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Do This For Your Body and Brain

Daily Habits to Keep Chronic Disease Away

Photo by Andrei on Unsplash

You have a surprising amount of control in preventing and managing chronic disease. Chronic disease is defined as a health condition lasting a year or longer, required ongoing medical attention and limit the activities of your daily life. In other words, no fun. Be fueled by this one statistic: 80 percent of adults have at least one chronic disease and 68 percent have at least two or more.

To age well and maximize the years ahead, consider adopting a ‘small steps’ mindset to preventing and managing chronic disease: take on just one ‘habit of health’ at a time until it is integrated into your daily life. I have confidence you will find it easily blended into your daily routine. Let’s give it a try!

At the Top of the List: Your Arteries and A Healthy Heart

Last year, 58% of older adults were treated for high blood pressure – a condition that involves both challenges in how much blood your heart pumps, as well as resistance in your arteries to blood flow. Knowing ‘your number’- your blood pressure reading – is vital to good health. As we age, the arteries that lead to the heart narrow, causing a build-up of plaque and reducing blood flow to the heart. High blood pressure can lead to heart disease (29% in older adults) and even heart failure (14%). Symptoms can include feeling tired, lightheaded or having a rapid heartbeat. Black adults are 33% more likely to have high blood pressure and are at least 50% more likely to die earlier from heart disease or stroke.

Build on these Daily Lifestyle Habits toward Better Health:

  • Reduce sodium: This includes more than table salt—read food labels and calculate your daily intake (no more than 2300 mg for adults unless your physician advises even less)
  • Maintain a healthy weight; your heart works harder if you carry extra weight
  • Get some daily movement for your body and brain, including functional fitness (see earlier blog post)
  • Sleep seven-to-eight hours each night; your heart needs the rest
  • Follow doctor’s orders around medication compliance

Bring Down that Cholesterol

Another way for your arteries to get clogged with plaque is through high cholesterol, an excess of bad fats in the blood that then clog your arteries. An astonishing 47% of older adults are treated for high cholesterol, including 60% of Hispanic adults. Integrate these Daily Dietary Habits for Better Health:

  • Eat protein-rich foods like fish, which contain Omega-3 fatty acids
  • Minimize saturated fats, like red meat and high-fat dairy
  • Increase the number of whole grains like high-fiber cereals and breads 

Your Brain and Your Mood Affect Your Mental Health

It’s common for older adults to seek treatment for depression (14% last year). If you are experiencing persistent feelings of hopelessness, difficulty making decisions, changes in appetite or a loss of interest in activities, contact your primary care physician, who may talk to you about medication or psychotherapy.  Try one of these Daily Well-Being Habits for Better Health:

  • Stay social by phone, online, or in person if safe to do so, even if you initially don’t feel like it; 15 minutes can do a world of good!
  • The foods you put into your body can affect your mood, so refrain from ‘comfort’ or processed foods that only momentarily dull the feelings of stress. Instead, shop the perimeter of the grocery for nature’s foods: fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, high-fiber grains and low-fat dairy products that benefit your brain with Vitamin B and folate in particular.
  • Limit consumption of alcohol, caffeine and artificial sweeteners, which can negatively affect your brain and your mood
  • Take a 10-minute walk, ideally outdoors, to release endorphins and other “feel good” brain chemicals. Puzzles, adult coloring books, board games and digital apps for good brain health will also boost your self-confidence and self-worth – you did it!
  • During sleep, your brain acts like a dishwasher each night, clearing out harmful toxins, so getting at least seven hours is recommended

Bone Health and Arthritis

Arthritis is an inflammation of your joints that causes pain and stiffness, and can greatly affect daily movement. More common in women, likely due to hormones; 31% of older adults were treated for arthritis last year. Here are some suggested Daily Physical Habits for Better Health:

  • While it may seem counterintuitive, exercising at least five times per week for 20 minutes will improve function and decrease pain. Try to include a mixture of aerobic, strength-building and stretching movements, like Tai Chi and gentle yoga.
  • Maintain the recommended weight for your body frame—losing just one pound can remove four pounds of pressure on your knees!
  • Make sure your back, legs and arms are always supported when you sit or lie down
  • Don’t smoke; avoid anything that interferes with tissue regeneration

Monitoring Your Blood Sugar and Diabetes

Insulin is a hormone used to get energy from the food you eat into your cells. When you have diabetes, the sugar (glucose) from the food stays in your blood, resulting in ‘high blood sugar.’ This is a dangerous condition but can be managed through medication and lifestyle actions. The risk of having diabetes increases after age 45. Last year, 27% of older adults were treated for diabetes and among ethnic groups, the diagnosis rates are 77% higher among Blacks, 66% higher among Hispanics and 18% higher among Asians.  As a starting point to help regulate blood glucose, choose one of these Daily Wellness Habits For Better Health

  • Fill half your plate with high-fiber fruits and vegetables (emphasis on veggies!)
  • Hydrate! Many older adults simply do not drink enough water. Drinking a full eight-ounce glass of water first thing in the morning sets you on a good pace for the day.
  • Daily exercise to keep your blood glucose levels in check and to control weight gain; try not to miss two days in a row.
  • Lose just 5-7% of your body weight can reap tremendous benefits (for a 200 lb. person, that’s 10 pounds).

Power Your ‘Better Health’ Potential

The foundation of good health is, and always has been, what you put in your body and how (and how often) you move from a sitting position to an active one. When it comes to your heart, your brain or your joints, these factors can be a game-changer in preventing and managing chronic disease. Start by making one small choice for your wellness each day, build from there, and you are well on your way to better health.

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Looking To Boost Your Health After 50?

Focus on Food and Flexibility

Photo by rishikesh yogpeeth on Unsplash

Some say some the best time of your life is once you’re over the age of 50. As we’ve gotten better at aging, we’re healthier and therefore living longer, and our expectations and mindsets for the expression ‘over the hill’ no longer applies.  Many are embracing career pivots or happily working longer, creating time for new leisure pursuits and community interests, or welcoming back family members to live with them. Therefore, making healthful living a priority to fuel that lifestyle is essential.

To serve you well in these “best years” of your life, let’s hang out for a bit with nutrition—specifically, good sources of protein and why we need it — and how adding flexibility to your fitness routine can make all the difference in how you navigate out in the world.

Maintain Muscle Mass

Our body composition changes as we age. Starting around age 40, two things happen to our muscles: one is sarcopenia, which is the progressive loss of muscle as we age. We may lose as much as 50% of our muscle mass due to sarcopenia and inactivity as an older adult. The second is that we are more likely to experience a period of muscle disuse, often due to an injury or illness.

To counteract these effects, we need to build up our muscle mass by increasing our consumption of protein — and add strength training to our fitness regimen (more on that in a future post). But, before you picture yourself simultaneously snacking on steak sandwiches and curling free weights, it’s important to consider both the quality and quantity of your protein source, as well as timing of protein intake.

Pack on the Protein

Protein-rich foods that contain a key amino acid, leucine, are best to rebuild muscle over age 50. Leucine helps amplify the anabolic resistance of muscle (anabolic simply means the build-up of muscle). Consuming at least 30 grams of protein with 2.5 grams of leucine per meal, spread evenly across meals versus heavy loading at one meal, is advised. Top choices with both include eggs, chicken, soybeans (including tofu and tempeh), almonds, whey and soy protein powders, beef, salmon, peanuts, chickpeas and lentils. Check with your medical professional for any specific dietary concerns.

Flexibility aka Functional Fitness

The concept of a balanced diet should also be applied to physical activity with a focus on brain, body and bone health. This can be achieved through endurance exercise like walking or swimming, strength training like lifting free weights, and functional fitness exercises, which sharpen balance, coordination and agility. Many consider functional fitness to be the “flexibility foundation” of an essential physical activity program for those over 50 because if you aren’t moving well, you aren’t living well!

Functional fitness exercises mimic the motions you make every day, creating muscle memories that help make daily living activities easier, safer and more efficient. Try the following to increase your stability, balance, flexibility and mobility:

  • Yoga and tai chi can help you move more fluidly when reaching into a file cabinet as you put away folders.
  • Want to be able to reach down to tie your shoelaces without difficulty? Focus on flexibility stretches.
  • Wish you could move your shoulders through their full range of motion without modification to easily put on a jacket?  Incorporate stretching exercises that build mobility.
  • To avoid and prevent falls, often reported as happening unexpectedly and during everyday activities, add balance and stability drills like walking heel to toe in a line for a short distance.

To see benefits in your everyday living, choose one of the above categories to do each day for 5-10 minutes, rotating through the week. You can find printouts and videos online.

Energy Begets Energy

Knowing the physiological changes that come after age 50 will allow you to make smart choices about your food and fitness plans like those noted in this post. Consider it the fuel you need to replenish the energy you’re tapping as you live your very best life.

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How to Party Safe in 2020

How do we safely enjoy the holidays?

Photo by Brooke Lark on Unsplash

We’re all feeling ‘Pandemic Fatigue’ – we’re tired of hearing and thinking about the dangers of COVID-19 and all the related changes this virus has forced on us, affecting our everyday lives, work and activities.

You may even feel resentment about some new restrictions after all these months when you followed the guidelines (wore a mask, washed your hands, physically distanced), especially when you observed others who did not.

Holidays

Let’s acknowledge that this holiday season will be different. Make peace with that right now. Embrace a new way of doing things and find new traditions that who knows, may outlast the pandemic. I’d like you to consider adopting a self-care attitude to help you navigate the coming months and that is:  ‘Try Familiar things in a New Way.’  Studies show the concept of novelty makes people happier, and we all could use a boost as we enter what might be the homestretch of this challenging time.

With the holidays coming up, we might be asking, what’s safe? You’re likely reading about the winter season ahead, with surges being predicted, and some areas of the country with more severe restrictions in place, so let’s break down some key information so you can make decisions about the holidays with guidelines and practices to be as safe as possible.

Risks

Understanding your risks is key, and only you can make the decision for you, your family and your social distancing crew. There is no individual right or wrong answer, as each person has to decide for themselves. For a family, however, it’s probably best if everyone is on the same page: for unity, for harmony, and with an eye toward collective safety, mental well-being, and overall enjoyment.  And keep a watch for confirmation bias – looking for information on what you want to hear. Be sure to carefully weight all the facts and information.

Know it’s all about balance in the coming months. We want to watch getting comfortable, as well as being hypervigilant, for months on end. There’s a balance between letting your guard down and excessive alertness. It will do you well to not look at this time as ‘all or nothing,’ meaning ‘well, we can’t do what we used to do, so forget any celebration,’ but rather finding some joy along the way in new ways that might turn out to be more fun that you imagined.

Your People

First, find your social distancing crew and stick with them. Some experts say limit that to two households. You might expand your bubble for your mental health and that will allow for some holiday cheer as well, and everyone in your bubble should be following similar social distancing practices. Spend as much time outside as possible if you are socializing, so bundle up on the outer wear; in fact, that might be on the top of your gift list this year!

The CDC encourages hosts to request that guests avoid contact with people from outside their household for two weeks before any event. That doesn’t mean total lockdown. It does mean no activities indoors outside your bubble (excluding ideally one trip to the grocery); activities within your bubble or within six feet of others outside is OK. Wear a mask.

Travel

And if you are going to lower your risk by traveling, then get tested through your state or local health department. A 72-hour window has been recommended.  It is safest to travel to low infection areas, of course, and older individuals and those with preexisting medical conditions should not travel at all at this time. It is also safest to stay at a hotel versus a home, only after quarantining.

Here’s an idea that has can keep everyone safer: make someone the ‘Designated Driver’ a champion if you will, leading safe COVID-19 practices with a cheerful tone, being pleasantly assertive and helpfully reminding everyone about masks and sanitization.  When you travel, make and bring a Safe Travel Kit. Items can include sanitizer, Tylenol, wipes or sprays and paper towels, masks, snacks, food, gloves, and linens. On the road, the risk of infection is higher.

Socialization

Please-realize that an increase in indoor socializing can easily lead to a spike in COVID-19 cases and we all want to do our part to reduce the burden on hospitals. In situations where people do gather, experts say it’s best to stay masked and avoid sharing food or utensils. The rule of six people seems to stand for gatherings, and events that are shorter in duration are better. Events outside are best. If you are inside, open a window; this is where the coat and outerwear as gifts can be used by all!

Kitchen Tips

Here’s just a few: limit people in the kitchen preparing food, even have people prepare and bring their own food; no buffets; use disposable serving dishes and cutlery; and when cleaning up, use gloves, especially with the garbage. And don’t forget, the Butterball Turkey Talk Line is open now and shop early, as smaller turkeys will be in demand this year. You can find more resources at  https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/holidays.html

Activities

To reduce risk of exposure, you want to avoid groups of people. Avoid crowded stores, times of the day where there are larger number of people shopping or eating, and anywhere there are lines. If you observe poor protocols at any venue or establishment, feel free to leave if you feel uncomfortable.

Gifts

As for gift-giving (and if you are able): DIY kits, like candle making or a craft to pass the time at home, puzzles or board games, blankets, outerwear, and outdoor lights or heaters if you can find them, are some suggestions that fit the 2020 gift list. Self-care items will be welcome and get something for yourself; it’s been a year. And think of your local retailers and nonprofits who have been affected by the pandemic; they could really use our support.

Alternative Events

For a non-contact event, families in separate households can sit at their holiday tables at the same time and connect through Skype or Zoom, which can give a sense of sharing the holidays. You might want to concentrate on decorations this year, even if it is just for your family. Other ideas include drive-by light parades, reading classics to each other online, streaming movies together, even singing online. But avoid singing in person as that creates aerosols in the air.

2021

Remember, this isn’t quite over. Months later, COVID-19 patients still have breathing difficulty and extreme fatigue. For your safety, Washing Hands, Wearing a Mask, and Physically Distancing will keep your Immune System Strong.

The holidays are symbolized through light, love, hope, and peace. For all of us that are suffering in so many ways and for all of us that are striving to find such symbols, here’s to 2021.

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/holidays.html

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How to Protect Your Skin in Three Easy Steps

Summertime and all the time is the right time for skin care!

Sun

Photo by Ethan Robertson on Unsplash

Did you know your skin covers 21 square feet (roughly a kitchen table), weighs 9 pounds (think bowling ball) and is 15 percent of your body weight? And it renews every 28 days! Our skin may be the most overlooked indicator of our health, so let’s take a closer look at how to take better care of it in three easy  steps.

First, let’s talk the biggest risk to our skin’s health and vitality, and that’s skin cancer. Skin cancer is one of the most common cancers and also one of the most treatable. There are three skin cancers, and they are named for the type of cells that become malignant: basal or squamous skin cancer; basal cell is cancer found on skin that is exposed to sun and the most common skin cancer. Squamous cell is skin cancer that is found in skin tissue. The third skin cancer is melanoma, a more serious and aggressive skin cancer found in cells that make the pigment melanin, like a mole. A change on any area of your skin can be the most common form of skin cancer. Any new growth, a sore that doesn’t heal, or any change in the size, shape, or color of an existing skin mark is often the first sign of cancer risk and can occur anywhere on the body, whether that part has been exposed to sun or not.

So, on to step one of good skin health: How do we best check for skin cancer? There are two ways to check for skin cancer. One is a self-exam, and one is an annual skin cancer physical. For a self-exam, you check yourself from head to toe, including the bottom of your feet. You might get a close friend or family member to help. Using a mirror, you look at your face, ears, neck, scalp, hands, front and back of your body, raising your arms and legs. Take note of all your birth marks, moles, and any other markings and their look and feel. Take photos if you desire. If you see something that is of concern, you may visit a medical professional who will conduct a skin cancer screening. They will map your body for your moles and marks, and generate a report of any concerns, with appropriate treatment recommendations. It is recommended you do this annually, more often if you have a history of skin cancer in your family.

Step two of good skin health: Learning about the risk for our skin. Everyone is at risk for skin cancer, no matter your ethnic heritage or the shade of your skin. Sun exposure is the main cause behind skin cancer (including your exposure to the sun over your lifetime) because the ultraviolet light found in sunlight is the source of harmful and damaging UV radiation. There are two types of ultraviolet sun rays: UVB, the rays that cause sunburn, and UVA, the rays that cause tanning and premature aging, like wrinkles.  Protecting our skin against both is important because UVB rays play the greatest role in causing skin cancers, and UVA rays penetrate more deeply into the skin.

Step three of good skin health: How do we best protect our skin? First, the ways to do so without sunscreen: Staying out of the sun at midday is best, that’s between 10am and 2pm. If you are outdoors, you should always be wearing sunglasses. Even if it is partly sunny! Wearing sunglasses protects your eyes and the skin around your eyes. Research has found that frequent exposure to sunlight can contribute to the formation of cataracts, which is a clouding of the lens.

Next, cover your head: a visor or a hat with a 2 to 3-inch brim, even a baseball cap can work as long as it has fabric that drapes down the side and neck. If you love a straw hat at the beach because it’s cooler, make sure it is tightly woven.

As for clothing, long-sleeved shirts and pants provide the most protection if you are outdoors hiking or working in the sun. Rash guards and UPF-marked clothing are best for the beach, as is an umbrella. UPF means Ultraviolet Protection Factor and in clothing, it does not allow UVA and UVB rays to penetrate fabric.

The last non sunscreen-related protection you can do is to check the UV Index. The UV Index predicts sun exposure risk each day in your area on a scale of 1 to 11+ and was developed by the National Weather Service and the Environmental Protection Agency. You can find the UV Index online.

Now, protecting your skin with sunscreen. There are so many questions about what kind, how much SPF, how to protect the kids, so let’s break it down.

 Adults: always use sunscreen; be a good role model! Active ingredients in sunscreens function as either mineral or chemical filters that keep harmful rays from the skin. Also known as a mineral sunscreen, physical sunscreen stays on top of the skin like an umbrella and starts working right away to deflect UV rays. Chemical sunscreens work a little differently in that instead of deflecting, they absorb UV radiation and reduce how much penetrates the skin. Both are generally recognized as safe and effective.

Sunscreen ingredient safety has been in the news lately, so do your research as to personal preference. What is important is SPF. SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. Use a protection of at least 15; many doctors will tell you 30. The number 30, for example, indicates that it would take you 30 times longer to sunburn than if you used no sunscreen at all.  If your sunscreen says broad spectrum it means the formulation will protect you from both UVA (skin cancer) and UVB (sunburn) rays. The size of a golf ball is a good amount for your entire body and reapply every 2 hours when in the sun. As for gel, stick, spray or lotion, whatever form you will use consistently — and adequately is the right form for you.

Important tips for adults: 1. Use your bug spray first, then your sunscreen. Avoid using sunscreen that contains bug repellent; it has been found to be less effective. 2. Prescription medications can affect sunscreens, so consult with your medical professional on any of your medications.

Let’s talk or babies and toddlers:  For infants under 6 months, the best form of sun protection is a hat and shirt; sunscreen is not recommended. Keep infants out of direct sun as much as possible because their skin is not yet protected by melanin. When you take your baby outside:

  • Use your stroller’s canopy or hood. If you can’t sit in a shady spot, use an umbrella.
  • Avoid midday. Take walks in the early morning or late afternoon.
  • When driving, consider buying a UV shield that can be hung over any window that allows sunlight to reach the car seat.
  • For toddlers, you might consider testing on the inside wrist before an outing to see if there is any reaction. And then all the adult SPF guidelines apply. Gel sticks are a favorite of kids, and if you use spray, spray in the hands, then rub on.

Just a note on higher SPF products: the FDA has proposed a limit to SPF values and because of the coronavirus, it was postponed but expected to be reintroduced soon. Some food for thought: the FDA contends that SPF higher than 50 is “inherently misleading,” citing these reasons:  high-SPF products require higher concentrations of sun-filtering chemicals than lower-SPF sunscreens do and some of these ingredients may pose health risks when they penetrate the skin; some may even trigger allergic reactions; and finally, some people may stay in the sun longer when using a high SPF.

You now have the knowledge to better protect your skin and can use these steps for you and your loved ones to stay healthy and safe – all year round.

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How to Make Food, Fitness and Feelings Your Go-To Prescription

Men’s emotions have cracked wide open and the sweetener points to better health

fitness

Photo by LOGAN WEAVER on Unsplash

A shred of positivity to already emerge from the COVID-19 global pandemic and the amplification of racial justice is a breakdown of stigma regarding our emotional well-being – and that’s particularly good news for men and their overall health.

The extended pandemic lockdown has prompted more people to consider how social isolation and anxiety impact our mental health. It’s more common and accepted for people (men included!) to acknowledge their challenges and even talk about emotional self-care practices. As institutional racism comes in to clearer focus, more are checking in on their mental state, making the connection to their physical health and taking corrective action like taking breaks, dialing back, or offering support to others. This may be the key to cracking the code for a healthier, happier, longer life and Men’s Health Month provides a good opportunity to take a closer look.

 The Health Conditions That Can Kill You

Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of men followed by lung cancer; both of these commonly point to smoking, excess drinking, and related conditions, like diabetes and high blood pressure, as causal factors. Prostate cancer follows, and although highly treatable, one in nine men will be diagnosed at an average age of 66 years. Homicide is a top cause of death for Black men (and more recently, higher rates for COVID-19), and unintentional injury, like traffic accidents, round out the top causes of death for men.

As for the top three, your medical professional will screen you for these right off the top. Other highly ranked health conditions for men include colon and testicular cancer, and high cholesterol, diabetes and high blood pressure. Stress can contribute to and exacerbate all of these conditions, so your emotional well-being makes an even bigger play in your overall health.

For those of you who shrug off the annual physical, take a beat on any doctor visit because we’ve heard it all: ‘ It will go away,’ ‘I don’t even want to hear it,’ ‘I don’t know a doctor,’ ‘They don’t know anything for sure anyway,’… Yeah, OK, if elite athletes are smart enough to know they need a coach for their game, then how about you for your life? Be coachable. And if you don’t have insurance to help with cost, research community health resources in your area for affordable and scalable options.

 The Health Conditions That Can Love You

Some say the foundation of good health is what you put in your body, how fast/long and how often you move that body, and whether you enjoy your potency. (One of these gets more attention than the others – guess which one?) All are important in the kind of choices you make daily and their intersection becomes beneficial.

Can I choose a fruit today instead of chips? How can I lovingly resist that second helping of Mama’s mac-and-cheese (i.e. portion control)? Snacks irresistible? Cool, make that snack 40% carbs/30% protein/30% healthy fat and have it anywhere but sitting on the couch. How can I fit the gym in and also catch up with friends? Add a regular group get-together to run, bike or hike to your calendar. Avoid the all-or-nothing mindset – small choices build on each other; it’s a marathon, dude, not a sprint.

As for virility, blood flow is everything, so anything you do to protect your body tissues and lower the risk for heart disease, like eating foods high in antioxidants and dense in Vitamin B-12, will help. Oh, and smoking not only stinks, it shrinks tissues, so smoking is shrinkage. Just saying.

 The Health Conditions That Can Soothe You

Sadly, stress unites us, and about now many of us have entered a stage of chronic stress — a hormonal response to emotional pressure over a long period. This state of being takes a toll on both our bodies and our brains. For men, chronic gastrointestinal problems, like acid reflux, ulcers and heartburn are common stress responses. Anxiety can make your gut slow down or speed up. You now know what stress can do to your health; identifying what triggers it and how to manage it so that you can create more stability is essential.

Functional fitness, like lunges and wall push-ups, a three-minute meditation, exercises to do while sitting at your workstation, or even a mindful hot shower can be welcome brain and body stimulators that move your flight-or-fight response to one of more calm and peace.  Counseling and social connections are vital for serious mental health conditions like depression, and suicide, where the rates are higher for men. Again, the current shift toward the awareness and importance of emotional well-being signifies much promise for men’s improved overall health.

Let’s talk fatherhood and the associated health benefits reported by men. Being active in your kids’ lives gives you a reason to make positive changes. You’re a more careful driver; you eat better and exercise more; you’re less likely to smoke, abuse drugs or alcohol; you have more friends and a stronger romantic relationship; and you manage stress better — fatherhood does a body good. You also live longer as a dad, so more time for story time, games, recitals, building stuff, camps, graduations, weddings…ah!

The Long View

2020 can be the year more men will hear, see, and talk about their emotional well-being, and inevitably better understand how closely it’s intertwined with physical health. The incentive is a payout that could be seen for decades. The game of a healthy life is not about toughing it out. It’s now about opening it up.

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You’re doing SO much less now compared to being out in the world…or are you?

I’m in quarantine – why am I so tired?

Quarantine

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This quarantine. You have all the ‘physical comforts” of home. You work from home. You dine from home (endlessly). You socialize from home. You work out (or not) from home. You are entertained from home (so many options!). You occasionally leave to get essential supplies: groceries, margarita mix, hair dye. Out in the world, albeit dramatically changed, running what formerly was a mindless errand (though there’s nothing mindless for many of us about now having to be on high alert outside the home), you almost feel like…yourself.

Then, back to lockdown. The weariness settles back in. Confinement is the source of your fatigue, but why? Consider what’s going 24/7 in your mind. Cognitively, you’re processing an assortment of negative emotions and discomfort regarding restricted movement that may come in waves: some sadness, feeling defeated, moody or restless, perhaps topped off with an overall lack of focus. If you find your efficiency and productivity waning, you’re not alone.

Stimulation

Most people need a certain degree of stimulation to feel motivated and present in society.  “Social rhythm reinforcers,” like going to school, work, social functions or the gym where you interact with others not only provides structure, but also tangible feelings that we have had a “productive” day. Certainly, when our days were filled with a variety of people, places and environments, they were more interesting than they are now. I know I had more things to talk about than what’s for dinner (“Chicken tacos, again?”) and Ozark Season 3 (fantastic, trust me).

All That is New

You might not think you’re working as hard…but let’s review: everything we’re doing is new, and it takes a lot of energy to do new things. You may be working from home more regularly or for the first time. You’re home schooling (um, 6th grade math?). You may be distance learning yourself. The mental and emotional burden of these novel, but often monotonous experiences wears on us. And, we’re all worried about social collapse, illness, death and money.

Zoom Gloom

Then, there’s Zoom. It requires more focus than a phone call—more attention, more energy, more polish. You can’t multi-task, you have to perform as if on stage, all the while sneaking glances at yourself (or trying not to). You’re burning a lot of cognitive energy.  Never mind the fact that you associate Zoom as a work tool, and now you’re using it for happy hours and family chats. Your work and private lives are merging, and your brain is just exploding er, begging for some downtime. No wonder why you’re exhausted at the end of the day – that day that looks like every other day?

A Peek Toward the Future

Acknowledging your weariness with this monotony is the first step toward mental and emotional revitalization, and indeed, feeling more like yourself. Here are some ideas to consider – a sort of ‘something I can get better at this week’to realign your energy and maybe even boost your mood. 

  • Choose one thing each week to aim for and don’t overdo it. If you want to change your environment, find a safe place to do a daily walk. If it’s sleep, go for a consistent bedtime. (Meditation can be particularly helpful for disrupted sleep.) If you want to eat a little better, substitute one healthy side at dinner. One thing at a time.
  • Acknowledge your new demands schedule – and adjust. New routines require new ways of doing things. Your tried and true may not work. That one-on-one with your supervisor? Might have to be rescheduled to after 2:00 pm when homeschooling is done for the day. Your workout? If your biorhythms are now best at noon, schedule it as ‘Lunch’ on your calendar, and get moving.
  • Socially connect in healthy ways. Emphasis on healthy. Mix it up: phone, Facetime, text, share a gif. If your Zoomed-out, decline. The important thing is to make a connection, share a memory, and laugh. Any release of dopamine, the feel-good hormone, which can come from laughter, is a game-changer.
  • Find your ‘I’m OK for now’ to support your wellness. Five minutes to create physical or brain stimulation that is practical, intentional, and tangible. It could be a word game or puzzle, stillness, wall pushups and lunges, or explore public spaces online like an art exhibit or a national park – and do it with intention toward your well-being.

This pandemic has been all about uncertainty and losses of all kinds. Many of us have entered a stage of chronic stress, a hormonal response to emotional pressure over a long period. This state of being takes a toll on our body and brain. To relieve this distress, we have to get as close to stable as we can.

As we move toward the ‘next’ normal, sleep, nutrition and physical exertion are your fundamentals. Shifting your emotional and physical energy away from uncertainty and this holding pattern, and to an imagined, better future focuses on self-care and taking care of loved ones. And that can be re-energizing because that’s how humans are wired anyway – toward the future.

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Tackling health habits during tough times

Habits2

Photo by Mariana Medvedeva on Unsplash

Habits –whether healthy or unhealthy –are made the same way: by repeating an action until it becomes become a pattern. And in order to take on a healthy habit, we need a reward for that behavior to keep us motivated, to make it easier to stick to, until that new habit too becomes a pattern.

When our lives are going smoothly, it seems like discipline, structure and routine carry us a good portion of the way. We’re anchored in these areas and count on them as partners to move us forward. What happens when we go through tough times, a stressful period, and our tried and true habits seemingly grind to a halt? Immediate or perhaps for the long term, our environment has changed, so let’s consider how we can navigate in a new environment with new guidelines to get to a place where we can feel good about how we are doing with our wellbeing.

Think about a habit you want to change. Be specific. Maybe you’re lax in your healthy eating at breakfast. And you may be feeling anxious; sometimes we turn to these foods as a way to suppress negative emotions. Or, you are not getting regular exercise, you can’t visit your workout facility, or your timing is restricted because you’re working from home. When our routine is disrupted, this can cause a slide of our healthful habits. So, thinking about a habit you want to change, let’s be as specific as you can.

When we are overwhelmed with living day to day when we are disrupted with new schedules, environments and routines. We want to consider starting with just one small step as a way to start or transition toward a more healthful habit. One healthy choice you can make to get a little control back in a seemingly uncontrollable time. One small choice that can be integrated into your daily life, whatever that looks right now.

OK get a post-it or your phone because we are going to write something down. Research shows that when you write down your wellness habit you have a greater chance of achieving it. So please write an I WILL statement that is realistic (for the time you are in rn) and time-stamped. For food, it might look like this if you want to increase vegetables into your lunch in the place of chips for example, you might try I will eat a side salad three times a week at lunchtime for two weeks. This is realistic because it’s not every day. It’s very specific-lunch. It’s in a two-week time frame. And I would have you note how you feel on the days you eat the salad instead of the chips please.

For exercise it might be I will walk after dinner for 15 minutes four evenings a week for three weeks. Specific-walking, reasonable, 4 of 7 nights, you get it…

So, think about how to make a small step toward a healthful habit, realistic for the lifestyle you’re in right now, and make it reasonable for  the time period. And here I would have you note how you feel after moving your body with this exercise.

OK big question: What will you receive for this habit? More energy, a sense of calm, looking better, feeling stronger.  For healthy eating, it might be feeling more alert in the afternoon. For exercise, it might be getting better sleep. Every habit has a reward so make sure you note yours – it will be a good motivator and reminder on days when it gets hard and you ask yourself…why am I doing this again??

To stick to your wellness habit, track your progress. It keeps you focused. Checking off your achievements is unbelievably valuable, as your brain’s reward center releases dopamine, an instant and natural high! You might also choose to share your progress with someone else for added support – we’re better together on our wellness journeys!

In challenging times, give yourself the physical and emotional space If you stumble – healthy habits are not linear! Look at any obstacles you may come across: see if there is a simple, small step back on track.

When you examine your new routine and environment and find a new way to integrate a healthy habit, consider that it’s going to look and feel different. I hope you find these tips helpful to make your habits healthier.

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Take Five For Your Mental Fitness

Emotional Health in Challenging Times

MentalFitness

Humans are the best story tellers. And throughout history we have always had quite a story to tell about the challenging times we endure, and the present will be no different. Humans are also the most anxious species. And we are really good at change; history shows genetically we are survivors, so the truth is we are a resilient species. And resiliency is important in our emotional wellness because anxiety is normal; it comes and goes, and as the weeks pass during this particularly difficult time, we are getting stronger. We may not be as rattled as we were at the beginning of this current challenge. And the key to staying resilient is positive emotions.

Psychologists note that positivity allows you to step up emotionally to the next level, to move forward just a bit. Many of you may want to know how to do that right about now.

Feeling your feelings in a healthy way, validating them with an open mind, having the ability to self-regulate those feelings, to bring ourselves into balance, is key to something called emotional sobriety. Add a little compassion toward ourselves and we can start to better cope in a way that  can get us to a more peaceful and positive level in our mental fitness.

We all have a narrative that we tell ourselves; we are our own best story tellers. Sometimes that prevents us from moving forward, particularly when we are in a moment of uncertainty, where we have little control over our environment. If you find yourself stuck, consider these ways to move forward:  first, take time to reflect on what may be contradictions of the current situation. For example, you may be grateful that you and your family are healthy, yet you’ve lost work or finances. Take time to reflect that these can exist simultaneously.

Second, use humor as a tool. Dig down and without forgoing compassion for those that have experienced loss, humor can provide welcome relief. In fact, both of these tactics can give you a little distance and the ability to find options for problem solving.

Third, if you still find yourself stuck, try taking the perspective from another person for your situation. If you can’t see how to go about this, imagine the advice of a favorite teacher, boss, or any role model who has your best interests at heart, and think about what they would say to you. This will give you a different perspective -a point of view- that will move you toward a fresh emotional place and you can begin to make small steps toward progress.

Finally, let’s review why your routine can be so important to your mental well-being in challenging times. Your behaviors and habits are the landing pad on our roller coaster of emotions. They are what we will hold onto firmly and keep us on the ground.

These are sleep, nutrition and moving our bodies. These three habits will replenish your emotional health and help bring you to a more balanced state on a daily basis. While it is tempting to eat cake, watch Hulu and stay up late, these do not refuel your mental fitness.

  • Sleep: monitor what external stimulation you are bringing into your space, be it news, people, or entertainment
  • Nutrition: measure your portions and instead of seconds on your entrée, go for seconds on fruits and vegetables or a healthier side dish
  • Exercise: in most parts of the country, a 10-minute walk is doable and safe, so challenge yourself to a pre- or post-meal walk two times a day, preferably outside

The result of every healthy habit is a reward, so think of yours as a more positive and balanced emotional state of wellness. It’s good to remind ourselves this is a marathon not a sprint; doing just a few small steps in our wellness routine each day will keep us resilient.

As your own best storyteller, how do you want to change your narrative to better take care of your emotional health?

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Sleep is Your Superpower in Challenging Times

Sleep

Our sleep is likely affected by any change to our routine, structure or environment – I know mine is. If you are having trouble falling asleep, staying asleep or even going to sleep, take two minutes now to refresh one of these strategies to adopt as your own superpower and you’ll be on your way to a good night’s rest.

Sleep is foundational in challenging times: it helps the immune system fight off infection. Getting too little or too much sleep can have a big impact on how you perform daily tasks, both complex and ordinary. Good mental health and sleep are closely aligned. Have you heard that sleep acts like a dishwasher on your brain? Each night it cleans and recycles so that you start fresh each day and your creativity and productivity is firing at optimal levels. Allowing the full cycle to run is essential because our ability to learn, retain information, and memory skills are dependent on our ability to get both quality and adequate sleep.

Are you noticing an increase in your appetite in the past month? Don’t automatically attribute it to stress-eating. You have two hunger hormones – one that stimulates appetite and one that decreases it.  When the body is sleep-deprived, the levels spike and fall in the wrong directions, leading to an increase in hunger. And with sleep deprivation, comes lower energy, so you may be a little less motivated to exercise, then you may feel sluggish or start to gain a little weight. For both your mental and physical health, let’s consider some tips for better sleep.

  • Smart sleep hygiene includes first taking a look at your sleep space is it cool — as in temperature – around 68 degrees is best. Is your bedding appealing and comfortable? What about your pillow? Is it providing good neck support?
  • Next consider electronics. Turning off all phones, TVs, and laptops, SIXTY minutes before bed is a well-known guideline. We understand this because the blue light in these devices tells your brain waves to stay awake. But new research also tells us that content is keeping us awake we’re tired, but we procrastinate from falling asleep by staying on our devices. Message: stop scrolling on your phone to lull you to sleep.
  • Let’s move on to a consistent bedtime. This gives you the best chance for the 7 to 9 hours of sleep recommended for adults. Try to resist the urge to stay up late or sleep in!
  • And if you do lie awake, it’s good to get out of bed, find a place with dim lighting, and pass time until you are sleepy with a physical book, breathing exercises, or listening to music. And turning a clock away from sight can be helpful. If you like to nap during the day, a 30-minute nap is OK –unless you have trouble sleeping at night, then resist the urge to nap.
  • It’s common to have anxious thoughts once you get into bed, and if this is preventing you from falling asleep, you might try physically writing these thoughts down earlier in the day to relieve your mind from thought-racing at night.
  • Finally, establishing a wind-down ritual will signal your brain that you are transitioning to sleep. In stressful times, a hot shower, a few minutes of mindful meditation, music or gratitude journaling can be beneficial…and dimming the lights will help.
  • As for medications and natural supplements, some medications can affect sleep, so check with your doctor on your prescriptions. And do some research on natural supplements like melatonin for one that may be right for you.
  • Alcohol acts like a sedative when it comes to your sleep. It might put you to sleep, but it won’t allow you the most restful of sleep — REM sleep — where you get the most benefit for brain health and your immune system.

So now you know sleep can be a powerful tool during challenging times – it improves your mental and physical health, helps manage your weight, aids in being more productive, and improves your memory. With a good night’s sleep, you feel energetic and your mood is improved. I challenge you to try one strategy tonight to take on as your own superpower for sleep.

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Eight Simple Strategies to Boost Your Immunity

immunity

Photo by Tiard Schulz on Unsplash

Your immune system protects you against disease and infection and even helps you recover after an injury.  And it is complex, made up of cells, processes, and chemicals, and fights off viruses, toxins, and bacteria.  But what you can do to protect your immune system can be done in these eight simple steps.

STRESS affects your immune system

We want to consciously manage stress and our emotional health so knowing the techniques that work for you is essential. One size does not fit all, so don’t be discouraged if yoga is not your groove. Explore what takes you from anxious to calm. Breathing, stretching at your workstation…all good for your immunity. In fact, taking three conscious breaths is something that can help everyone. In through your nose and out through your mouth, breathing is also good for digestion and general immunity, both of which are impaired by stress. And, people who meditate (just a few minutes is required) may have healthier immune system responses than those who never do.

FOODS for your immune system

These are the fruits and vegetables, rich in nutrients like lots of vitamins C and E, plus beta-carotene and zinc to add or augment to your diet. Go for a wide variety of brightly colored fruits and vegetables, such as berries, citrus fruits, kiwi, apples, red grapes, kale, onions, spinach, sweet potatoes and carrots.  Did you know fresh garlic is a natural anti-biotic, and mushrooms may help fight viruses and bacteria? Consider adding walnuts, hot peppers, extra virgin olive oil and Omega 3s like fish, to boost immune cell activity. And finally, you may have heard about the benefits of Vitamin D and immunity. Consult with your medical professional if a supplement is right for you – a good way naturally to get your Vitamin D is 10 minutes outside daily, and use your sunscreen!

MOVE for a stronger immune system.

Move – ideally outside for 20 minutes a day. If you make it fun, and better yet, find a friend (four-legged ones count) to keep you accountable, studies show you are more apt to stick to it.

SLEEP helps the immune system fight off infection

Important tips include a consistent wake-up and bedtime; an ideal room temperature of 68 degrees; screens off 60 minutes before going to sleep; comfortable bedding and a supportive pillow (if you can bend it, time to replace); a ritual to signal your brain it’s time for sleep that can include essential oils, a shower, dimming the lights, writing down anxious thoughts earlier in the day so that you avoid thought-racing once in bed; and finally, if you do lie awake, physically move to another room and occupy yourself with a book or music until you are sleepy.

 SOCIAL Those that have a good social network have stronger immunity than those who feel alone

If an in-person opportunity is not available, then connecting with intention using social technology reaps the benefits to your immune system. That circle of support, especially if you are laughing when you connect, releases natural happy hormones that will give you a mood lift, which boosts your immune system!

Research shows that even a 15-minute conversation is beneficial.

SUGAR Eating or drinking too much sugar curbs immune system cells that attack bacteria

This effect lasts for at least a few hours after downing a couple of sugary drinks. Good drinks instead are green tea, which is an anti-viral and anti-inflammatory agent, and of course, water. If you are tired of water, add a few pieces of fruit, or try it sparkling with zero sugar. Put it in a fun container (BPA-free) for more motivation but stay hydrated.

HYGIENE Clean hands and face for life

Connect the act of washing your hands and avoiding touching your face with slowing down! Finding that it takes a few seconds to develop muscle memory for this important health habit will protect your immune system for decades.

Being present and mindful will help you make the connection as you wash your hands thoroughly. Checking yourself does take some practice, but you will eventually reduce the number of times your hands come close to your face.

 SMOKE-FREE Protect your immune system by keeping toxins away

You have more susceptibility to infections and lower levels of protective antioxidants (such as vitamin C) in the blood if you smoke, vape or inhale anything into your lungs.

So, what steps will you take to fight off viruses, toxins, and bacteria? I hope you will incorporate a few of these to stay healthy and safe.

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