image with increased brand value; and improved morale, loyalty, and staff retention.
Which situation you find yourself in depends largely on the prevailing attitude of your employer, and somewhat on yours. If you think the outcomes above sound good, read on to see how you can make them a reality.
Tips for employers
Take a stand. Establish in-house health policies, e.g. no tobacco use in the building, free annual flu vaccinations, health screenings or even an apple a day, and explain why they are being implemented.
Educate. Offer information to workers, such as leaflets and posters telling people about the risk factors for heart disease and stroke, e.g. those currently available at world-heart-federation.org/what-we-do/world-heart-day/.
Encourage exercise at/near work. A moderate amount of exercise - at least 30 minutes a day, three times a week - can reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. Set up a company gym or work out a subsidised corporate package at a nearby private gym for your workers.
Alternatively, get creative like advertising agency Leo Burnett Kuala Lumpur. Not only did the company subsidise weekly yoga lessons for staff members, it literally brought the lessons to them. The classes were conducted in their office itself to accommodate busy executives who were chained to their desks while waiting for completed work and client decisions.
Encourage exercise away from work. Do a little corridor research and see if there is a large group of line dancers, soccer players, or rock climbers who would be happy to exercise more frequently if the activity was subsidised. If futsal isn?t popular, maybe paintball will be.
Encourage physical activity during work. For example, from May to August this year, Tawakal Hospital, KL, ran a use-the-stairs campaign, during which staff members were assigned to groups and made to use the hospital staircases (instead of the lifts) on rotation. This worked out to each person hiking up and down for two out of five working days a week.
Encourage good eating habits. If you have a canteen, offer information about the calorie and fat content of the food provided, and encourage and/or subsidise the provision of healthy options (less fat, less salt, use more whole grains, natural products, fruits, and vegetables.)
In his long career, Heart Foundation of Malaysia director and consultant cardiologist Datuk Dr. Khoo Kah Lin hasn't come across a local company that does so, but hopes many will take the initiative. (The only example he can recall is the cafeteria of the Heart House, the headquarters of the American College of Cardiology in Washington D.C.)
"Certainly it will help a lot. Eating well, either at home, at the office, or outside has a big role to play," he says.
But can you issue instructions and start straightaway? Not without a sound education process, cautions Dr. Khoo. Canteen operators need to be educated on what healthy food is and isn't. And since canteen operators are businessmen, consumers need to support the operators. It will take time and money, but, in his opinion, it will be time and money well spent.
Tips for employees:
Know your numbers. Keep track of your blood pressure, cholesterol and glucose levels, abdominal girth and Body Mass Index.
Ask your doctor two "normal" questions at your check ups: what the normal range of a given reading is and what the normal range for you is (only possible if you go regularly.) Assess your overall cardiovascular disease risk with him and develop an action plan to improve your cardiovascular health.
Give up smoking. Your risk of coronary heart disease will be halved within a year and will return to a normal level over time.
Get active. Take the stairs; fill up a cup - not a bottle - at the water cooler, so you have to walk back and forth more often; pace while waiting for photocopies; walk around your building during your break; park further away from your office entrance and speed-walk to it; or do a few desk press-ups (like a push-up, but off the edge of your desk.)
Eat better. Choose healthier options (see above), or bring food from home if none are available. Be wary of processed foods; they're more convenient on the go, but they often contain high levels of salt and sugar.
Eat at least five servings of fruit and vegetables a day. Fruits are especially cheap and available in handy, ready-to-eat portions, so you've no excuse. Examples of one serving include an apple, or two pisang mas, or a small fistful of cauliflower. For a fantastic guide on 5-a-day, visit www.5aday.nhs.uk.
If you want to forget all the palaver about saturated versus unsaturated fat, poly- and monounsaturated fat, and trans-fat versus non-trans-fat (cis-fat, if you're curious), then abide by Dr. Khoo's simple rule: minimise fat intake, period. As he says on the Asian Food Channel programme Palm Oil: Good Fat, Bad Fat - "As far as I'm concerned, there's no such thing as a good fat."
Speak up. If there are policy changes you'd like to see, don't just dream/gripe about them.
Do your homework (What can be done? What's being done successfully elsewhere?); then enlist supporters (How many workers want this change?); then structure your case (What are the benefits for all concerned, especially the company as a whole?); then present your case to your human resource department. Be a catalyst for change in your organisation.