In my medical practice, I treat a lot of patients who are in business for themselves. I can confirm, therefore, that entrepreneurs are busy people. In fact, at least one review indicates that they tend to work 63% longer than regular employees. With all that time put into the job, there’s not a lot left over for taking care of yourself — especially for people who have a family or other important priorities and obligations.
This is not good, considering that simply being an entrepreneur also raises your risk of some serious health problems. Psychological problems are at the top of that list. In fact, a study published in Small Business Economics found that entrepreneurs were twice as likely as members of the general population to experience depression, nearly six times as likely to have ADHD, and three times as likely to suffer from addiction.
Those are not small numbers, but it makes sense when you consider the massive amount of stress that tends to be involved in running a business. Add to that the elevated potential for isolation and the blurring of lines between an entrepreneur’s personal, social, and business lives, and you’ve got a recipe for mental health challenges.
It turns out other health problems are rampant among entrepreneurs, as well. Of these, heart disease may be the scariest. Remember how the average entrepreneur tends to work over 60 percent more than 9-5 employees? According to a study published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, the more time you spend on the job, the greater your chances of being diagnosed with heart disease.
This association was determined by tracking 1,926 members of the workforce over a 25-year span, during which 40 percent of participants were diagnosed with heart disease. Those who worked the longest hours had the highest relative risk.
It seems like the easy solution would be for entrepreneurs to cut back on their hours. But it’s not easy to convince an entrepreneur to do that — not by a long shot. The same goes for anyone, business owner or not, who has extensive time commitments to projects or relationships to which they’ve attached personal or professional meaning. That being the case, how can those people manage their health risks and prioritize wellbeing without sacrificing productivity?
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The single most important self-care tactic for entrepreneurs
When you’re busy, you may have to eat on the go. You may have to settle for light walking instead of strenuous exercise, if that’s all your schedule allows for. You may not have time to research and experiment with supplements; get a therapeutic massage; or blend your own organic vegetable juice in the morning.
You can do one thing, though, that’s more powerful than all the above, and you can do it no matter how busy you are: plan your schedule around your circadian rhythm.
Most of us are familiar with the phrase “circadian rhythm”; we know it has to do with our pattern of sleeping, and might even associate it with the idea of a “biological clock.” But thinking our circadian rhythm is just a sleep timer seriously underestimates its importance.
The study of circadian rhythms is its own niche in scientific research, and the latest studies show that our biological clock does a whole lot more than just tell us when it’s bedtime. In fact, it has a hand in orchestrating nearly all the physical processes in our bodies, from the function of vital organs, to how we metabolize energy, how our immune system functions, even how we think. Disease symptoms, including chronic pain, are also tied to our circadian rhythm.
Studies in both animals and humans indicate that having a healthy, stable circadian rhythm makes us more likely to stay alert, remember more, think better, keep our balance, resist illnesses, and have a regular digestive pattern. That’s in addition, of course, to getting better, more restful sleep.
A healthy rhythm also helps protect us from chronic disease processes like hypertension (a major risk factor for heart disease) and is correlated with extended life expectancy.
So if your circadian rhythm tries so hard to take care of you, what can you do to take care of it? It’s an easy, three-part answer.
- Know yourself.
Everyone has a unique “chronotype” — an outline of when they like to go to bed and wake up. Honor it. Don’t force yourself to get up early if you’re a night owl, for example. You’re not doing yourself any favors, and may even be damaging your health.
- Get more sleep.
Sleep deprivation is now considered a public health crisis. Sleeping for at least seven hours a night not only will make you healthier, it will be a public service.
- Try to wake up at the same time every day.
For that matter, try to perform as many daily tasks as possible on a routine (eating, exercising, showering, etc.). While the solar-driven light/dark cycle is considered the primary engine of circadian rhythms, researchers now know there are other influences, things like social, metabolic, and activity-based cues.
If you’re not already in the habit of sticking to a regular bedtime and wake-up time, it might seem inconvenient — but it’s the single most important thing you can do for your health outside of breathing, eating, and staying hydrated.
A late night here and there isn’t going to kill you, but if you constantly keep your circadian rhythm out of step by not adhering to a steady sleep routine, you’re putting your body through the same harsh conditions it experiences when crossing time zones. It turns out you don’t need to fly anywhere to get jet lag; a lot of us are doing it to ourselves on a daily basis.
A routine may be annoying or inconvenient to establish, but it’s a very worthwhile investment. And the negative effects of not having one can be dramatic … even debilitating. If you’re going to work long hours or otherwise subject yourself to health risks by neglecting self-care, the least you can do is give your body this one leg up.