February is American Heart Month, a great time to commit to a healthy lifestyle by making small changes and incorporating more heart-healthy behaviors that can lead to better heart health. Heart disease remains the leading cause of death in America. It’s a chronic disease that many are genetically predisposed to have, but there is a lot you can do — and help your employees do — to delay or prevent it.
In fact, discussions about cardiovascular health belong in the workplace as much as they belong in the doctor’s office. Researchers suspect there are links between stress — often work-related stress — and heart disease. Stress can not only raise blood pressure, which is a major risk factor for heart disease, but it can also lead to other unhealthy behaviors, like inactivity, high cholesterol or smoking.
Here are a few ways you can encourage employees to reduce stress and stay heart-healthy.
Let’s start with the basics: Eating well and exercising are two of the best things you can do to keep your heart healthy. (After all, it’s called “cardio” for a reason.)
Getting your heart-rate up tends to release endorphins and reduce stress. New research shows that those who are fitter are more likely to survive if they do have a heart attack, and the same study suggests that fitter people are less likely to have heart attacks in the first place. Exercise and good nutrition also help protect against obesity, which leads to high blood pressure (also known as hypertension) a risk factor for heart problems or stroke.
Many workplaces have fitness programs or on-site gyms to make it easier for employees to get exercise — some even reward them with perks for using them. Even if you don’t have access to these amenities, offices can offer standing desks, encourage employees to go for walks during the day, or even have active meetings to get employees moving.
A 2011 study linked poor sleep to a type of inflammation that’s a sign of heart disease. Those with sleep apnea also increase their risk of high blood pressure, which can cause heart attack and stroke. And not getting enough sleep has been linked to weight gain, another risk factor for heart disease.
As an employer, one thing you can do to help your employees get more rest is build flexibility into their schedules. We’ve written in the past about how employees who telecommute or have a flexible schedule get better sleep. It’s not just healthier; it makes them more productive at work, too.
Food & Chocolate
The American Heart Association recommends eating an overall healthy dietary pattern that emphasizes:
- a variety of fruits and vegetables
- whole grains
- low-fat dairy products
- skinless poultry and fish
- nuts and legumes
- non-tropical vegetable oils
Chocolate – You don’t want to overdo this one (cardiovascular disease is also linked to obesity after all), but a small amount of chocolate may help your heart. Some studies have found that the flavanols, the chemical compounds found in cocoa beans, can reduce blood pressure.
Chocolate is made from cocoa beans, which are actually seeds from the fruit of the cacao tree. Chocolate’s health benefits come from flavanols, antioxidants found in the cocoa bean. Other foods rich in flavanols include red wine, tea, onions, peanuts, berries, apples, and cranberries.
Dark chocolate may provide health benefits, but even small amounts still add calories, fat, and sugar to your diet. Choose at least 70% dark chocolate and eat only about 1oz/day.
How are you planning to promote cardiovascular health in your workplace this month? Please tell us in the comments.
Jackie Sharp is the Senior Manager of Health & Well-Being for Sodexo North America responsible for guiding Sodexo’s commitment to programs, initiatives and partnerships that improve health and well-being for individuals, organizations and communities. Jackie is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian who specializes in corporate wellness, sports nutrition and physical fitness.
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