Stretching toward improved physical and spiritual health

People come to yoga for a wide variety of reasons, including fitness, stress management, and relief from physical or emotional pain. September is National Yoga Awareness Month, and a good time, with the holidays and colder weather rapidly approaching, to look into yoga’s spiritual and physical healing properties. Regardless of your motivation, most yoga enthusiasts credit yoga’s meditative component — as well as the physical training and discipline — with allowing them to reach a deeper, more spiritual place in their lives while helping them relax and improve their overall health and wellness.

Yoga has been practiced for more than 5,000 years, and approximately 11 million Americans enjoy its health benefits. The traditional series of yoga poses, called asanas, work by safely stretching your muscles. This releases the lactic acid that builds up with muscle use, which may cause stiffness, tension, pain, and fatigue. Additionally, yoga increases the range of motion in joints and stretches not only your muscles but all of the soft tissues of your body. That includes ligaments, tendons, and the fascia sheath that surrounds your muscles.

No matter your level of yoga, you most likely will see benefits in a very short period of time, though you should seek guidance from an experienced yoga teacher to help avoid possible injury and to learn how to get the most value. The greatest gains typically are in shoulder and trunk flexibility. Yoga includes postures (asanas), energy and breath control (pranayama), meditation, music, philosophy and other approaches. While many people equate the word Hatha with a particular style of yoga, the word actually refers to the physical aspect of yoga — to the asana and pranayama practices.

Meditation is important to all styles and traditions of yoga but is often the least understood aspect of yoga. The art and science of transcending one’s thoughts and liberating the mind, meditation may involve simple breath awareness, chanting or movement. For some, it is the heart of the practice, for others it is integrated with the asanas, often at the beginning and the end of the class.

Common styles of yoga

The following are some common styles of yoga:

Gentle yoga: Gentle yoga can be as dynamic as some of the more vibrant styles, yet is gentle on the body. Classes are often multi-level and do not assume prior yoga experience. They include breathing techniques, warm-ups and basic postures to increase mind-body connection, self-awareness and self-confidence.

Yoga flows: Yoga flows are more invigorating. Postures are linked in a flow and provide some aerobic components while also improving strength and coordination. The classes assume a participant begins with a certain degree of strength and endurance.

Power yoga: This dynamic yoga style includes specific sequences designed to build strength and stamina. These classes are often recommended for people with some familiarity of the basic postures.

Fitness yoga: Fitness yoga is a newer expression designed to incorporate traditional yoga postures in a form common to most fitness clubs. Students warm up, practice more strenuous postures and then cool down. They tone the body, especially the core, and increase flexibility, balance and mind-body awareness.

Specialty yoga: Yoga can also be customized for the special needs of a broad spectrum of groups including expectant mothers, seniors and children, as well as for those battling life-threatening diseases or debilitating chronic conditions. Specialized training is important for teachers who work with these groups.

Spiritually-oriented yoga: Originally, Hatha yoga was primarily a tool for spiritual growth as well as for physical well-being. Modern styles that emphasize the spiritual dimension of yoga practice tend to involve slower movement and often include meditation practice.

Therapeutic yoga: Yoga therapy is the adaptation and application of yoga practices and techniques to help those facing health challenges manage their condition, reduce symptoms, restore balance, increase vitality and improve attitude.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Male reproductive health: Self exams and knowledge are the best prevention

Understanding common risks and the simple steps you can take to mitigate some preventable long-term health issues is easy, sensible, and smart. Yet millions of Americans ignore early warning signs and taking action early when it matters the most. These reactions are typical, especially when it comes to men’s health issues involving prostate and testicular cancer.

September is Prostate Cancer Awareness Month and Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month. Women with convenient or affordable access to health care resources are far more likely to get regular gynecological checkups that are effective in detecting ovarian cancer and other reproductive health concerns. Men, however, are an entirely different matter, often less informed, and less willing to take action or seek help until potential problems have progressed to more dangerous levels. This month, Healthy Connections will focus on prostate and testicular cancer awareness, to help men be better informed.

What men should know about prostate cancer

Prostate cancer is cancer that occurs in a man’s prostate — a small walnut-shaped gland that produces the seminal fluid that nourishes and transports sperm.

Prostate cancer is one of the most common types of cancer in men. Prostate cancer usually grows slowly and initially remains confined to the prostate gland, where it may not cause serious harm. While some types of prostate cancer grow slowly and may need minimal or no treatment, other types are aggressive and can spread quickly.

Prostate cancer that is detected early — when it’s still confined to the prostate gland — has a better chance of successful treatment. However, prostate cancer may not cause signs or symptoms in its early stages. Prostate cancer that is more advanced may cause signs and symptoms such as:

  • Trouble urinating
  • Decreased force in the stream of urine
  • Blood in the urine
  • Blood in the semen
  • General pain in the lower back, hips, or thighs
  • Discomfort in the pelvic area
  • Bone pain
  • Erectile dysfunction

If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, make an appointment with your doctor as soon as possible.

Testicular cancer awareness

Testicular cancer occurs in the testicles which produce male sex hormones and sperm for reproduction.

Compared with other types of cancer, testicular cancer is rare. But testicular cancer is the most common cancer in American males between the ages of 15 and 34.

Testicular cancer is highly treatable, even when cancer has spread beyond the testicle. Depending on the type and stage of testicular cancer, you may receive one of several treatments, or a combination. Regular testicular self-examinations can help identify growths early, when the chance for successful treatment of testicular cancer is highest.

Factors that may increase your risk of testicular cancer include:

An undescended testicle (cryptorchidism). The testicles form in the abdominal area during fetal development and usually descend into the scrotum before birth. Men who have a testicle that never descended are at greater risk of testicular cancer in either testicle than are men whose testicles descended normally. The risk remains even if the testicle has been surgically relocated to the scrotum. Still, the majority of men who develop testicular cancer don’t have a history of undescended testicles.

Abnormal testicle development. Conditions that cause testicles to develop abnormally may increase your risk of testicular cancer.

Family history. If family members have had testicular cancer, you may have an increased risk.

Age. Testicular cancer usually affects teens and younger men, particularly those between ages 15 and 34. However, it can occur at any age.

Race. Testicular cancer is more common in white men than in black men.

Most men discover testicular cancer themselves, either unintentionally or while doing a testicular self-examination to check for lumps. In other cases, your doctor may detect a lump during a routine physical exam. Learn how to conduct self-examinations, and talk with your physician if you have questions or concerns.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Rocking your diet with seasonal fruits and veggies

Even if eating with the seasons may sound like the name of an alternative rock band, it’s wise nutritional counsel. Late summer and early autumn offer a bounty of fruits and vegetables that are rich in nutrients and vitamins, fresh, and often locally grown. Beyond nutritional value, supporting local produce helps the farming community by requiring fewer resources to grow, store and transport fruit and veggies. As the weather cools, it’s fun to incorporate seasonal varieties in meal planning. Many of us savor traditional autumn favorites like apples, pears, pumpkins, and certain kinds of squash, but there are many other healthy seasonal choices like beets, turnips, cranberries, dates, almonds, mushrooms, peppers, grapes, potatoes, and hearty greens like kohlrabi, collards, and spinach.

Pumpkins aren’t just for chucking or carving

The bright orange color of pumpkin is a dead giveaway that pumpkin is loaded with an important antioxidant, beta-carotene. Beta-carotene is one of the plant carotenoids converted to vitamin A in the body. In the conversion to vitamin A, beta carotene performs many important functions in overall health. Current research indicates that a diet rich in foods containing beta-carotene may reduce the risk of developing certain types of cancer and offers protection against heart disease. Beta-carotene offers protection against other diseases as well and reduces some degenerative aspects of aging. There are dozens of great, easy recipes online for using pumpkins as side dishes, soups, and breads, or for integrating it into salads, desserts, and much more.

An apple a day

While we all remember that popular refrain, apples are a perpetual favorite and just one part of a healthy diet. Though available year-round, they are especially crisp and flavorful when the newly harvested fall crop hits the market. Ranging in flavor from sweet to tart, locally grown U.S. apples are at their peak from September through November. There are over 100 varieties grown in the United States, and every single state, including Connecticut, has multiple orchards, so an apple-picking outing is usually within convenient reach.

Apples are delicious, easy to carry for snacking, low in calories, a natural mouth freshener, inexpensive, and a source of both soluble and insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber such as pectin actually helps to prevent cholesterol buildup in the lining of blood vessel walls, reducing the incident of atherosclerosis and heart disease. The insoluble fiber in apples provides bulk in the intestinal tract, holding water to cleanse and move food quickly through the digestive system.

It’s a good idea to eat apples with their skin. Almost half of the vitamin C content is just underneath the skin. Eating the skin also increases insoluble fiber content. Most of an apple’s fragrance cells are concentrated in the skin and as they ripen, the skin cells develop more aroma and flavor.

Here are some hints on how to purchase apples for maximum value:

  • Select firm apples with unbroken, well-colored skins and no bruises. Brown streaks on the skins (called scald) do not affect quality.
  • Apples will keep in a cool, dry place for up to one week. For longer storage, refrigerate in a plastic bag for four to six weeks.
  • Select types of apples based on how they will be used:  Raw (for eating out of hand and adding to salads); cooked (for applesauce, pies and other desserts); or baked whole.
  • All-purpose apples can be used for both eating raw and cooking. Varieties include: Braeburn, Cortland, Fuji, Gala, Golden Delicious, Granny Smith, Jonathan, and McIntosh.
  • Red Delicious apples are strictly for eating raw and Rome Beauty apples are best for baking whole. Crisp, tart Macouns and Macintosh tend to be favorite eating apples, but every variety is healthy and often can be picked fresh at farms, or purchased at farm stands or in your local market.

Other seasonal veggies to consider

Sweet potatoes are a healthy complement to any meal. They are rich in carotene, a precursor to vitamin A, and supply about twice the recommended daily amount of vitamin A. They are also a good source of dietary fiber, potassium and vitamin C. One medium baked sweet potato has only 103 calories.

Freshly dug sweet potatoes are uncured. They are good boiled, mashed, candied, fried and in many cooked dishes, but uncured potatoes do not bake successfully. Sweet potatoes must be cured two or three weeks before they will bake. Store cured potatoes in a cool, dry place where the temperature is about 55 F or 60 F. Do not store them in the refrigerator. Chilling the vegetable will give it a hard core and an undesirable taste. Well-matured, carefully handled and properly cured potatoes will keep for several months if the temperature and storage conditions are ideal.

Another healthy seasonal favorite, though not as popular, are beets, which are low in calories and fat, cholesterol free, and a good source of folates, a B vitamin which supports red blood cell production and helps prevent anemia. Fresh beets, in season from late summer through October, have a sweet flavor and tender texture. While traditionally a garnet-red color, today’s beets are available in golden-yellow, white and red-and-white-striped hues. In addition to serving them as a vegetable side dish, toss beets into autumn salads and soups for extra color and flavor.

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Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Wellness programs move center stage in healthcare reform efforts

As the healthcare reform debate presses on, a number of new policies and compliance requirements approved as part of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) — and as addendums to existing HIPAA regulations – are already being implemented, or will become effective January 1, 2014.  It is important to be aware of recently adopted federal regulations about wellness programs and how the new regulations may affect your existing wellness program as well as what they mean for those interested in starting a wellness program, says Jennifer Herz, assistant counsel, CBIA.

“Part of federal healthcare legislation is shifting health coverage attention to targeting prevention and promoting healthy behavioral changes,” Herz explains. “Some employers already use wellness programs to support such healthy behaviors and other employers may take advantage of the increased attention to help promote and reward employees for participation in healthy lifestyle programs, goal setting, health screenings and proactive wellness efforts that benefit them and their families.”                            

“Free” preventive care is one of the positive changes already in place. Changes of special interest to small employers address participation in wellness programs, educational outreach, and efforts to increase self-management behaviors.

The bottom line, Herz stresses, is that the new regulations are a good opportunity to remind employers about the benefits of wellness programming to support a healthier workforce, which increases productivity, while also working to reduce premium costs.

What is changing

Wellness programs come in all shapes and sizes, and these programs attempt to address body, mind, and pocketbook, helping employers reduce benefit costs and lost work time, while increasing employee productivity and satisfaction. For example, a wellness program might create incentives to encourage employees to adhere to a particular course of treatment or to otherwise better manage their health.

The Departments of Labor, Treasury, and Health & Human Services have issued final regulations and modifications which, among other things, reflect changes made by the ACA to wellness programs subject to the HIPAA nondiscrimination rules. As a result, companies currently offering wellness programs will need to determine if any design changes are necessary. The regulations are effective for plan years beginning on or after January 1, 2014. Read the final regulation here.             

Click here for an expanded version of this article with additional details on the ACA’s wellness program provisions.

CBIA will continue examining healthcare legislation changes that affect your policies, and will offer periodic ACA updates and explanations of program changes and opportunities. This information will be available through CBIA’s Health Connections Resource Center, cbia.com/healthcare2014.

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