Giving is receiving

There’s no question that when we give to others – whether it’s our time, charitable donations, or gifts – we feel good. Sometimes it’s anticipation and joy as we watch someone open his or her gift, or it can be pride or the sense of self-satisfaction we experience when supporting a charity, organization or cause we believe is important. Whatever our reason for giving to others, it feels good – and it’s good for us!

Beyond anecdotal evidence and the hard to measure “warm fuzzy feelings” we derive from acts of kindness and sharing, medical research indicates that giving is good for the giver’s physical and mental health. Giving reduces stress, which can lower blood pressure. Other health benefits associated with giving include increased self-esteem, reduced depression, and increased happiness – all gifts that can result in a longer, healthier life.

According to a 2006 study published in the International Journal of Psychophysiology, people who gave social support to others had lower blood pressure than people who didn’t. Supportive interaction with others also helped people recover from coronary-related events. The same study also found that people who gave their time to help others through community and organizational involvement had greater self-esteem, less depression and lower stress levels than those who didn’t.

In another 2006 study, researchers from the National Institutes of Health studied the functional MRIs of subjects who gave to various charities. They found that giving stimulates the mesolimbic pathway, which is the reward center in the brain, releasing endorphins and creating what is known as the “helper’s high.” That reaction, like other “feel-good” chemical catalysts, also is addictive – but it’s an addiction that’s good for us!

Overall, studies prove that giving affects us biologically, activating regions in the brain associated with pleasure, connection with other people and trust. According to a 1999 University of California, Berkeley, study, people who were 55 and older who volunteered for two or more organizations were 44 percent less likely to die over a five-year period than those who didn’t volunteer – even accounting for many other factors including age, exercise, general health and negative habits like smoking. And in a 2003 University of Michigan study, a researcher found similar numbers in studying elderly people who gave help to friends, relatives and neighbors – or who gave emotional support to their spouses – versus those who didn’t.

Whether we’re on the giving or receiving end of a gift, that gift can elicit feelings of gratitude – and research has found that gratitude is integral to happiness, health, and social bonds. And if that isn’t enough to further motivate us, when we give, we’re more likely to get back: Studies suggest that when we give to others, our generosity is likely to be rewarded by others down the line – sometimes by the person we gave to, sometimes by someone else. Additionally, the organizations we support help others, who then “pay it forward.”  These exchanges promote a sense of trust and cooperation that strengthen our ties, and research has shown that having positive social interactions also is central to good mental and physical health.

So when it comes to giving, there’s no apparent “down side.” Give often and give generously – whether time, a helping hand or charitable donations – and reap the many interpersonal and health rewards that come from “doing good” and from sharing.

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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!

Take charge of your stress

December is a busy, chaotic, pressured, stressful time. The holidays bring joy and frustration, although sometimes it’s hard to separate one from the other. The end of the business and calendar years also increase tension as we rush around trying to multitask, wrap up projects and budgets, deal with personal and family angst and prepare ourselves for the coming year.

What we need is our own way to help reduce stress and disorganization, improve our focus, and slow down enough – in a short, manageable period – to regain our emotional and physical footing without losing traction or productivity. Some people hit the gym, run or take a walk; others go out to eat, read, nap, pray or call a friend. Many also find that the pursuit of mindfulness – the ability to slow ourselves down, focus and truly be present in the moment – can be enhanced through meditation.

Anyone can practice meditation. It’s simple and inexpensive, and it doesn’t require special gear, clothes or equipment. And we can practice meditation wherever we are – out for a walk, riding the bus, waiting at the doctor’s office or between meetings. Spending even a few minutes in meditation can restore our calm and inner peace.

Inserting calmness in our day

Meditation has been practiced for thousands of years. Originally meant to help deepen understanding of sacred and mystical forces of life, meditation is now commonly used for relaxation and stress reduction.

During meditation, we focus our attention and eliminate the stream of jumbled thoughts that may be crowding our mind and causing stress. And the benefits don’t cease when our meditation session ends. Meditation can help carry us more calmly through the day and may improve certain medical conditions.

The emotional benefits of meditation can include:

  • Gaining a new perspective on stressful situations
  • Building skills to manage our stress
  • Increasing self-awareness
  • Focusing on the present
  • Reducing negative emotions

How you can help yourself relax

Meditation is an umbrella term for the many ways to a relaxed state of being. There are many types of meditation and relaxation techniques that have meditation components. All share the same goal of achieving inner peace.

Meditation also is useful in dealing with medical conditions worsened by stress, such as anxiety disorders, asthma, cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, pain and trouble sleeping.

Don’t let the thought of meditating the “right” way add to your stress. If you choose to, you can attend special meditation centers or group classes led by trained instructors. But you can also practice meditation easily on your own.

And you can make meditation as formal or informal as you like, however it suits your lifestyle and situation. Some people build meditation into their daily routine. For example, they may start and end each day with an hour of meditation. But all you really need is a few minutes of quality time for meditation.

Here are some ways you can practice meditation on your own, whenever you choose:

  • Breathe deeply. This technique is good for beginners because breathing is a natural function. Focus all attention on breathing. Concentrate on feeling and listening and inhale and exhale through the nostrils. Breathe deeply and slowly. When attention wanders, gently return your focus to breathing.
  • Scan your body. When using this technique, focus attention on different parts of your body. Become aware of your body’s various sensations, whether that’s pain, tension, warmth or relaxation. Combine body scanning with breathing exercises and imagine breathing heat or relaxation into and out of different parts of your body.
  • Repeat a mantra. You can create your own mantra, whether it’s religious or secular. Examples of religious mantras include the Jesus Prayer in the Christian tradition, the holy name of God in Judaism, or the “om” mantra of Hinduism, Buddhism and other Eastern religions.
  • Walk and meditate. Combining a walk with meditation is an efficient and healthy way to relax. You can use this technique anywhere you’re walking, such as on a wooded path, on a city sidewalk or at the mall. When using this method, slow down the pace of walking so that you can focus on each movement of your legs or feet. Don’t focus on a particular destination. Concentrate on your legs and feet, repeating action words in your mind such as lifting, moving and placing as you lift each foot; move your leg forward and place your foot on the ground.
  • Engage in prayer. Prayer is the best known and most widely practiced example of meditation. Spoken and written prayers are found in most faith traditions. You can pray using your own words or read prayers written by others. Check the self-help section of your local bookstore for examples. Talk with your rabbi, priest, pastor or other spiritual leader about possible resources.
  • Read, write, listen and reflect. Many people report that they benefit from reading poems or sacred texts, and taking a few moments to quietly reflect on their meaning. You can also listen to sacred music, spoken words or any music you find relaxing or inspiring. You may want to write your reflections in a journal or discuss them with a friend or spiritual leader.
  • Focus your love and gratitude. In this type of meditation, you focus your attention on a sacred object or being, weaving feelings of love, compassion and gratitude into your thoughts. You can also close your eyes and use your imagination or gaze at representations of the object.

Don’t judge your meditation skills, which may only increase your stress. Meditation takes practice. It’s common for your mind to wander during meditation, no matter how long you’ve been practicing meditation. If you’re meditating to calm your mind and your attention wanders, slowly return to the object, sensation or movement you’re focusing on.

Experiment, and you’ll likely find out what types of meditation work best for you and what you enjoy doing. Adapt meditation and mindfulness to your needs at the moment. Remember, there’s no right way or wrong way to meditate or to relax. What matters is that you’re taking control and doing something to help you reduce your stress and feel better overall.

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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!

 

 

Cleansing for a healthier 2016

As we’re already waist-deep into the annual season of gluttony, it’s a good time to practice moderation, but not deprivation. And it’s also a perfect opportunity to restart our personal health and wellness planning for 2016, including nutritional changes if required, exercise and other smart lifestyle choices.

Enjoying ourselves during the holidays may not sound like sage nutritional advice, but it’s a stressful time of year without additional pressure. Eat and drink consciously and reasonably, try substituting healthy snacks like vegetables and fruit when possible, and think about personal goals. Whether it’s eating more healthfully, exercising more, finding time to relax or whatever suits us, change takes place progressively and through conscious choice.

As people contemplate nutritional changes, the topic of “cleansing diets” often arises, typically as a precursor to jumping into a more comprehensive diet. The idea is that if we “cleanse” our bodies by purging all the toxins and bad stuff in us, we’ll have a cleaner slate upon which to rebuild. Many popular “juice cleansing” or all-liquid diets are available in stores, or touted online, but they aren’t necessarily healthy or safe, or the best path to true wellness.

There’s nothing wrong with drinking juice, although it’s not as healthful as eating fresh fruits and vegetables, which are packed with vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and plenty of fiber, especially in their skins and pulp.  But when a person is sucking down only fruit and vegetable juice as part of a juice cleanse — usually 16 ounces of juice every few hours, plus unlimited water — and often forgoing food for three to five days or longer, that’s an extreme approach, according to many nutrition experts.

And juice cleanses often don’t involve the typical juice carton found in the supermarket. They require expensive, prepackaged bottles of pulverized produce blends, or they can be homemade in a juicer or blender. The trendy beverages might be a green mixture containing kale, spinach, green apple, cucumber, celery and lettuce, or a red concoction made with apple, carrot, beets, lemon and ginger. While popular, there’s no scientific research that proves these cleansing diets provide short- or long-term benefits, nor are they a healthy or safe approach to weight loss.

The scoop on cleansing diets

The body detoxifies itself naturally, primarily through the actions of the liver, kidneys and gastrointestinal (GI) tract. These organs help remove toxins or harmful substances that should not be stored in the body, and since our bodies are always in a natural state of cleansing, a person does not need to do a juice cleanse or follow a liquid detox diet to be healthy.

One of the most well-known detox diets instructs people to drink lemon juice and water spiked with maple syrup and cayenne pepper — supposedly this helps the body remove toxins and aid in speedy weight loss. Though touted by many entertainers, physician worry that any 10-day liquid diet, regardless of the combination of liquids you imbibe, could pose serious health risks, especially for people who use it for longer periods of time.

During the first few days of a juice cleanse, a person initially burns their glycogen stores for energy. Using glycogen (the stored form of glucose) pulls a lot of water out of the body, which causes weight loss. But the loss of water weight comes at the expense of a loss of muscle, which is a steep price to pay. Weight loss is not always about the numbers on a scale, it’s also about the ratio of body fat compared to lean muscle mass.

A cleansing diet is low in dietary protein and calories. Having more lean muscle and less body fat means burning more calories and boosting metabolism, in the long run. Additionally, a cleanse could also lead to side effects such as a lack of energy, headaches and shakiness due to low blood sugar. Over time, it may lead to constipation from a lack of fiber, as well as irritability. Physicians also caution against any diet that uses natural or synthetic laxatives.

Once we come off a cleansing diet and returns to solid foods, it’s easy – and very common — to regain the weight we’ve just lost.  Some people may experience a psychological lift from a cleanse, such as feeling ready or motivated to adopt healthier eating habits, but it doesn’t replace smart, common sense nutritional practices and healthy lifestyle changes. That includes setting simple goals, taking the time to determine how we’ll achieve them, and figuring out how to measure our success.

When it comes to reasonable health and wellness planning, here are some tips to help guide our steps:

  • Acknowledge a realistic vision of success. If losing weight is a top goal, set a realistic number and timetable to achieve this mission safely. Take the time to learn about potential problems, such as vitamin deficiencies or other health risks that accompany weight loss, and read about sugar, fat, carbs, and the chemistry of food. Also, talk with a physician, fitness expert and/or a licensed nutritionist about longer-term lifestyle changes that will help you pursue this task successfully.
  • Adopt an effective strategy. Focus on relatively short-term goals, like eating vegetables four times a day, cutting back on carbs and sugar, eating healthy snacks, and doing at least 20 minutes of cardio a day for the next few weeks. Keep track of efforts daily and weekly by writing on a calendar or maintaining a journal, and create simple “rewards” for weekly or monthly successes, such as buying a gift or doing something personally meaningful.
  • Review and adjust each commitment. To be successful we have to set goals, measure our progress, and adjust. Be flexible — if, for example, walking every day is impossible, walk four days a week, or longer on the weekends. Sign up for a yoga or fitness class. And when we give in to that yummy, calorie-rich dessert, don’t despair … tomorrow is a new day. We know ourselves better than anyone, and can make adjustments to get back on track after we’ve fallen off the wagon.
  • Use the “buddy system.” We should tell a friend about our goals and see if we can work out, walk, or practice our new diets together. Share helpful articles and tips, check in regularly, support each other when a goal is missed, and celebrate individual and mutual successes.

Ultimately, the best advice about getting healthier is to just get started, remain diligent, and don’t give up. By setting realistic goals and a simple, formal plan, the gift of improved health and wellness is ours to keep.

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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!

 

 

Sometimes the best gifts can’t be wrapped

If you’ve been thinking about workforce gifts for the 2015 holidays, consider gifts that “keep on giving,” such as improved long-term employee health, tools for reducing stress, and activities that will enhance teamwork, productivity and morale.

Helping your team members meet individual or team goals through successful planning and execution, a sense of accomplishment, providing service, and feeling valued are indisputable contributors to success, retention, and service excellence. Additionally, generosity, giving, and awareness create a sense of increased goodwill and can increase the bond between employer and employee, and among staff.

By supporting employees’ interests in local or national organizations through donations, fund- raising activities and in-kind services, you help your staff achieve that valuable sense of accomplishment and caring that comes from generosity and giving to others.

Additionally, every month brings a variety of wellness, disease awareness and health-related special events, activities and recognition. These represent some of the proverbial “low-hanging fruit” for promoting, encouraging and rewarding employee workforce participation. And if you time your internal outreach to the wellness material being communicated through the media, you’ll find the resources and educational information robust and easily available.

Here are some simple ideas you can consider for a healthier 2016

Health and wellness planning: Host a planning session — led by employees or by an outside expert – where participants can talk about their personal health and wellness goals, and discuss possible group support and activities.

Nutritional guidance:  Ask a professional nutritionist or dietitian to meet with staff at a group lunch, or in one-on-one or small group meetings to talk about healthy eating, smart dieting and nutritional awareness.

Gym memberships: If you don’t already, consider offering an allowance to employees to use for purchasing a gym, yoga or fitness center membership, or consider bringing a fitness trainer onsite.

Offer incentives: Some organizations incentivize employees by rewarding them for healthy activities such as setting and achieving personal wellness goals, or by completing wellness workshops and classes. Many companies also allow employees to take work time to visit their primary care physician or OB/GYN for their annual physicals. Plus, routine visits are covered in full for CBIA Health Connections members.

Community outreach: Building up morale in the company is a commonly overlooked wellness initiative, but the results are always positive. Lead this initiative by getting a team together for a charity event or race, volunteer, “adopt” a family or charity for the holidays, raise money as a team for gifts, match team and individual efforts, and encourage employees to donate food, time and services.

Stress relief: Studies show that a power nap can increase alertness, memory and stamina. Some companies have designated an office where employees can reserve times during the day for relaxing, and forward-thinking organizations find ways to reward employees and help them “recharge” by allowing them much-needed “down time” that is customized to each employees’ needs. Also consider inviting a yoga instructor or massage therapist to the workplace, and if possible, create a space for team instruction.

Smoking-cessation: A variety of free or inexpensive smoking cessation programs are available locally through the American Lung Association, hospitals and other sources.

There’s no shortage of good ideas and easily adopted practices for increasing employee health and wellness. CBIA continuously reaches out to our Health Connections members to discover how they bring wellness into the workplace without spending a lot of money. From time to time this column runs best-practice stories, and we’re always interested in what you are doing, regardless of how seemingly small, to promote health and wellness in your workplace.

Have a happy and healthy holiday season and year to come!

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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!