The Entrepreneur's Common Sense Guide to Heart Health

04/14/2015 10:09 am ET | Updated Jun 13, 2015

To accelerate our success as entrepreneurs, we need to be healthy enough to be fully engaged with our companies and our teams. And yet, how many of us regularly forsake lifestyle choices that could help us achieve great things? We are proactive in our business dealings, but we wait until there is a problem to pay attention to our own personal health.

The good news is that it's not a huge burden to achieve a level of health that will help you be effective in business and in life. Joel Kahn, one of the world's top cardiologists and author of The Whole Heart Solution, recently shared with me that approximately 90% of heart attacks are preventable -- not with fancy lasers and robots, but by making a series of lifestyle choices that can minimize the risk of getting heart disease.

Six steps to a healthier heart

Kahn highlights six things you can do right away to help stave off heart disease, diabetes, dementia and other major health issues that can knock you down -- or out.


1. Don't smoke. An obvious one, of course, but crucial. If you currently smoke, tackle it just as you'd tackle a business goal -- with a thoughtful plan that includes specific steps, deadlines and the desire to succeed. Do whatever works. For example, Kahn has had patients who wean themselves by putting ten cigarettes in a lunch bag for a week, then nine, then eight, and so on. Patches, gum, acupuncture, hypnosis are all good options.

2. Move around. Sitting is the new smoking, says Kahn. "22 chronic diseases including heart disease, cancer, dementia, diabetes, arthritis and obesity have been linked to how many hours a day you sit," he notes.

This is another problem with obvious solutions that most of us simply don't implement:

  • Stand up when taking phone calls.
  • Work at a standing desk.
  • Organize physical activities to do at lunch.
  • Set a timer at your desk to stand up every 30 minutes.
  • Get your employees and team members to stand up for 10 minutes every hour.
  • Walk for 30 to 40 minutes per day.

We tend to seek out new and novel ideas, but the fact is, these well-known steps are all we need.

Caveat: Be careful not to overdo exercise. I know many hard-charging entrepreneurs who push themselves at the gym every day. But Kahn points out that exercise is like medication: There's a recommended amount, and you can overdose. "Repeated ultra-endurance exercise -- multiple marathons, multiple triathlons, three-hour daily runs -- may be a highly inflammatory process that is not heart healthy. The data says there can be scarring, arrhythmias, and maybe accelerated heart disease," he says. "If you enjoy doing those things, I won't talk you out of it, but don't assume they're protecting your heart."

3. Revamp your diet. Multiple studies show that the simple habit of eating more than five servings of fruits and vegetables a day -- especially so-called superfoods like broccoli, kale, bok choy and cauliflower -- reduces cancer, diabetes, and heart disease risk. "I tell my patients, 'eat your damn vegetables.' They taste better than chemotherapy or surgery," says Kahn. "Whether it's part of a Paleo diet, a Mediterranean diet, a vegetarian or vegan diet, fruits and vegetables should make up 50 percent of your plate."

Of course, also nix the processed foods as much as possible ("They are toxic to our GI tract -- they actually release poisons in the blood," notes Kahn). And cut back on sugar. "That means all the obvious places where there's sugar but also barbecue sauces, tomato sauces and even bread," he says.

But what about entrepreneurs who spend hours schmoozing clients at restaurants? Kahn's advice is to be proactive -- call ahead and let the restaurant know your preferences. Chances are, they'll be willing and able to prepare something healthy and delicious. If not, get creative. "If I'm stuck in a place and I just don't see a healthy choice, I'll make a plate out of all the side dishes," says Kahn. "Usually the people at my table say 'wow, where did you get that?'"

4. Watch that waist. We used to think fat was just a yellow, globby inert material. Now we understand it makes hormones. In particular, the fat around the abdomen called visceral abdominal tissue actually makes about 35 hormones -- 34 of which are bad for your health and promote chronic disease.

Staying trim doesn't mean you have to look good in skinny jeans: A waist size under 40 inches for a man and under 35 for a woman are just fine, says Kahn. "Being what's called pear shaped, or thin in the waist and bigger on the bottom, is actually healthier for your long term than the so-called apple belly body form," he says.

5. Raise your glass--a little bit. Multiple studies show that a few alcoholic drinks per week may reduce your risk of a heart attack. This is a sensitive issue, of course, as not everyone can or should handle alcoholic drinks. If you can, however, one to two alcoholic drinks per day can promote heart health. What's more, the benefits seem to occur whether you're drinking hard alcohol, wine or beer.

6. Get your Zs. Lack of sleep is almost a badge of honor among many entrepreneurs, who brag about their hard work and long hours. Turns out those all-nighters may be harming your ability to run a great business more than you think. Like exercise, there's a sweet spot for sleep. On average, people that get four or five hours a night on average will not be as healthy in the long run as people that get about seven to seven and a half. That amount appears to be the optimal amount needed to repair your body and prime it for the day to come. And like exercise, too much sleep might not be a good thing. Studies suggest that nine or 10 hours of sleep per night might actually create some health problems.

It's been said that a man with health has a thousand dreams, while a man with no health has but one. Don't you owe it to yourself, your team and your family to not only have a thousand dreams, but also have the energy and engagement to make them happen?

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