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How to Make Heart Health Job No. 1

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Maybe you’re under a pressing deadline right now – and all you can think about is stress-eating one of those big, fat cupcakes set out by a coworker. Or you’re driving long hours to make a delivery, so you light up a cigarette to stay awake. Or perhaps you scarfed fatty, salty, sugary – but decadently delicious – restaurant fare leftover from what you’ve been making all day for patrons.

Let’s face it, as plenty of research confirms, your job – both what you do and how you cope with stressors – can negatively affect your health and hurt your heart. Still, it’s not a given that holding a job will put you one step closer to a health calamity, like a heart attack, either. “Individuals who are gainfully employed generally are thought to be healthier on average than individuals in the general population who may be unemployed or not working due to health-related reasons,” says Capt. Leslie MacDonald, a senior scientist in the U.S. Public Health Service.

Many people get their health insurance through an employer, which can help improve access to care, while those who make a living wage also have more to spend on housing and healthful food – should they choose to prioritize that. “Having some schedule within your day can help you to structure your time in a way that can be beneficial for health,” says MacDonald – such as getting up at a routine hour in the morning and also taking prescribed medication at that time, she says, or scheduling regular exercise. And whether an occupation negatively impacts heart health may be in the experience of the job holder. “I think it’s a function of how energized versus how debilitated somebody is by the activities of a job,” says Dr. Aaron Kugelmass, an interventional cardiologist and chief of cardiology at Baystate Health in Springfield, Massachusetts. “One person’s stressor is another’s energy.”

However, certain factors such as long hours, shift work (particularly changes in a person’s work schedule that disrupts sleep) and a lack of job control can negatively affect one’s health, including raising the risk for heart disease and stroke. Recently, MacDonald led research that looked at a national sample of more than 5,500 men and women in the workforce aged 45 or older and evaluated their cardiovascular health by occupation. The study based assessments on seven risk factors, ranging from blood pressure to diet – or “Life’s Simple 7,” an action plan for reducing heart disease and stroke risk developed by the American Heart Association.

Among the findings presented last month at the AHA’s Epidemiology/Lifestyle 2016 meeting in Phoenix, transportation/material moving workers had the highest smoking rate – at 22 percent – of any occupation groups studied. Food preparation and serving employees had the poorest diets, and protective service workers, such as police and firefighters, were likely to be overweight or obese, more than 3 in 4 didn’t have ideal cholesterol levels and 35 percent had high blood pressure – all risk factors for heart disease and stroke.

No one met all seven criteria for ideal cardiovascular health – and, in particular, none of the workers met the mark for diet, which required achieving at least 4 of 5 set dietary goals, albeit eating 4 and 1/2 or more cups of fruits or vegetables daily, 3.5 ounces of fish at least twice a week, less than 1,500 milligrams of salt a day, 450 or fewer calories a week in sugary foods and three or more servings (each equivalent to an ounce) of whole grains daily. But even excluding diet, only 3 percent of workers met criteria for ideal cardiovascular health, even though the research didn’t focus on workers who already had cardiovascular disease. “We looked at cardiovascular health within the portion of the sample who were free of known heart disease and stroke,” MacDonald says.

The management/professionals category overall were found to have better cardiovascular health than other occupational categories – one-third had ideal body mass, just 6 percent smoked and most were at least moderately active.

As has been found in previous research, lower income and less education correlated with higher heart health risks among workers. But even accounting for that, there were still differences in the cardiovascular risks workers faced based on their occupations. As such, Donald Lloyd-Jones, an AHA spokesman and chair of the department of preventive medicine at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, and MacDonald emphasized tailoring lifestyle changes to address risk factors most pronounced in a particular occupation. “Small changes here could make a big difference,” Lloyd-Jones says.

If you’re a food service worker in a restaurant that serves unhealthy fare – as is often the case – it may be a good idea to prioritize packing a lunch every day with lots of fruits and veggies, along with a healthful snack, like a piece of fruit and nuts. If you have a sedentary office job, make sure you’re not just sitting at a desk all day, Lloyd-Jones says. “Getting up and moving around is incredibly important.”

For a transportation worker spending long hours behind the wheel, struggling to quit smoking, it might mean taking a hard look at whether you’re able to get better sleep, and how exercise provides energy as a replacement to nicotine. Some factors, such as air quality and unpredictability in work – and even those long hours driving – can be inherently more difficult to control.

For those who are job hunting, experts say it’s worth considering whether prospective companies prioritize wellness, if you’re able to be choosy. “Because you will be a happier, healthier person for longer if you choose a company that’s really going to promote that,“ Lloyd-Jones says. As employers are increasingly looking for ways to cut their health care costs, he’s hopeful more workplaces will do so.

While certain factors associated with a job itself can raise cardiovascular risk, the research MacDonald led also shows that often the lifestyles that go with that job – including how individuals cope at work and at home – are unhealthful.

Kugelmass suggests compensating for on-the-job hazards, like the sedentary nature of much modern work, off-the clock, too – like making more time for exercise if you have a sedentary job. In generations past, he notes, many jobs involved more physical activity. “In manufacturing, for instance, a lot of that has now been automatized and replaced by robots, [and] much of the heavy lifting is gone,” he says. Or if you have a sales job that involves entertaining (read: eating unhealthy restaurant food and drinking with clients), it could mean doubling down on eating healthier otherwise, including at home.

As the U.S. population and workforce age, cardiovascular health is crucial to stay on the job, since deteriorated health, in general, and disability are the top reasons workers retire early, MacDonald notes. Plus, it’s imperative to having quality of life outside of work. But where stark differences exist between some occupational and industry groups, when it comes to heart health, she says, there’s no one-size-fits-all fix, either. “The strategies are going to be unique to whatever the individual’s circumstances are, including their work circumstances.”

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