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Take Back Control...Your Health Depends on It

By Mellanie Hills

Reprinted from Women in Technology International

Are you one of the many women who live an overstressed life in this 24 by 7, do-it-now world? Are you constantly in multitask mode, instant messaging while in meetings, conference calling or 2-way messaging while driving or boarding planes? There seems to be no reprieve as the treadmill perpetually speeds up.

This always-on lifestyle may be putting you at risk for a heart attack or stroke. You may think that you're too young for that, or not at risk. That's what I use to think, too, until I had a close call. Here's my story.

For me, a typical week involved traveling, sometimes as many as three cities, with constant marathon meetings. There were conference calls every time I got into a car (hands-free, of course). At the airport, I'd be leaving voicemails until the plane door closed, working at airports and while in flight, and sending voicemails and e-mails immediately as I reached the terminal. I worked almost around the clock-from early until late-a typical high-tech, road-warrior lifestyle as the productivity meter at work kept ratcheting higher every month, quarter, and year.

But one evening, as I was getting off a plane, pulling my rollaboard and computer bag up the jetway, I felt an unusual shortness of breath and my left shoulder was hurting. Fortunately, I thought back to something I'd just read in which recent research had found that women had different heart symptoms from men--instead of chest pain, women typically had shortness of breath, tiredness or fatigue, nausea, or pain in the left arm, shoulder, or side of the neck.

When I saw my doctor a few days later, she did an EKG and found an anomaly, sending me straight to the emergency room, where testing found a 95% blockage in my main coronary artery. I was probably only a few hours or days away from a heart attack, but even so, as a true road-warrior, I was still making conference calls from the emergency room! After a coronary angioplasty, surgery that opens the blockage (and insertion of a stent, a small metal device that keeps the blood vessel open), I was sent home to recover and to make lifestyle changes.

What makes this story strange is that I wasn't a candidate for heart problems. I'm reasonably young, my blood pressure and cholesterol had always been low, and I'd just had a good physical. I always ate healthy-mostly organic, and no fried foods, though I did have a weakness for dairy, which I've eliminated. The most likely factors were family history (my Dad had heart surgery at age 65, though it was attributed to smoking, which I've never done), stress (all indications point to the stress from high tech and legal jobs being risk factors), and weight (I was marginally overweight, though I've remedied that).

The first thing I had to do to recover was to start taking back control of my life. No more working around the clock, so I pushed back on unreasonable demands and started saying "no" more often. I scheduled regular vacations away from it all, with no e-mail or cell phones. I've more than doubled my daily exercise, but instead of multitasking by listening to tapes while exercising, I let my mind clear to de-stress. I now frequently take my golden retriever for long walks to absorb nature, and take the time to really appreciate being given a second chance. I go to the airport early, and walk instead of working. On the plane, I'm not as fanatical about work and e-mail, stopping often to smell the roses, such as recently watching the most glorious sunset over the Grand Canyon-a priceless view I'll never forget.

Why am I telling you this story? If it could happen to me, it can happen to you! - Especially if you're among the many type-A women in technology. If you're out of balance, please take back control. Get enough rest and exercise, and take seriously the need to take time to play and de-stress. Allow yourself the time to think and reflect - it's not a luxury, it's a necessity. Work-life balance is hard to achieve, but is so vitally important to your health.

If you're tired or fatigued, you may be overdoing it or not getting enough exercise, but it could be something more serious. If you regularly experience shortness of breath, tiredness or fatigue, nausea, or pain in the left arm, shoulder, or side of the neck, please take it seriously and see your doctor.

You're more at risk if you have a family history of heart disease, smoke, have diabetes, have high blood pressure or high cholesterol, are overweight, or are inactive. If you have a higher risk, be cognizant of the amount of fats in your diet, especially saturated and trans fats. Once you decrease or remove the fats, you'll never miss them as your food will taste fresher and healthier.

Most women don't know they have a heart problem until AFTER they have a heart attack. According to the American Heart Association, 40% of heart attacks occur in women, and 38% of women who had heart attacks died within a year. Contrary to widespread belief, heart disease is the #1 killer of women. While breast cancer accounts for less than 4% of women's deaths, heart disease and stroke together account for over 40%. We can do something about this, starting with you.

Mellanie True Hills is The Health & Productivity Revitalizer. She coaches individuals to create healthy lifestyles that revitalize their health, and works with organizations to create healthy workplaces that transform productivity.

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