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Dr Fundile Nyati takes a look at the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle, especially among those in C-suite roles

In the world of work, be it in the corporate environment, state-owned enterprises, government sector, or medium to big business entrepreneurship, one’s appointment into an executive role is often just reward and a culmination of personal dreams from many years toiling and personal sacrifice. Eventually making it into that C-suite role is stuff that dreams are made of for incumbents, an epitome of work success, and a time to savour the trappings and power of management and leadership success.

What many of these newly-appointed executives are often not mindful or aware of is that reaching that pinnacle of success in their professional careers carries serious inherent health risks which, if not proactively managed in a consistent manner, often lead to the emergence of several silent killers that threaten the duration and quality of their very occupation of those executive positions.

Inherent in these executive or senior management occupational roles is the reality of chronically dealing with high stress levels navigating various leadership challenges and crises, spending long working hours sitting in successive back-to-back meetings (virtual or in person) or just sitting in one’s office formulating or executing or monitoring implementation progress of various organisational or business strategies.

In this hectic daily work schedule and life of a typical executive, there is often another lifestyle challenge, that of poor food or nutritional choices at work. They often leave their homes very early in the mornings without having eaten healthy breakfasts for most days, sometimes grabbing a morning fast food breakfast and fizzy drinks from drive thru outlets of the likes of McDonald’s or KFC on their way to work, and doing the same during lunch time, or indulging in unhealthy biscuits and sweets that are ever-present on most boardroom tables during meetings, and calorie-rich finger lunch offerings and beverages.

Often, the only healthy meal of the day that many of these top executives get to eat is supper or dinner, however, even that meal, healthy as it may be, it is often eaten late in the evening, when they eventually get home after a long day at work, or in hotels if they are on business travel.

The bulk of the energy or calorie intake from the healthy food which they eat late in the evenings, either at home or in hotels, is often not burnt or utilised by the body, as these exhausted executives often go and retire shortly thereafter, with that excess energy being converted or stored as fat in the body, thereby contributing to weight gain over time.

Another lifestyle challenge for most of these C-suite executives is that their hectic work-related lifestyles often present them with difficulties in scheduling time for regular physical exercise, before they go to work, at the workplace or after work. Therefore, despite the high calorie content consumption during most of their workdays, their largely sedentary daily lifestyle activity, and relative lack of exercise inevitably results in them having surplus energy storage at the end of the day. It is this surplus energy storage from food and beverages intake on a daily that adds up to contribute to the inevitable weight gain, results of which in many corporates or organisations, the majority of their executives are clinically overweight or obese.

The net effect of these executives being overweight or obese is that the abnormal body mass index (BMI) becomes a serious health risk factor for the development of non-communicable/non-infectious diseases of lifestyle, for example, High Blood Pressure (Hypertension) and Type 2/Adult-Onset Diabetes Mellitus. Often, going hand-in-hand with the two chronic diseases of lifestyle as mentioned above (namely, Hypertension and Diabetes Mellitus), is another silent killer which causes abnormally raised total blood cholesterol, a clinical condition called, Hypercholesterolemia.

Many of these executives often struggle with managing the inherent high stress levels that come with their top jobs, and the associated poor work-life-balance or work-life-integration. What often happens is that they often adopt maladaptive stress management coping tendencies in the form of escaping from their daily realities by smoking excessively and/or drinking alcoholic beverages excessively.

Alcoholic beverages often contain high calorie content; therefore, their high and frequent intake often worsens the challenge of energy surplus that drives the downward unhealthy trajectory into being overweight or worse, obese.

The high consumption of alcoholic beverages (daily or frequent binging) in-turn results in other chronic health challenges, like addiction and alcoholism, as well as acute to long term damage to other major organs of the body like the brain, heart, liver, stomach, pancreas, and risk of cancer to many organs. The relatively high levels of chain-smoking of cigarettes, growing e-cigarettes vaping, or puffing of Cuban cigars (the latter two now fashionable trends) as perceived ‘stress relievers’ also presents a myriad of other health challenges relating to the powerful addictive effects of nicotine, resultant chronic damage to various bodily organs, and increased risk of cancer formation across the body.

Whilst this article is intended to create awareness about the common and inherent health risks or challenges that often affect a typical executive in our corporates and organisations beyond the corporate environment, it is important to note that this elite group of individuals who are leaders in business and the government, come from a SA society that is currently battling a rapidly growing challenge of non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

A National Department of Health (NDoH) special panel of top rated SA Medical Researchers, led by my former MBChB Class of 89, Natal University classmate, the late Prof Bongani Mayosi, who was arguably the best clinician-scientist that SA has ever produced, concluded that during the first 15 years of political transition in South Africa, the country had seen a rise in non-communicable diseases, driven by an increase in relevant risk factors in both urban and rural areas.

The eminent medical scientific researcher’s panel’s findings echoed the findings of the World Health Organisation (WHO), which previously found that the burden of disease in South Africa suggest that non-communicable diseases caused 28% of the total burden of disease, as measured by disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) in 2004.

Further, the special panel on NCDs also found that the burden of disease related to non-communicable diseases was predicted to increase substantially in South Africa over the next decades if measures were not taken to combat the trend. They said the rising burden of non-communicable diseases was shown by an increasing number of deaths from diabetes, chronic kidney disease, and cancer of the prostate and cervix, and by the increasing proportion of disability-adjusted life years attributed to neuropsychiatric disorders.

In further driving their points home to the decisionmakers at the NDoH, the eminent panel explained that many non-communicable diseases share common risk factors such as tobacco use, physical inactivity, and unhealthy diet that translate into cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer. They concluded that the South African adult population has high levels of these risk factors, and large proportions of the burden of disease can be attributed to these potentially modifiable risk factors.

Beyond their eye opening and shocking findings about the prevalence of non-communicable diseases in the SA population, they proposed 10 critical recommendations to the NDoH, five of which are worth quoting in this article, because they set a basis of what needs to be done at workplaces and society in general to turn the tide on the growing scourge and human toll from complications of non-communicable diseases.

They made the following population level recommendations:

  • Maintain and extend tobacco-control activities, especially for young people, and encourage quitting by means of counselling and nicotine replacement therapy.
  • Monitoring, assessment, and enforcement of occupational health and anti-alcohol legislation.
  • -Food-control legislation with public education for reducing the salt content of food and for sustituting 2% of trans-fat with polyunsaturated fat.
  • Promotion of physical activity in schools, workplaces, and the built environment.
  • Use of multi-drug regimens (e.g. the polypill containing aspirin, ß blocker, ACE inhibitor, diuretic, and a statin), and an absolute risk approach to prevent stroke, chronic kidney disease, hypertensive heart disease, and ischaemic heart disease.

In terms of Occupational Health and Safety Act 85 of 1993(OHSA), employers have an obligation to provide a safe and healthy work environment for ALL their employees, and that they need to identify health risks or hazards that may affect certain exposure groups within their staff complement. Once they have identified a certain health risk, that risk must be timeously communicated to ‘at risk’ employees, as well effectively managed to mitigate its negative impact to the employees and the organisation.

Whilst many employers often look at the OHSA as directed only to lower levels of staff, it could be argued that the inherent risk of non-communicable diseases can be identified as a serious health risk to the executive staff cohort.

Therefore, I submit that SA employers have a legal obligation to ensure that the inherent non-communicable diseases health risk amongst executives is effectively managed in collaboration with them. Awareness creation and relevant medical information sharing about the risk for effective diseases prevention, as well as provision of compulsory regular comprehensive annual health screening opportunities (e.g. executive medicals), as well as access to optimal treatment for those who are diagnosed with these non-communicable diseases.

Provision of on-site gyms or subsidised or fully-paid access to gym or hiking clubs membership with access to dieticians and biokinetists for individualised wellness programmes (exercise and eating plans), banning of high calorie biscuits and sweets with no nutritional value, substituting them with fruits platters in boardrooms, banning of fizzy high calorie drinks in favour of water would go a long way in assisting the executives to live healthily, thereby reducing the non-communicable diseases risk, or risk of often fatal complications like strokes, heart attacks, cancers etc.

The proactive identification and management of the prevalent and worsening non-communicable diseases amongst the executive cohort does not in any way substitute for individual responsibility by executives to be mindful and take charge of their health profile by adopting healthy lifestyle at work and beyond, aligned to the five above recommendations from the NDoH panel.

The company can do its best, acknowledging the inherent risk to executives, but it ultimately rests on the shoulders of each C-suite member or occupant to do the right thing consistently, knowing the upside will ensure prolonged economic productivity to benefit self and their families.

Dr Fundile Nyati is a specialist family physician, healthcare business leader, businessman, thought leader, and podcaster.

Who is Dr Fundile Nyati?

Specialist Family Physician, with the following qualifications: Bachelor of Medicine and Surgery (MBChB, University of Natal, now called UKZN) and Masters in Family Medicine (M.Fam.Med, University of Natal, now called UKZN)

Healthcare Business Leader, with following qualifications: Advanced Management Programme (AMP in Healthcare), Manchester Business School (MBS) and Advanced Project Management, Rand Afrikaans University (now University of Johannesburg).

Founder, Chairman and Chief Executive of Proactive Health Solutions (Pty) Ltd (PHS): 23-year-old, leading Employee Health and Wellness service provider in SA.

Health Industry Thought Leader and Public Health Advocate.

Long standing resident medical doctor on 702FM Weekend Breakfast’s Health Feature.

Regular opinion maker on SABC (Radio and TV); eNCA, Newzroom Afrika, Print media, etc.

Founder, Host and Podcaster of three-year-old Dr Fundi digital health channel that regularly broadcasts live on YouTube, Facebook, Instagram and Dr Fundi website (

By Editor