Mirror mirror on the wall, who’s the sneeziest of them all?

Sneezy, Sleepy, and Grumpy may have been three of the seven dwarves of Disney fame, but Itchy, Runny, and Miserable could be their springtime cousins. The flowering trees in New England are a colorful and welcome break from the bleak winter landscape. However breathtaking, though, they can take our breath away… literally. For all its beauty, this is a difficult time of year for millions of Americans, and the severity of allergy season can vary according to where you live, the weather, indoor contaminants and many other elements.

Seasonal allergic rhinitis is usually caused by mold spores in the air or by trees, grasses, and weeds releasing their pollens. Outdoor molds are very common, especially after a spring thaw. They are found in soil, some mulches, fallen leaves, and rotting wood. Everybody is exposed to mold and pollen, but only some people develop allergies. In these people, the immune system, which protects us from invaders like viruses and bacteria, reacts to a normally harmless substance called an allergen (allergy-causing compound). Specialized immune cells called mast cells and basophils then release chemicals like histamine that lead to the symptoms of allergy: sneezing, coughing, a runny or clogged nose, postnasal drip, and itchy eyes and throat.

Asthma and allergic diseases, such as allergic rhinitis (hay fever), food allergy, and atopic dermatitis (eczema), are common for all age groups in the United States. For example, asthma affects more than 17 million adults and more than 7 million children. It’s estimated that one-fifth of all Americans are allergic to something, whether seasonal, airborne or food related. Nasal allergy triggers can be found both indoors and outdoors, and can be year-round or seasonal. It’s important to be aware of the times of day, seasons, places, and situations where your nasal allergy symptoms begin or worsen. If you can identify your triggers, and create a plan for avoiding them when possible, you may be able to minimize symptoms. Here are a few points to remember:

  • You may be reacting to more than one type of allergen. For example, having nasal allergies to both trees and grass can make your symptoms worse during the spring and summer, when both of these pollens are high.
  • Molds grow in dark, wet places and can disperse spores into the air if you rake or disturb the area where they’ve settled.
  • People with indoor nasal allergies can be bothered by outdoor nasal allergies as well. You may need ongoing treatment to help relieve indoor nasal allergy symptoms.

If avoidance doesn’t work, allergies can often be controlled with medications. The first choice is an antihistamine, which counters the effects of histamine. Steroid nasal sprays can reduce mucus secretion and nasal swelling. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) says that the combination of antihistamines and nasal steroids is very effective in those with moderate or severe symptoms of allergic rhinitis. However, always consult with your physician before taking even over-the-counter medicines for allergies, as they may conflict with other medications or aggravate symptoms of other illnesses or chronic conditions.

Another potential solution is cromolyn sodium, a nasal spray that inhibits the release of chemicals like histamine from mast cells. But you must start taking it several days before an allergic reaction begins, which is not always practical, and its use can be habit forming. Immunotherapy, or allergy shots, is an option if the exact cause of your allergies can be pinpointed. Immunotherapy involves a long series of injections, but it can significantly reduce symptoms and medication needs.

Your physician can help pinpoint what you are allergic to, and tell you the best way to treat your nasal allergy symptoms. Provide detailed information about your lifestyle and habits to your healthcare providers. It will help them to help you with an appropriate treatment plan for relieving your symptoms.

The American Academy of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology has some useful tips for those who suffer from seasonal allergies:

  • Wash bed sheets weekly in hot water.
  • Always bathe and wash hair before bedtime (pollen can collect on skin and hair throughout the day).
  • Do not hang clothes outside to dry where they can trap pollens.
  • Wear a filter mask when mowing or working outdoors. Also, if you can, avoid peak times for pollen exposure (hot, dry, windy days, usually between 10 am and 4 pm). Although pollens are usually emitted in early morning, peak times for dissemination are between around 10 am and 4 pm.
  • Be aware of local pollen counts in your area (visit the National Allergy Bureau Website).
  • Keep house, office and car windows closed; use air conditioning if possible rather than opening windows.
  • Perform a thorough spring cleaning of your home, including replacing heating and A/C filters and cleaning ducts and vents.
  • Check bathrooms and other damp areas in your home frequently for mold and mildew, and remove visible mold with nontoxic cleaners.
  • Keep pets out of the bedroom and off of furniture, since they may carry pollen if they have been outdoors (or exacerbate your allergies if, for example, you’re allergic to cat dander).

For allergy information from NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, visit www.niaid.nih.gov/publications/allergies.htm. For prevention strategies from NIH’s National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, visit www.niehs.nih.gov/airborne/prevent/intro.html.

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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!

Use your head to save backs — and bucks

If you or your workers spend a portion of each day working at a computer, a desk, or other type of workstation, repetitive motions, posture, and back, arm and wrist support all play significant roles in physical health and wellness. Proper chair type, size and design, workstation height, location of keyboards, phones, shelves, and tools can contribute to body fatigue, muscle strain, repetitive-motion injuries, and other debilitating factors affecting work and quality of life.

Ergonomics is the scientific discipline concerned with the understanding of interactions among humans with other elements of a system. It’s particularly relevant in the design of things such as safe furniture and easy-to-use interfaces with machines and equipment. Proper ergonomic design is necessary to prevent repetitive strain injuries and other musculoskeletal disorders, which can develop over time and lead to long-term disability.

Ergonomics examines the “fit” between the user, equipment and their environments. It takes account of the user’s capabilities and limitations to ensure that tasks, functions, information and the environment suit each user. To assess the fit between a person and the technology, ergonomists consider the job (activity) being done and the demands on the user; the equipment used (its size, shape, and how appropriate it is for the task), and the information used (how it is presented, accessed, and changed).

Proper ergonomics may prevent musculoskeletal injuries (such as back strain or carpal tunnel syndrome) by reducing physical and mental stress caused by the workstation setup. By focusing on the physical setup of workstations and the tools employees use, employers can reduce chances of injuries. It also is important to evaluate the work process, including job organization, worker rotation, task variety, and demands for speed and quality.

Working intensely over long periods of time without taking breaks can greatly increase the risk for musculoskeletal injuries. Taking regular breaks from work and doing stretching exercises may reduce the risk of repetitive motion injuries. For example, it’s advised that workers try taking three- to five-minute breaks or change tasks every 20 to 40 minutes. Here are some tips to improve workstation safety and efficiency:

  • Arrange work so you (or a worker) can sit or stand comfortably in a position that does not put stress on any specific area of the body. You should be able to keep your neck in a neutral position and minimize the need to look up or to the sides continuously while you are working.
  • Eliminate most movement from the waist. Keep the workstation and workstation tools within reach without having to lean, bend, or twist at the waist frequently.
  • Vary postures if possible.
  • Take 10- to 15-second breaks frequently throughout tasks. For example, look away from the computer monitor or machine, stand up, or stretch arms and legs. Short breaks also reduce eyestrain and buildup of muscle tension.
  • Stretch your body by getting up out of your chair and stretching your arms, shoulders, back, and legs. When you are sitting, shrug and relax your shoulders, and if you have a chance to take short walks, do so whenever possible.
  • If you do similar work or activities at home, be sure to apply these principles there as well to avoid the cumulative effect of repetitive motions.

For office workers, particularly, there are a variety of preventive solutions that can help limit or avoid muscular discomfort or injuries. Computer monitors, for example, should be easy to see without having to lean forward or look up to one side. They should be placed at a height where the top of the screen is at eye level or within 15 degrees below eye level, and less than an arm’s length from the user.

Protection against eyestrain can prevent headaches and vision problems. Glare guards can be placed over the monitor screen, and plasma screens reduce glare. Additionally, many keyboards and keyboard trays have wrist supports to help keep wrists in a neutral, almost straight position. But wrist pads are just there for brief rests. They are not meant to be used while typing, even though some people find they help even during keying.

It’s important to have a computer keyboard and keyboard tray that allows comfortable typing or keying, and it should be at a height that allows elbows to be bent about 90 degrees and close to your sides. Also, when you type, try raising your wrists from the support so your wrists are in a neutral position. You may want to alternate between resting your wrists on the supports and raising them up. Also, a computer mouse or pointing device that does not require a lot of forearm movement or force, such as a trackball mouse or touch pad, is more comfortable than a standard mouse for some people.

Of vital importance is the comfort and design of the office or workplace chair, which should maintain normal spinal curvature. A supportive chair:

  • Is adjustable, so that you can set the height to rest feet flat on the floor. Keep feet supported on the floor or on a footrest to reduce pressure on the lower back. Some people like to sit in a slightly reclined position because it puts less stress on the back, although this may increase stress on the shoulders and neck when they reach for items.
  • Supports the lower back.
  • Has adjustable armrests that allow elbows to stay close your sides. If you are not comfortable with armrests, move them out of your way. It is still important to keep your arms close to your sides even if you choose not to use armrests.
  • Has a breathable, padded seat.
  • Rolls on five wheels for easy movement without tipping.

These and many other ergonomic principles available online and through facilities consultants and workplace-design specialists will help ensure a healthier workplace and workers that are more comfortable and less prone to workplace-related injuries. Investing properly in worker comfort is more than a simple amenity – it will improve morale, safety and productivity, and reduce worker’s compensation costs and absenteeism.

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If you’re not enjoying the benefits of a wellness program at your company, join CBIA Healthy Connections at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Understanding the Misunderstood Thyroid

The thyroid is a small, butterfly-shaped gland located in your lower neck. It has enormous responsibility for the body’s metabolic processes. Specifically, it releases two primary hormones — triiodothyronine (T3) and thyroxine (T4) — that control metabolism.

When working properly, the T3 and T4 hormones travel through our bloodstream and help cells get energy from the food we eat. Thyroid hormones are also responsible for helping to regulate our body temperature and blood calcium levels, helping with growth and development and, during infancy, brain development.

For an estimated 27 million Americans, however, the thyroid produces either too much or too little hormone, which causes an array of health symptoms, some severe. But because thyroid disease is often misdiagnosed or simply overlooked, it’s estimated that more than half of affected Americans don’t know they have a problem.

Women are much more likely to have thyroid problems than men, and may have up to a one in five chance of developing thyroid problems during their lifetime. The risk increases with age and family history, as well as having an autoimmune disease or a close relative with one; through radiation exposure; by going through menopause or perimenopause; or following childbirth.

Understanding common thyroid disease

Hypothyroidism (an underactive thyroid) accounts for the majority of thyroid disease cases. This condition occurs when our body produces too little thyroid hormone, leading to symptoms such as

  • Fatigue and general sluggishness
  • Unexplained weight gain
  • Dry skin
  • Increased sensitivity to cold
  • Constipation
  • Pain, stiffness or swelling in joints
  • Achy muscles and muscle weakness
  • Heavy menstrual periods
  • Depression
  • Elevated blood cholesterol level
  • Puffy face
  • Brittle hair and nails

If left untreated, hypothyroidism can lead to obesity, joint pain, infertility, goiter (thyroid enlargement) and heart disease, but because the symptoms can mimic other diseases, or even be attributed to aging, many people do not realize the thyroid connection. Further, the symptoms may be mild at first, becoming increasingly severe only after a number of years, making them easy to overlook.

In the United States, hypothyroidism is most often the result of an autoimmune disease called Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, which causes our immune system to attack and destroy the thyroid. It’s thought that a virus, bacteria, genetics or a combination of environmental factors may contribute to Hashimoto’s. Worldwide, however, hypothyroidism is most often caused by an iodine-deficient diet.

Other less common causes of hypothyroidism include radiation therapy used to treat head and neck cancers, thyroid surgery, certain medications, pregnancy, pituitary gland disorder, or congenital issues. A blood test that measures our levels of thyroid-stimulating hormone (TSH) is typically used to diagnose hypothyroidism, and treatment usually involves taking a synthetic or natural thyroid hormone daily.

With hyperthyroidism, our body produces too much thyroid hormone, leading to symptoms such as:

  • Weight loss
  • Nervousness, anxiety and irritability
  • Increased perspiration
  • Racing heart
  • Hand tremors
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Increased bowel movements
  • Fine, brittle hair
  • Muscle weakness, especially in the upper arms or thighs

Most often, hyperthyroidism is caused by an autoimmune disorder called Graves’ disease, in which our immune system produces antibodies that stimulate our thyroid, causing it to produce too much T4 hormone. The exact cause of Graves’ disease is unknown, however it’s suspected that severe emotional stress may trigger the illness in some people. Family history may also be a factor.

A TSH blood test can typically diagnose hyperthyroidism, and the condition is usually treated with anti-thyroid drugs that block the gland’s ability to produce thyroid hormone, surgery, or radioactive iodine, which destroys overactive thyroid cells.

What to eat for improved thyroid health

As with virtually every bodily function, our diet plays a role in the health of our thyroid. There are some specific nutrients that our thyroid depends on and it’s important to include them in our diet:

Iodine: Our thyroid contains the only cells in our body that absorb iodine, which it uses to make the T3 and T4 hormones. Without sufficient iodine, our thyroid cannot produce adequate hormones to help our body function on an optimal level.

Iodine deficiency is typically not widespread in the United States because of the prevalent use of iodized salt. However, according to a nutrition evaluation conducted by the CDC, up to 36 percent of women of childbearing age may not get enough iodine from their diets, and it’s thought that iodine deficiency is on a slow but steady rise.

Because iodized salt is heavily processed, some recommend avoiding iodized salt and instead getting iodine naturally from sea vegetables (seaweed), such as hijiki, wakame, arame, dulse, nori, and kombu. Too much iodine can actually trigger thyroid problems and worsen symptoms, so it’s important to have a healthy balance.

Selenium: This mineral is critical for the proper functioning of our thyroid gland, and is used to produce and regulate the T3 hormone. Selenium can be found in foods such as shrimp, snapper, tuna, cod, halibut, calf’s liver, button and shitake mushrooms and Brazil nuts.

Zinc, Iron and Copper: These metals are needed in trace amounts for healthy thyroid function. Low levels of zinc have been linked to low levels of TSH, whereas iron deficiency has been linked to decreased thyroid efficiency. Copper is also necessary for the production of thyroid hormones. Foods such as calf’s liver, spinach, mushrooms, turnip greens and Swiss chard can help provide these trace metals in your diet.

Omega-3 Fats: These essential fats, which are found in fish or fish oil, play an important role in thyroid function, and many help our cells become sensitive to thyroid hormone.

Coconut Oil: Coconut oil is made up of mostly medium-chain fatty acids, which may help to increase metabolism and promote weight loss, along with providing other thyroid benefits. This is especially beneficial for those with hypothyroidism.

Antioxidants and B Vitamins: The antioxidant vitamins A, C and E can help our body neutralize oxidative stress that may damage the thyroid. In addition, B vitamins help to manufacture thyroid hormone and play an important role in healthy thyroid function.

There are certain foods that should be avoided to protect thyroid function. These include:

Aspartame: There is concern that the artificial sweetener aspartame, sold under the brand name Nutrasweet, may trigger Graves’ disease and other autoimmune disorders in some people. The chemical may trigger an immune reaction that causes thyroid inflammation and thyroid autoantibody production.

Non-fermented soy: Soy is high in isoflavones, which are goitrogens, or foods that interfere with the function of your thyroid gland. Soy, including soybean oil, soy milk, soy burgers, tofu and other processed soy foods, may lead to decreased thyroid function. Fermented soy products, including miso, natto, tempeh and traditionally brewed soy sauce, are safe to eat, as the fermentation process reduces the goitrogenic activity of the isoflavones.

Gluten: Gluten is a potential goitrogen and can also trigger autoimmune responses (including Hashimoto’s thyroiditis) in people who are sensitive. Gluten is found in wheat, rye and barley, along with most processed foods.

The isothiocyanates found in cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage and Brussels sprouts are goitrogens as well. While it’s true that large amounts could interfere with thyroid function, especially if eaten raw, these veggies offer a myriad of other health benefits that make the benefits outweigh the risks for most people. If you know you have thyroid disease and want to be especially careful, steaming these vegetables will negate the goitrogenic effect, making them a healthy addition to your diet.

If you suspect you have thyroid disease, you should visit your health care practitioner for a full thyroid hormone panel. In fact, even if you don’t suspect you have a problem it’s a good idea to get tested as part of your regular checkups.

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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!

Why Aren’t You Laughing?!

Humor is a universal language, and good medicine. We watch comedies on television and at the movies and read humorous articles and books. We relax at the end of the day with Letterman, Fallon, or Kimmel. We enjoy sharing a joke at the office, when we’re meeting with friends, over the phone or through social media. Think about how you feel when you laugh or make someone else laugh. And when you laugh at yourself, a situation or something you’ve observed, it relieves tension, defuses situations, and helps us bond with others. 

Laughing makes us feel good — and that good feeling can stay with us long after the laughter stops. In fact, the sound of roaring laughter is far more contagious than any cough, sniffle, or sneeze.

April is National Humor Month, but every healthy day should include humor and laughter and its many benefits:

  • People with a sense of humor typically have a stronger immune system.
  • People who laugh heartily on a regular basis have lower standing blood pressure than the average person. When people have a good laugh, initially the blood pressure increases but then decreases to levels below normal. Breathing then becomes deeper, which sends oxygen-enriched blood and nutrients throughout the body.
  • Laughter can be a great workout for your diaphragm, abdominal, respiratory, facial, leg, and back muscles. It massages abdominal organs, tones intestinal functioning, and strengthens the muscles that hold the abdominal organs in place. It is estimated that hearty laughter can burn calories equivalent to several minutes on the rowing machine or the exercise bike.
  • Laughter stimulates both sides of the brain to enhance learning. It eases muscle tension and psychological stress, which keeps the brain alert and allows people to retain more information. Laughing also elevates moods.

Striving to see humor in life and attempting to laugh at situations rather than bemoan them will help improve our disposition and the disposition of those around us. Our ability to laugh at ourselves and situations will help reduce our stress level and make life more enjoyable. Humor also helps us connect with others. People naturally respond to the smiles and good cheer of those around them.

Tips for adding more humor and laughter in our life include

  • Remember to have and seek fun and opportunities to laugh
  • Spend time with those who help us see the bright side and who make us laugh
  • Get regular doses of humor from various sources such as television, movies, plays, shows and performances, or books
  • Don’t take ourselves and others too seriously…keep life and work in perspective.

Head off stress with regular bouts of laughter and by sharing humor with others. Remember, nobody’s perfect and life should be fun. Laughter can make us feel like a new person. We all can use some of that…no joke.

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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!

Big Eyes, Big Plates, Big Bellies

Come spring, there are two feared words certain to cause emotional distress and anxiety, trigger subconscious rumblings, and often motivate us to the equivalent of fight or flight action. Ready? Here they come:  Bathing suits!

If you’re on top of your game physically and nutritionally, you may not have to crack a sweat worrying about your body shape, weight, physical image, and related health factors like diabetes, heart disease, hypertension, increased blood pressure, and raised cholesterol levels. But if you’re like many of us, you’re likely coming off the winter months weighing more than you’d like and beyond the healthy weight and body mass index your doctor recommends.

The well-tested and reliable combination of healthy eating and exercise always is a major factor in fighting the battle of bulges. But cutting carbs, salt and sugars, reducing processed foods, increasing proteins and adding fiber is only part of the battle. Understanding what you’re eating – and how much is appropriate – is the other side of the nutritional coin.

Eliminating “portion distortion”

According to the National Institutes of Health, a portion is how much food you choose to eat at one time, whether in a restaurant, from a package, or in your own kitchen. A “serving size is the amount of food listed on a product’s Nutrition Facts.

Sometimes the portion size and serving size match; sometimes they do not. Over the past years, portions have grown significantly in fast-food and sit-down restaurants, as has the frequency of Americans eating out. Subsequently, waistlines across the United States have grown right along with this trend.  

Big portion sizes can mean you’re getting more food than your body can stomach to maintain a healthy weight. It’s important to learn how much to put on your plate to help control how much you eat. Consider these statistics from the American Heart Association study, “A Nation at Risk: Obesity in the United States:”

  • Adults today consume an average of 300 more calories per day than they did in 1985.
  • Americans eat out much more than they used to.
  • Portion sizes for foods and beverages have grown dramatically over the last 40 years, up to five times more than their original size
  • Portions for many of these foods now exceed federal recommended standards by as much as eight times.

Tracking your calories helps you monitor your weight. It helps to know what the appropriate serving size is so you can correctly estimate the calories in your portions, especially if you dine out a lot. Portion sizes that are typically offered in restaurants are often double or triple the standard recommended serving sizes of most foods. Using a food diary can help you pay closer attention to what you’re eating, how much and how often.

You may see that the portions you’re consuming are often more than what you need to eat to keep your body at a healthy weight. It’s critical to establish a total eating pattern which balances calories consumed versus calories expended in one day.

Eating with the season

Seasonally related nutrition requires a quick lesson in anthropology. Winter, unlike the warm-weather growing season, was not a time of caloric abundance. Centuries and millennia ago, food was markedly scarcer in the winter.

Nature made up for this annual caloric shortfall with the final ripening, at the end of the growing season, of carbohydrate-rich produce such as squash, pumpkins, beans and potatoes. Notice that as the growing season draws to a close each fall we enjoy acorn squash, pumpkin pie, zucchini bread and stews made sweet with root vegetables.

All of these are foods designed by nature to provide one more chance to increase the likelihood of our surviving through the winter. Then, when spring finally arrived, we began to restore our nutritional reserves with the first crops to appear:  Small green shoots, like asparagus, and then leaves low in calories but rich in nutrients.

Today we enjoy eating in abundance straight through the winter, and arrive at spring with our winter insulation intact.

But nature, again, has provided a perfect solution. Spring is a great time of the year to eat seasonal, local produce. Greens, parsley, asparagus and rhubarb are coming up. There’s thyme, and rosemary and sage, too, to sprinkle on salads. Eat plenty of greens all year round, but especially in the spring.

And while you’re thinking about healthy eating, here’s an important note on carbs. While some people will embark on low-carbohydrate diets for weight loss in the short run, these are not sustainable. Completely restricting carbohydrates in our diets is often not a realistic or even healthy approach for a long-term weight management plan or a healthy lifestyle. Carbs are what give us energy, so we have to make smart choices when it comes to selecting the best ones for us.

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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!

Don’t Let Stress Break Employees’ Hearts or Their Spirits

It isn’t a coincidence that National Stress Awareness Month and National Humor Month are observed at the same time. Stress is a very common denominator for humans, regardless if at work, home, school, or wherever our daily travels carry us. And humor is a factor we can learn to embrace in our efforts to reduce the pressure and strains that are killing us, literally and figuratively.

We all experience stress, though it affects each of us differently. Sometimes we don’t recognize when we’re acting short tempered, impatient or easily distracted. When stress levels are high, we can become withdrawn, agitated, depressed or angry. We may not sleep well, can eat less or too much. We also may experience tightness in our chests, stomach discomfort, headaches, increased blood sugar, cholesterol and blood pressure, and other physical manifestations.

In the workplace, these symptoms often drive increased absenteeism and presenteeism (coming to work while sick), lower productivity, and service errors. Stress also has a negative impact on safety, quality, and teamwork.

According to the 2013 Work and Well-Being Survey conducted by the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Center for Organizational Excellence, more than one-third (35%) of American workers experience chronic work stress, with low salaries, lack of opportunities for advancement, and heavy workloads topping the list of contributing factors. The APA’s recent Stress in America survey (released last winter) also found high levels of employee stress, with 65% of working Americans citing work as a significant source of stress, and 35% reporting that they typically feel stressed during the workday.

Despite growing awareness of the importance of a healthy workplace, few employees say their organizations provide sufficient resources to help them manage stress (36%) and meet their mental health needs (44%). Just 42% of employees say that their organizations promote and support a healthy lifestyle, only 36% report regularly participating in workplace health and wellness programs, and just over half (51%) say they feel valued at work.

Employers can’t eliminate all the factors that cause their workers to feel stressed, but there are a number of items that can be addressed. Working with your staff to create wellness and feedback programs, encouraging them to take breaks, work out, walk, or nap are extremely beneficial. And providing access to stress-relief activities without having to leave work are a few solutions.

As one workplace example, Christy Graham, wellness champion at The Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts in Hartford, says they implemented yoga classes starting in fall 2013. The classes are held onsite once a week from 12:15 pm to 1:00 pm. Graham contacted several studios before choosing an instructor, and says the Bushnell staff really enjoys the classes. Half a dozen employees participate, she adds, and the fee is only half of what yoga classes held offsite normally would cost. She also sends out a reminder email about a farmer’s market held weekly near their office. Additionally, staff regularly walks together at lunchtime in nearby Bushnell Park, and they have added a water cooler to help keep hydrated.

Address the issues that are adding to your stress

Whether we’re the employer or an employee, often the best way to cope with stress is to find a way to change the circumstances that are causing it. And one common set of tools that traverse all aspects of our lives is our ability to efficiently manage time, especially if we tend to feel overwhelmed at work. Here are some useful tips for reducing time-related stress:

  • Set realistic goals. Work with colleagues and leaders to set realistic expectations and deadlines. Set regular progress reviews and adjust your goals as needed.
  • Make a priority list. Prepare a list of tasks and rank them in order of priority. Throughout the day, scan your master list and work on tasks in priority order.
  • Protect your time. For an especially important or difficult project, block time to work on it without interruption.
  • Get other points of view. Talk with trusted colleagues or friends about the issues you’re facing at work. They might be able to provide insights or offer suggestions for coping. Sometimes simply talking about a stressor can be a relief.
  • Take a break. Make the most of workday breaks. Even a few minutes of personal time during a busy workday can be refreshing. Similarly, take time off when you can — whether it’s a two-week vacation or an occasional long weekend.
  • Have an outlet. To prevent burnout, set aside time for activities you enjoy — such as reading, socializing or pursuing a hobby.
  • Take care of yourself. Be vigilant about taking care of your health. Include physical activity in your daily routine, get plenty of sleep and eat a healthy diet.
  • Seek help. If none of these steps relieves your feelings of job stress or burnout, consult a mental health provider — either on your own or through an employee assistance program offered by your employer. Through counseling, you can learn effective ways to handle job stress.

It’s also critical to keep your perspective. When your job is stressful, it can feel as if it’s taking over your life. To maintain perspective:

  • Get other points of view. Talk with trusted colleagues or friends about the issues you’re facing at work. They might be able to provide insights or offer suggestions for coping. Sometimes simply talking about a stressor can be a relief.
  • Take a break. Make the most of workday breaks. Even a few minutes of personal time during a busy workday can be refreshing. Similarly, take time off when you can — whether it’s a two-week vacation or an occasional long weekend.
  • Have an outlet. To prevent burnout, set aside time for activities you enjoy — such as reading, socializing or pursuing a hobby.
  • Take care of yourself. Be vigilant about taking care of your health. Include physical activity in your daily routine, get plenty of sleep and eat a healthy diet.
  • Seek help. If none of these steps relieves your feelings of job stress or burnout, consult a mental health provider — either on your own or through an employee assistance program offered by your employer. Through counseling, you can learn effective ways to handle job stress.

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If you’re not enjoying the benefits of a wellness program at your company, join CBIA Healthy Connections at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Colon Health: Eat Your Fruits and Vegetables

Over 100,000 new cases of colon (colorectal) cancer occur in the United States every year. Colon cancer is most prevalent in Westernized societies, where diets are higher in animal products and processed foods and lower in unrefined plant foods. 

Studies suggest that diet is a key contributor to colon cancer risk. The cells lining the intestinal tract come into direct contact with what we choose to eat – the substances contained in our food can have profound effects on these cells and tissues. The protective value of fruits and vegetables has been established by several studies following subjects for years, keeping track of dietary patterns and colon cancer diagnoses. So what you choose to eat can help prevent colon cancer, especially if your diet includes more vegetables and fruits and less refined and processed foods.

Prevention starts with screening and awareness

March is colorectal cancer awareness month and the perfect time to become familiar with risk factors and prevention. Risk factors include the following:

  • Age 50 or older
  • A family history of cancer of the colon or rectum
  • A personal history of cancer of the colon, rectum, ovary, endometrium, or breast
  • History of polyps in the colon
  • A history of ulcerative colitis (ulcers in the lining of the large intestine) or Crohn’s disease
  • Eating a diet high in fat (especially from red meat)
  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Alcohol use

The prognosis and chance of recovery following a colon cancer diagnosis depends on several items, including the stage of the cancer when discovered, damage it may have already caused, blood chemistry and a patient’s general health. If you experience any stomach discomfort, bleeding in your stool, or sudden weight loss, contact your physician immediately.

Beginning at age 50 (age 45 for African Americans), both men and women at average risk for developing colorectal cancer should receive a screening test. These tests are designed to find both early cancer and polyps. There are simple blood and stool tests, and surgical testing such as colonoscopies can be done virtually (using diagnostic imagery) or surgically. Talk to your doctor about which test is best for you.

What you eat – or don’t eat – can hurt you

People once thought that there was little that they could do to protect themselves against cancer. But we’ve learned more about how the disease develops and what biological and environmental factors increase cancer risk. We now have better weapons for fighting the disease, including more options for diagnosis and treatment, improved therapies and new technologies for early detection.

Most important, we can take steps to protect ourselves against cancer.  Everyone can lower their overall cancer risk by being active and eating a diet rich in fruits and vegetables

Nutritious foods are very rich in fiber, and disease-causing foods are generally fiber-deficient. Several food components that may modulate colon cancer risk have been identified: Fiber, omega-3 and -6 fatty acids, and certain antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals all play a partial role.  Red meat and processed meats are the most cancer causing, but all meats and dairy products do not contain any fiber, and are also lacking in anti-oxidants and phytochemicals. Foods made from refined grains (such as white bread, white rice, and pasta) are also not only fiber deficient but void of micronutrients and phytochemicals as well – these foods are also associated with colon and rectal cancers.

So in summation, our food choices at each meal influence our future health. Research suggests that up to 35 percent of cancers are related to poor diet. Choosing a diet rich in nutrient-dense plant foods like vegetables, fruits, beans, nuts, and seeds is a simple step we can take to protect ourselves against colon cancer. And by remaining active and exercising regularly, we can reduce our risk of cancer and other health problems.

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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!

Our Kidneys Are Important; Take Care of Them

We have two kidneys. They are fist-sized and located in the middle of our back, on the left and right sides of our spine. The kidneys filter our blood, removing wastes and extra water to make urine. They also help control blood pressure and make hormones that our body needs to stay healthy.

When the kidneys are damaged, they can’t filter waste effectively, which then can build up in the body. For most people, kidney damage occurs slowly over many years, often due to diabetes or high blood pressure. This is called chronic kidney disease. When someone has a sudden change in kidney function — because of illness, or injury, or have taken certain medications — this is called acute kidney injury. This can occur in a person with normal kidneys or in someone who already has kidney problems.

Kidney disease is a growing problem. More than 20 million Americans may have kidney disease and many more are at risk. Anyone can develop kidney disease, regardless of age or race. April is National Kidney Month, and a good opportunity to think about improving your diet to prevent damage to your kidneys and a whole host of other nutrition-related health issues. The main risk factors for developing kidney disease include diabetes, high-blood pressure, cardiovascular disease, and a family history of kidney failure.

Early kidney disease has no signs or symptoms. You may not feel any different until your kidney disease is very advanced. Blood and urine tests are the only way to know if you have kidney disease. A blood test checks your glomerular filtration rate (GFR), which tells how well your kidneys are filtering. A urine test checks for protein in your urine.

The sooner you know you have kidney disease, the sooner you can get treatment to help delay or prevent kidney failure. Treatment may include taking medicines called ACE inhibitors or ARBs to manage high blood pressure and keep your kidneys healthier longer. Treating kidney disease may also help prevent heart disease.

Lose your salt shaker

What you eat and drink can help prevent or slow down chronic kidney disease. Some foods are better for your kidneys than others. Cooking and preparing your food from scratch can help you eat healthier.

The first steps to eating right involve choosing and preparing foods with less salt and sodium. To help control your blood pressure, your diet should contain less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium each day. Here are five simple steps for healthier eating:

Step 1: Buy fresh food more often. Sodium (a part of salt) is added to many packaged foods.

  • Use spices, herbs, and sodium-free seasonings in place of salt
  • Check the Nutrition Facts label on food packages for sodium — Daily Value of 20 percent or more means the food is high in sodium
  • Try lower-sodium versions of frozen dinners and other convenience foods
  • Rinse canned vegetables, beans, meats, and fish with water before eating
  • Look for food labels that say “sodium free, salt free, low sodium, reduced or less sodium, no salt added, unsalted or lightly salted.

Step 2: Eat the right amount and the right types of protein. To help protect your kidneys, eat small portions of higher-protein foods. Protein is found in foods from plants and animals. You can talk to your physician, nutritionist or dietitian about how to choose the right combination for you. Animal-protein foods include chicken, fish, meat, eggs and dairy. Plant-protein foods include beans, nuts and grains.

Step 3: Choose foods that are healthy for your heart. To help keep fat from building up in your blood vessels, heart, and kidneys, grill, broil,  bake, roast, or stir-fry foods, instead of deep frying. Cook with nonstick cooking spray or a small amount of olive oil instead of butter. And trim fat from meat and remove skin from poultry before eating. Heart-healthy foods include:

  • Lean cuts of meat, like loin or round
  • Poultry without the skin
  • Fish
  • Beans
  • Vegetables
  • Fruits
  • Low-fat milk, yogurt, cheese

Step 4: Choose foods with less phosphorus. Phosphorus helps protect your bones and blood vessels, but too much isn’t good for us. Many packaged foods have added phosphorus. Look for phosphorus — or for words with “PHOS” — on ingredient labels. Deli meats and some fresh meat and poultry can have added phosphorus. Ask your butcher to help you pick fresh meats without added phosphorus.

Foods lower in phosphorus include:

  • Fresh fruits and vegetables
  • Breads, pasta, rice
  • Rice milk (not enriched)
  • Corn and rice cereals
  • Light-colored sodas/pop

Foods higher in phosphorus include:

  • Meat, poultry, fish
  • Bran cereals and oatmeal
  • Dairy foods
  • Beans, lentils, nuts
  • Colas

Step 5: Choose foods that have the right amount of potassium. Potassium helps our nerves and muscles work the right way. Salt substitutes can be very high in potassium, so it’s important to find a balance, since too much salt isn’t good for us, either. Read the ingredient label, and check with your provider about using salt substitutes.

Foods lower in potassium include:

  • Apples, peaches
  • Carrots, green beans
  • White bread and pasta
  • White rice
  • Rice milk (not enriched)
  • Cooked rice and wheat cereals, grits

Foods higher in potassium include:

  • Oranges, bananas
  • Potatoes, tomatoes
  • Brown and wild rice
  • Bran cereals
  • Dairy foods
  • Whole wheat bread and pasta
  • Beans and nuts

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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!

Finding a Gym That Fits You

It’s March, a perfect time for re-tuning our 2014 personal wellness plan. Hopefully we’ve done a better job of sticking to a modified diet following holiday excesses, and recognize signs of personal dietary weakness as the cold winter days continue. But as the days get longer, and the promise of milder weather hangs in the air, continuing our commitment to physical fitness and exercise at a gym, fitness center, in our homes or even at our workplaces should be an important part of our wellness plan.

If you don’t already belong to a gym or fitness center, don’t despair – they can be intimidating and expensive, working out isn’t fun for everyone, and finding time to get there is seemingly impossible with our busy schedules and obligations. Oftentimes, it’s simply a matter of feeling like we don’t “fit” properly in a gym that is a barrier to working out. Gyms and fitness centers vary significantly when it comes to demographics such as age, goals, cost, and style. Finding the right match for your needs is a critical component if you’re going to make the leap to — or sustain — regular workouts.

Here are some tips to help you find the right workout facility to match your needs and interests, and to keep you coming back week after week.

Know your personal goals and comfort issues.  Decide what you want from exercise, and what type of exercise you want to do. Do you love to swim, prefer yoga or dance, enjoy lifting weights, running on a treadmill or cycling?  Do you want to improve cardiovascular endurance, build strength, enhance flexibility — or just make it through a workout without getting bored? If variety is your thing, you need a gym with plenty of machines and lots of classes. If you just need to get in and out and sweat for 40 minutes, then paying for access to classes is a waste of money. Consider studios instead of gyms, the size of the facility, the crowd you’re working out with, and if there are personal trainers or coaches available to you if you’re interested.

Convenience is critical. Most people fail to stick with workout regimens because the facility they choose isn’t convenient to where they live or work – or only suits one of those criteria, making it tougher to get there on weekdays or weekends. Decide when you want to work out, as well – before or after work, during lunch, at nights and on weekends, for example – and make sure the center’s hours fit your schedule. Also, if you want classes, find out when the ones you want are offered. If you want to swim or play tennis, find out when the open times are and be sure they fit your schedule.

It’s okay to find a staff and workout crowd you like.  For workouts to become a regular and welcomed part of your life, it’s good if you like the people sweating around you, and the trainers and staff you deal with each visit. It’s a good idea to talk to other members about the quality of the club you’re thinking of joining, and to find out what they like about it.

It’s also okay to ask about staff credentials, certification and experience – it’s important to have qualified staff to answer questions and to guide us on proper machine alignment and techniques, or to demonstrate proper form in a class.  If you decide to hire a trainer, look for these things: a bachelor’s degree in exercise science or a related health-science discipline, experience, and, minimally, a certification from an internationally recognized organization like the American College of Sports Medicine, the National Strength and Conditioning Association, or the American Council on Exercise.

And don’t feel funny about liking or not liking the “culture” of your workout facility. If you’re not comfortable with the people around you, the music, the size of the crowd and availability of machines when you want them, shop around for a culture that is more comfortable. Always “try before you buy” – most facilities will give you a free guess pass for a visit or a week if you ask. You don’t need extra reasons to not work out!

Cleanliness and maintenance count. When touring local facilities, take a look at the equipment. Don’t just find out if they have elliptical machines; find out how many they have, how busy the machines seem to be, and how often they’re serviced.

You don’t have to be a germaphobe to want clean workout equipment. Does it appear clean? Are there sprays or wipes that you can see throughout the gym for cleaning the equipment? How many pieces of equipment are “out of order?” Of course, make sure and check the locker rooms and showers. If they’re dirty, need maintenance or don’t appear to be well tended, go somewhere else.

Are you looking for full-service or simple workouts?  In addition to access to machines and free weights, most memberships at full-service clubs include group fitness classes, lockers and showers, towels and — depending on the size of the club — racquetball and tennis courts, and a pool. There could also be services you pay extra for, like personal training, massage, a restaurant, and child care facilities. If the club you choose offers many of these options, expect to pay more than you would to join a small fitness center with a few treadmills and free weights.

How much should you have to pay for fitness? Working out at a formal facility often is not cheap. Sticker prices can range anywhere from $10 a month for a recreation center to $150 a month or more for a posh, upper-crust club. Whether you join a studio or a full-service gym with day care, showers and a pool, you’ll be incurring a new expense. Cost is usually tied to what the gym has to offer. Don’t pay for the newest, nicest health club if you’re never going to need the showers, the lockers, child care, or the pool. If all you want is to run on a treadmill, there may be a less expensive option in your area. Instead of $150 a month, you might pay $20 a month or less.

If a spouse and children are in the picture, ask about family memberships, and before you sign a contract or agreement, read the fine print; understand their payment policies and membership cancellation fees. Also, see if there is a “reciprocity agreement” that allows you to use other clubs when you’re traveling for business or on vacation.

Whatever you do, think about how you can free up the required time for regular workouts, book it on your calendar, find a friend to join you, and set reasonable personal goals. Working out is healthy and can be a lot of fun if you do it properly and find a facility that fits you just right!

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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!

Whether We Walk, Run, or Crawl, Athletic Charity Events Help Us All

According to a new survey from Aon Hewitt, the National Business Group on Health, and The Futures Company, as employers explore new ways to create and maintain a healthy and productive workforce, employees who perceive their organizations as having a strong culture of health are happier, less stressed and more likely to take control of their well-being than employees in other organizations.

For the third straight year, these organizations surveyed more than 2,700 employees and their dependents covered by employer-sponsored health plans to determine their perspectives, behaviors and attitudes towards health and wellness. While the survey – called the Consumer Health Mindset survey* – focused on large employers, the information is largely applicable to medium- and small-sized employers, as well.

The report analyzed the responses of employees who work at organizations with strong cultures of health – or organizations that prioritize and encourage healthy behaviors in the workplace – and compared them to employees’ responses in organizations that do not.

Based on survey analysis, employees who work in strong cultures of health were more likely to say they have control over their health than those who work at companies where it is less of a priority (75 percent versus 63 percent). In addition, they were less likely to report that stress has a negative impact on their work (25 percent versus 49 percent). The report also showed a link between strong health cultures and general happiness. Sixty-six percent of employees in strong health cultures say they are extremely or very happy with their lives compared to just 32 percent of those in weak health cultures.

 Small efforts can produce large returns

There are many ways for employers to foster a culture of health and wellness. This month, we’ll focus on how employer encouragement and commitment focused on charity walks, runs and other athletic events can benefit employee morale, improve teamwork, boost health and wellness, and do good by increasing participation, raising awareness and raising funds for important charities and health-related benefit activities.

Now is the time to research and sign-up for a variety of charity events held in the spring across Connecticut. Employers should encourage their employees to find the events and activities they’d most like to support or participate in, and then – through financial underwriting, time for practice and involvement, sponsorship, or general cheerleading – make it easy for them to follow through, either individually or as teams. There also are non-athletic activities, such as helping Fidelco raise, train, maintain and support guide dogs for the blind – that bring people together and promote teamwork by working toward a common cause.

To get you started, here is a small listing of several popular and well-known charitable events held annually in Connecticut. Whether you support these or many other worthwhile charitable options, now’s the time to start. Choose one or more that work for you and your staff, get involved, and everyone wins!

The March of Dimes

The Multiple Sclerosis Foundation

Fidelco

Easter Seals

Relay for Life

Komen for the Cure

 

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*For more information on the Consumer Health Mindset survey, visit www.aon.com/consumerhealthmindset.

If you’re not enjoying the benefits of a wellness program at your company, join CBIA Healthy Connections at your company’s next renewal. It’s free as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!