Caught up in the stresses of launching and managing multiple businesses almost cost me my life. I was a seemingly healthy, active 38-year-old, fast-moving entrepreneur. The problem: I never slowed down long enough to recognize signs of my own developing heart disease -- until it was nearly too late.
My doctors estimated that my heart disease began developing 12 years ago, before embracing the laid-back lifestyle I live today as the president and co-founder of a growing retail franchise, Flip Flop Shops. I was constantly moving at the "speed of business," bustling through the grind nonstop and never taking a moment to slow down, so I'm sure the stress of those days took a heavy toll on my heart.
As an active-lifestyle enthusiast, you can always find me out in the water, surfing or paddle boarding. I'm always up for a new challenge, so when my wife challenged me to try out Insanity, an intense home-workout program, I was game. However, after a few weeks, I began to feel unusually fatigued. I passed it off to just being drained from my busy schedule, until I started feeling a strange, burning sensation in my chest.
This finally prompted me to schedule a doctor's visit, but standard EKG and blood tests came back normal. Next, they administered a stress test. This test, sometimes called a treadmill test or exercise test, helps determine how well your heart handles exertion, and can show if there's a lack of blood supply through the arteries that go to the heart. In my case, this was the only test that detected my heart disease -- after just a few minutes on the treadmill, I clearly showed signs that my heart was starving for oxygen. An angiogram was ordered.
The shocking result: 100 percent blockage of my main artery -- also known as "the widow maker" -- and near complete blockage in three of my other arteries. They told me that I could suffer a fatal heart attack at any moment and sent me directly to critical care for immediate open-heart surgery. I feel strongly that had it not been for the stress test, I may not be alive today -- one of the reasons I am encouraging companies to make stress tests mandatory for employees.
At the hospital, every doctor, nurse and staff member kept joking that they had the wrong patient. They would say, "There's no way this young, fit guy wearing flip flops, a baseball cap and shorts needs emergency open-heart surgery."
In fact, the whole experience is so ironic, given that I have always firmly believed in a culture of health, balance and happiness in work and life. Our company, Flip Flop Shops, lives and breathes by the "Live... Work... Play With Your Toes Exposed" mentality.
Now, just months after my lifesaving surgery, I'm healthy, living life to the max... and on a mission to help others prevent a similar ordeal by spreading the "pace" not "race" message. Through Flip Flop Shops, we have launched a campaign called "The Heart To Sole: Creating a Stress-Free America," with the American Heart Association to educate North America about the correlation between stress and heart disease.
In the end, I would consider our campaign successful through measuring four different outcomes:
- Our message of slowing down and enjoying life ("pace, not race") gains traction and leads to lifestyle changes for a majority of people living in North America.
- Corporations begin to make changes in their cultures to help employees work smarter, with less unhealthy stress, and actually increase their productivity and results.
- Corporations begin to implement heart health programs within their companies, such as implementing mandatory annual stress tests (a treadmill test or exercise test) for employees to detect potential heart problems.
- Raise substantial funds for the American Heart Association to support the resources they need to help spread the messages outlined above, leading to a reduced rate of heart disease in North America.
As part of my goal to spread awareness about the harmful effects of stress, here are some starter tips to get on a path to a stress-free lifestyle:
- Schedule "You" Time -- It's easy to get caught up in pleasing everyone else -- your boss, your co-workers, your wife, your kids. Making time for you will alleviate stress big time. Make sure you do something solely for yourself at least once a day, even if it's just for 15 minutes.
- Laugh... a lot! -- A simple laugh can go a long way. Laughing enhances your intake of oxygen-rich air and stimulates your organs, circulation and aids in muscle relaxation. So next time you feel stressed, find your favorite comedian on YouTube or visit a funny co-worker. Is there a photo that always makes you laugh no matter what? Keep it in your drawer and pull it out when needed.
- Get Moving -- Any form of exercise will act as a stress reliever. Exercise is proven to boost endorphins and for some people acts as an opportunity for meditation. You can fit exercise into every day even if you only have a 10 minute break that allows for taking a walk, running the stairs in your office building or doing jumping jacks in place.
- Slow It Down -- Life is not a race, so why rush? Slow down and your stress levels will drop significantly. Leave plenty of extra time to get places. Plan ahead for work deadlines so you are not always cramming under pressure.
- Just Do It! -- While it might feel good to put off a task that you don't feel like doing, procrastination eventually catches up with you and creates tremendous stress. Try to get important tasks done in a timely, efficient manner. Keep your desk and your inbox clean at all times and keep checking things off the list. When you find yourself putting something off, stop yourself. Use a Post-it note that says "just get it done!" as a constant reminder.
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