Heart Health On The Hill
Each year, Government officials are invited to come and get their heart health checked at Parliament House in Canberra, Australia.
This important initiative is in its second year and was established by Sarah Lindeman and Penny George from Sanofi and Sara Pantzer from Amgen. They have partnered with key Heart Health organisations such as the Heart Foundation and Her Heart. Over 50 Ministers, advisers, MP, and administrative staff took up the opportunity and registered.
I am a strong believer that these types of programs are critically important, we know that those who travel for work and juggle family commitments are incredibly busy, and seldom get the time or opportunity to get a heart check-up with their GP. While there are other executives who also travel a lot, I do believe that there are some particular circumstances to working in Parliament with long sitting days, prolonged times when there are few breaks, and this is incredibly stressful and disruptive to the body’s bio rhythms.
It is important to have a program where, at a set time of the year, there are onsite heart health checks that are quick and take approx. 15 mins. This makes it easier for individuals to stay on top of their heart health.
An assessment is made around risks that include blood pressure, weight, waist circumference, blood sugars (via finger pick), blood lipids and cholesterol. These numbers are all documented so that people can take action if necessary. A qualified nurse takes all assessments and if there were any borderline results or areas of concern (such as high blood pressure or cholesterol), then advice is given to follow up with their GP/physician. Aggregate statistics were taken towards the end of their session to be able to examine which risk factors were most prevalent.
I have to say that it was enormously rewarding to be a part of this initiative and (in some respects a luxury!) for me to spend the day talking to men and women.
I particularly made an effort to speak to as many women as possible, and it didn’t surprise me that not one was aware heart disease is the biggest killer of women, and that we lose 1 woman an hour to this disease.
Throughout the day, there were some interesting discussions and outcomes. It provided me a great opportunity to sit with people who are often under enormous pressure for consistent periods of time and hear about what issues they faced in their working life.
It was encouraging that one Minister sent his entire staff to be checked out. Another Minister, who had a strong family history, spoke about a sister who was in her late 30’s when she had a heart attack and she had only sought help and treatment because she was due to go away on holiday and felt flu-like symptoms. Fortunately, she survived and has been well since, but this was a powerful reminder of the difference in symptoms for women and that it is not an “old woman’s disease” but in fact the biggest increase is in the ages 25-40.
It was clear from it being the last sitting in Parliament that stress levels did seem to be high as people were tired as we head towards the festive season. However, a couple had made a mental note of their score from last year and noted that this had deteriorated and I was asked about what they could do to make changes to their lifestyle.
They wanted small changes that would make the biggest difference, which is what is needed when people are already operating under pressure.
Some common challenges are:
- Long days at work, starting in the early hours and sometimes late into the evening
- Stressful times during those periods such as ‘Question Time’, where a lot of adrenaline can be circulating and there is a need to “let off steam”
- Some women spoke about juggling family commitments, before, after and sometimes during Parliament in order to be able to concentrate on work
- Eating poorly due to snatching food at convenient times – sometimes late at night, which would effect sleeping
- Not sleeping well, due to feeling overtired and stressed, only getting 5-6 hours a night
- Not being able to exercise due to long days inside
- Feeling overwhelmed, stressed and needing caffeine to start the day and winding down with a glass of wine
There are probably some common issues here for many other people in high stress jobs and I do believe that it’s critically important to look at what you can do to put some measures in place.
Some of the raised blood pressures that were recorded were a concern and many were advised to see their GP’s.
Here is a brief summary of some of my suggestions:
To eat something within the first 50 mins of waking, also have a glass of water – this is really important, as it will provide fuel for the day (suggestions: oats, low fat muesli, fruit, yoghurt [unsweetened] eggs [boiled, poached], tomatoes, avocado).
Take Small Breaks
Try to take a break every 1.5 hours of working, even if it’s to stand up, have a stretch and get a glass of water. You may have heard the saying “sitting is the new smoking” so we all need to move more. A good excuse is to walk to the tap and fill up your water, because we all need to keep ourselves hydrated!
For a longer break try taking a walk around Parliament House (or your office/workplace), use the gym, or just get outside. Only 15 mins of midday sun can give you a vitamin D boost, as well as raise your serotonin levels (feel good hormone also raised during exercise).
Think about what you eat in the day, if you have breakfast then exercise you might need to have something mid morning (try a few nuts, 4-6 almonds gives you enough vitamin D for the day). Have a good lunch, instead of a quick muffin or sandwich – it will keep you going longer if you eat something with some protein (fish/chicken). Eating dinner at a reasonable time is also really important, as it will help you sleep better.
Towards the end of the day (and especially when you have to go out to a work function, or do the second shift at home) taking some time out in some shape or form is important. I recommend learning to meditate, there are so many Apps to help with this and you can just listen to some music. Headspace, Smiling Mind, Calm are all good Apps that have different options, short timeframes and are effective. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised when I mentioned this to a few people and some already practised this but had lapsed for various reasons (often the case when you are under pressure and overloaded).
Restful sleep is another big issue. Feeling overwhelmed can make it hard to fall asleep or wake you during the night with thoughts swirling round your head. Taking time to create a good bedtime routine is important, winding down, no use of smart phone or devices an hour before bed, sleeping in cool dark room, not drinking alcohol just before bed and reducing caffeine as these are all stimulants that will keep you awake. Download our sleep infographic here.
Exercise is another important strategy. Some Ministers spoke about going to the gym to let off steam after question time (when tensions might be high, cortisol around body) and this is a good stress buster. It can also reduce your blood pressure and allow you to sleep well at night (although don’t exercise for at least a couple of hours before bed). Some people are just not morning people, so work out if you are an Owl or a Lark and work in with this. I used to be a Lark but during a long period with 2 children (who didn’t sleep) I had to work late at night and moved to being an Owl, however my natural time is to wake early and now they are older I can get up early and only having myself to think about is a luxury!
Yearly Heart Health Checkups
Getting an annual check up needs to be on the radar of men and women. For many women we all go and get pap smears, mammograms and will take other family members to the doctors at the earliest sign of a problem. So, for all you women out there – it’s really important to put yourself first. There were a number of women walking around with very high blood pressures, raised cholesterol levels and were completely unaware that we lose 1 woman every hour to heart disease, 24 woman a day and we are now over 8000 deaths in 2018.
Overall it is promising to see Parliament taking steps to prevent heart disease, the biggest killer of Australians. I hope that many more workplaces around Australia, and the world, will offer these checks to their employees. If you are concerned about your health please make an appointment with your GP. Make sure you book your annual heart health check with your GP, for information on what to ask your GP click here.