Woman with breakfast on the go

Recipe for better management

It won't come as big news to many that engineering managers aren't the fittest, healthiest or most diet conscious people in industry. But, argues E&T, with a few diet modifications we can eat ourselves fitter and turn in better performance.

Will you live to enjoy your well-earned pension? Do you have the energy to turn in a stellar performance at work? Or are stress, long hours, and a heavy workload forcing you into an unhealthy lifestyle that's already taking its toll?

A recent study showed that only 19 per cent of IT professionals take the recommended 30 minutes of exercise five times a week (compared to 63 per cent of the general population). The survey, covering nearly 2,000 employees across different sectors, found that only 14 per cent of people working in IT eat five daily helpings of fruit and vegetables and they drink the equivalent of ten cups of coffee (800mg of caffeine) daily.

Meanwhile, a survey of over 200,000 employees from the technology and software sector in BUPA Wellness corporate healthcare schemes shows that one in ten managers smokes, while 25 per cent have a sedentary lifestyle. And 61 per cent of all senior level employees were either overweight or obese. (The news was not all bad, however. Only 4 per cent were drinking more than the recommended amount of alcohol, less than 10 per cent had high blood pressure and only one in ten had high cholesterol.)

In the short-term, these unhealthy habits lead to lack of energy and concentration which make it harder to cope with the daily challenges of work. 'There is a great tendency for people to neglect their health when under work pressure,' says Dr Ian Millington, a GP based in Swansea. 'One major difficulty is not eating regularly and eating late which can increase the risk of weight gain and diabetes.'

The risk factor

Over time, risk factors like high blood pressure, weight increase, diabetes and high cholesterol may develop, setting the scene for long-term health problems such as heart attack, stroke and cancer. 'You may not even realise you are not feeling well because you have felt this way for so long,' adds nutritionist Roz Kadir, who advises Unilever on diet and lifestyle. 'One sure sign, though, is feeling groggy when you wake up in the morning, or tired all the time.'

Many of the health problems managers face arise from the impact of stress on the body and the way we deal with it. A certain amount of stress is necessary to help you meet challenges. You almost certainly wouldn't be where you are today at work if you couldn't handle it.

But the human stress response evolved to help deal with simple, but life-threatening, challenges like man-eating tigers and other predators. Today, this same response occurs when you are exposed to unreasonable deadlines, difficult colleagues, traffic jams, information overload and technical breakdowns.

Adrenaline and cortisol, the main stress hormones, flood your system and, instead of using up the extra glucose and fat they release meant for fleeing that man-eating tiger or facing your enemy you tend to store them, which leads to central obesity (fat round the middle). This fat is metabolically active and has many toxic effects, increasing the risk of heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure and diabetes. Meanwhile, the brain assumes that you have used up rather than stored all this extra fuel and you feel hungry.

Many busy people fall into the trap of eating sugary snacks such as chocolate bars when hungry, which makes blood glucose levels soar. This triggers the release of insulin from the pancreas to store the excess glucose. Then your blood glucose falls too low and you feel hungry again. It's easy to get onto a blood glucose 'rollercoaster' where levels swing from high to low throughout the day. If you don't make time to eat regularly, the brain thinks you're starving and will hang fat stores around the middle.

Kadir describes how this happens. 'The most common scenario, in my experience, is someone staying in bed as late as possible, so there is no time for the gym or walking or cycling to work. They'll then stop off for a coffee and a Danish or croissant in lieu of breakfast. Then it's coffee till lunch, when they'll grab a stodgy sandwich.' After this come the notorious 'mid-afternoon slump' and a dash to the vending machine for crisps or chocolate. The day might be rounded off with more carbs pasta or a takeaway for dinner, for instance.

Small dietary changes

If this is where you are starting from, take heart. Making small but sustained changes to the way you eat can turn the blood sugar rollercoaster into a smooth ride, providing a steady supply of glucose to the brain and body and improving your energy and concentration. Have small but frequent meals, Kadir says. Don't go for more than three hours without eating. Complex carbohydrates, like oats and wholemeal toast, release glucose more slowly into the bloodstream than simple ones such as sugar and chocolate, achieving the 'drip feed' effect you are after.

Focus upon getting enough of the good things (fruit, vegetables, good fats, fibre) while holding back on the bad ones (trans fats, saturated fat, salt). Meals should be a balance of protein, carbohydrate and fat.

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. Research shows that eating breakfast helps weight and cholesterol control, as well as improving attention.

Independent nutrition consultant Dr Carrie Ruxton suggests you eat porridge or keep some mini-packs of healthy breakfast cereal and milk at work. At lunch, if you are going to grab a sandwich make it a good one. Research online will reveal the calorie and fat values of your potential food choices (for instance, www.weightlossresources.co.uk has masses of data on sandwiches and snacks from many popular chains). If you are lunching out, heed Ruxton's advice. 'Poor performance in the afternoon can be linked to too much carbohydrate at lunch. Better to choose a tuna salad or bowl of soup rather than a sandwich. Choose healthier, lower fat options at cafes or the staff restaurant. When travelling, ask for meals without rich creamy sauces and go for low-fat options such as fish, pasta, lean meat or eggs. Stay clear of desserts, cheese and high fat snacks unless you are very physically active.' You will also need a mid-morning and a mid-afternoon snack. Kadir suggests oatcakes or rye bread with nut butter, hummus, or sugar-free jam. Fruit combined with nuts is another good choice.

You also need to keep hydrated. 'Drinking plenty of fluid helps reduce stress and promotes mental focus. Dehydration will lower performance,' Ruxton says. 'Four cups of tea a day helps to maintain mental performance without overloading the caffeine, while water is great for hydration and comes calorie-free.'

When you get home, make yourself a nutritious meal. 'Do learn to cook,' advises Kadir. 'And try something new. Many people eat the same ten foods all the time, so try to get more variety in your diet.' If you're tired, don't automatically pick up a takeaway. Chinese, Indian and pizza dishes are all loaded with fat. Instead, check calorie, fat and salt content of ready meals online and stock up your freezer with healthy options for those evenings when you just can't be bothered.

You should also tackle drinking and smoking if you want to improve your health. Many managers use alcohol as a social lubricant and stress reliever, be it at a pub, office party or while entertaining clients. But regularly exceeding sensible drinking guidelines impairs your work performance and also affects long-term health, increasing the risk of stroke, liver disease and certain cancers. Pace yourself remember wine has fewer calories than beer, and don't forget to eat before hitting the pub. And just because you can't smoke in the office doesn't mean that managers aren't prone to nipping out for a crafty fag (as the BUPA survey reveals).

'It amazes me how many professionals still smoke,' comments Millington. 'Among medics, smoking is now rare, but in business it seems to be the norm.' Your company should provide smoking cessation support or your GP could refer you to a clinic.

Desk jockeys

Exercise is as important as diet in maintaining executive health. A new study from the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm shows that being a desk jockey increases your risk of becoming obese and developing heart disease, diabetes, and cancer, even if you exercise at other times. 'Take breaks from your desk, go and talk to your colleagues rather than sending an email as this gets you moving,' says Ruxton. You can split up your day into smaller chunks. 'If you do six ten-minute bursts of activity walking round the block, or climbing some stairs, then you've done a whole hour in one day,' adds Kadir.

If your company has a wellness programme that includes gym membership, take it up. Also, you don't have to be a celebrity to have a personal trainer he or she will help you devise an exercise program, with specific goals for your needs and lifestyle. Express that competitive streak by joining or organising team sports at work. While the London Marathon isn't for everyone, organising a sponsored run or walk for a good cause is a nice way to commit to an exercise programme and a worthwhile goal.

Try monitoring your daily activity with a pedometer. If your baseline is as low as 3,000 or so steps per day, aim for 10,000 steps to maintain weight and 15,000 to reduce it. A recent study from Diabetes UK showed that using a pedometer in an exercise program decreased the risk of men with prediabetes (higher than average fasting glucose levels) from progressing to diabetes.

Exercise is a great stress buster. Another one is annual leave. You deserve your holidays, so use them. Consider splitting your allocation so you always have something to look forward to a main holiday, a couple of long weekends and several days off as refreshers. It goes without saying that you should not take the office on vacation. If you must check your Blackberry, or be available, limit it to a certain period during the day.

'Always make some 'me' time, however small. Learn to slow down,' says Millington. 'If you let the world get in the way, you will pay the price.'

And remember, this is not just about you. You are (hopefully) respected and well liked, so if your team sees you taking the stairs, eating regular meals and so on, they may do likewise. If you have influence, see if you can get your company to do more like extending gym benefits, giving out free fruit or having healthier food in the canteen.

Finally, be sure to give your body an MOT at least as often as you do the car. Millington says everyone should have their blood pressure checked at least every couple of years and, if you have a family history of heart disease or diabetes, you should keep an eye on your cholesterol and fasting glucose levels.

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