Time to don your sunscreen and hats

After a long, cold winter, little feels better than being outdoors in the mild weather. Sunshine beckons, motivates us, and seems to physically and mentally replenish our spirits. And while those bountiful beams help stimulate chemical and physical reactions in our bodies and contribute to our health, it’s important to remember that as we savor the sun’s warmth and work on our tans, we’re also soaking up damaging ultraviolet (UV) rays.

May is UV and Skin Cancer Awareness Month. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States. Unprotected exposure to UV radiation is the most preventable risk factor for skin cancer. In fact, UV radiation from the sun is classified as a human carcinogen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the World Health Organization. Each year, more new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed in the U.S. than new cases of breast, prostate, lung, and colon cancer combined. One in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime, and one American dies from skin cancer every hour.

Chronic exposure to the sun suppresses our natural immune system and also causes premature aging, which over time can make the skin become thick, wrinkled and leathery. Since it occurs gradually, often manifesting itself many years after the majority of a person’s sun exposure, premature aging is often regarded as an unavoidable, normal part of growing older. However, up to 90 percent of the visible skin changes commonly attributed to aging are caused by the sun. With proper protection from UV radiation, many forms of skin cancer and most premature aging of the skin can be avoided.

How to protect ourselves from extra UV exposure

The best way to lower our risk of skin cancer is to protect our skin from the sun and ultraviolet light. Using sunscreen and avoiding the sun helps reduce the chance of many aging skin changes, including some skin cancers. However, it is important not to rely too much on sunscreen alone. Also, we should also not use sunscreen as an excuse to increase the amount of time we spend in the sun – remaining outside too long during peak sunlight hours is very dangerous, and UV rays penetrate our clothes and skin.

When possible, avoid sun exposure during the peak hours of 10 am to 4 pm, when UV rays are the strongest. Clouds and haze do not protect you from the sun, so use sun protection even on cloudy days. Use sunscreens that block out both UVA and UVB radiation. Products that contain either zinc oxide or titanium oxide offer the best protection.

Less expensive products that have the same ingredients work as well as expensive ones. Older children and adults (even those with darker skin) benefit from using SPFs (sun protection factor) of 15 and over. Many experts recommend that most people use SPF 30 or higher on the face and 15 or higher on the body, and people who burn easily or have risk factors for skin cancer should use SPF 50+.

Here are helpful tips on when and how to use sunscreen:

  • Adults and children should wear sunscreen every day, even if they go outdoors for only a short time.
  • Apply sunscreen 30 minutes before going outdoors for best results. This allows time for the sunscreen to be absorbed.
  • Remember to use sunscreen during the winter when snow and sun are both present.
  • Reapply at least every two hours while you are out in the sunlight.
  • Reapply after swimming or sweating. Waterproof formulas last for about 40 minutes in the water, and water-resistant formulas last half as long.

Wearing sunscreen is critical, but only half the battle. Here are additional safety tips and information for protecting yourself from harmful UV radiation:

  • Adults and children should wear hats with wide brims to shield from the sun’s rays.
  • Wear protective clothing. Look for loose-fitting, unbleached, tightly woven fabrics. The tighter the weave, the more protective the garment.
  • Buy clothing and swimwear that block out UV rays. This clothing is rated using SPF (as used with sunscreen) or a system called the ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) index.
  • Avoid surfaces that reflect light, such as water, sand, concrete, snow, and white-painted areas.
  • Beware that at higher altitudes you burn more quickly.

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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!

Spring’s a great time for company activities

Spring heralds charitable walks, runs, bicycling and all manner of fundraisers that offer great team-building options and promote healthy activities. Softball, volleyball, tennis, basketball and many other team-related recreational opportunities are starting as well. If you haven’t already, now might be a good opportunity to see what events and activities appeal to your workforce, and support or sponsor one or more team endeavors.

Employers also can encourage individual recreational pursuits — for example, offering support to employees who are interested in community gardening, and for planting flower boxes around their communities. Other outdoor activities can include hiking, bird-watching, nature walks, park and river clean-up days, rock climbing and much more. People can do things on their own, as groups, and even find opportunities through organizations like the Audubon and Sierra Clubs, local YMCA or YWCA facilities, Boys and Girls Clubs, and private gyms.

The bottom line is that whatever employers do to support employee activities can be good for morale and teamwork. And improved teamwork and attitudes boost productivity, retention and quality, reduce absenteeism and accidents, and increase voluntary participation. Not to mention the health and wellness benefits!

Of course, activities aren’t limited to the outdoors. There are bowling and indoor fitness workouts, spinning, swimming, cooking, art and pottery classes…there’s no limit if you apply your imagination. Additionally, many organizations are bringing guest presenters to the workplace to talk about stress-reduction techniques such as meditation, massage therapy and yoga. Team weight-loss efforts and competitive programs also are trending.

One great example is a program by Charkit Chemical Corporation, which sponsored an employee “Biggest Loser” program. Their effort lasted 12 weeks and included 16 employees divided into four teams. Every week each participant weighed in privately, and the team weight-loss percentage was reported. One team and one individual received top honors at the end of the program.

Teams had the opportunity to add workouts and win trivia contests for additional weight-loss value, scored every other week. The workouts needed to be a minimum of 30 minutes and had to include all team members. The trivia contests were held every other week as well, and the winning team earned a two-pound advantage. All trivia was taken from emails and health-related articles that were emailed and posted around the office. Most of the trivia focused on food and portion size information. Each week the winning team received prizes such as Amazon gift cards, funded by the company. The final winners won Visa gift cards and were announced during a special ceremony.

While their Biggest Loser contest was running, Charkit also offered a series of employee nutrition seminars held onsite by a licensed nutritionist. They held three group sessions, and offered employees one-on-one planning meetings so individuals could address personal nutrition and health issues. Topics for the group sessions included reducing sugar and fat intake, portion control, and increasing healthy eating.

According to a Charkit leader, many of the employees who participated in the seminars have applied their learning to their everyday nutritional behavior. Overall, she added, the programs got people thinking about their health in a far more comprehensive way, and resulted in many positive changes.

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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!

Drink this in: What we should know about alcohol consumption

We humans are social animals. We like to mingle, compete, laugh, love and enjoy life. Consuming alcoholic beverages often plays a fairly significant role in that enjoyment by lowering inhibitions; for relaxing; and when involved in social activities. Many adults feel drinking wine or beer enhances a meal, and people often like how it feels when they are under the influence of alcohol.

In moderation, alcohol consumption isn’t considered bad for your health. But alcohol can fuel dangerous or addictive behaviors and contribute to a variety of life-threatening risks and illnesses, loss of productivity, poor judgment and other activities with potentially negative consequences.

So, how much is too much, and what detrimental effects of alcohol consumption should we know and avoid if we prefer to live a healthy lifestyle?

The Dietary Guidelines for Americans defines moderate drinking as no more than one drink per day for women and no more than two drinks per day for men. Heavy drinking for women is considered eight or more drinks per weeks, or 15 or more for men. Binge drinking is when a woman consumes four or more alcoholic beverages in a sitting, and for men, five or more. Although men are more likely to drink alcohol and drink in larger amounts, gender differences in body structure and chemistry cause women to absorb more alcohol, and take longer to break it down and remove it from their bodies.

Drinking too much can harm your health. Excessive alcohol use leads to approximately 88,000 deaths each year in the United States.  Further, excessive drinking was responsible for one in 10 deaths among working-age adults aged 20-64 years. The economic costs of excessive alcohol consumption are estimated in excess of $223.5 billion, or $1.90 a drink.

Over the past several decades, many studies have been published in science journals about how drinking alcohol may be associated with reduced mortality due to heart disease in some populations.

Researchers are examining the potential benefits of components in red wine such as flavonoids and other antioxidants in reducing heart disease and clotting risk. Some of these components may be found in other foods such as grapes or red grape juice. The linkage reported in many of these studies also may be due to other lifestyle factors rather than alcohol, such as increased physical activity, and controlling our weight through a diet high in fruits and vegetables and lower in saturated fats. There is no scientific proof that drinking wine or any other alcoholic beverage can replace these conventional measures.

How it works, and physical consequences

Alcohol enters our bloodstream as soon as we take our first sip. Alcohol’s immediate effects can appear within about 10 minutes. As we drink, it increases the blood alcohol concentration (BAC) level, which is the amount of alcohol present in our bloodstream.  The higher our BAC, the more impaired we become by alcohol’s effects.

Drinking too much — on a single occasion or over time — can take a serious toll on our health.  Here’s how alcohol can affect our body.

Alcohol interferes with the brain’s communication pathways, and can affect the way the brain looks and works. These disruptions can change mood and behavior, and make it harder to think clearly and move with coordination.  Additionally, drinking a lot over a long time or too much on a single occasion can damage the heart, causing problems including:

  • Cardiomyopathy — stretching and drooping of heart muscle
  • Arrhythmias — irregular heart beat
  • Stroke
  • High blood pressure

Heavy drinking takes a toll on the liver, and can lead to a variety of problems and liver inflammations including steatosis, or fatty liver; alcoholic hepatitis; fibrosis; and cirrhosis. Alcohol also causes the pancreas to produce toxic substances that can eventually lead to pancreatitis, a dangerous inflammation and swelling of the blood vessels in the pancreas that prevents proper digestion. 

Drinking too much alcohol can increase our risk of developing certain cancers, including cancers of the mouth, esophagus, throat, liver and breast. And finally, drinking too much can weaken our immune system, making our body a much easier target for disease.  Imbibing, even on a single occasion, slows our body’s ability to ward off infections — even up to 24 hours after getting drunk.

Here are a few other items to consider. Even though it may help us fall asleep, alcohol consumption interferes with restful sleep, and promotes dehydration. It can cause or contribute to depression and anxiety, affect sexual performance, may disrupt menstrual cycling, and increase the risk of infertility, miscarriage, stillbirth, and premature delivery.

So, while there appear to be many negative consequences linked to alcohol consumption, that isn’t necessarily a prescription for teetotaling or avoidance — it’s a personal choice. Alcohol plays a significant role in our culture. As in so many things that we consume and other health- and wellness-related behaviors, it’s about moderation, information, common sense and understanding the risks and benefits associated with anything we do or put in our bodies.

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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!

Good fish, bad fish

When you stop to consider that most of the earth is covered by water, it’s a wonder that our diets aren’t primarily made up of seafood. But we’re land dwellers, and it’s far easier to chase something on the ground or dig it out of the garden than to rustle up dinner from the ocean. Still, fish are an inherently healthy food source — or were, at least, before we started polluting the world’s oceans, rivers and lakes. Much of our “fresh” fish is now farmed, as well, and can be treated with antibiotics or fed contaminants that aren’t good for us in larger quantities.

So how do we know what is safe to consume, how much, and when it’s good or bad for us?

Fish is a good source of protein and, unlike fatty meat products, it’s not high in saturated fat. Fish also is a good source of omega-3 fatty acids.  Omega-3 fatty acids benefit the heart of healthy people and those at high risk of — or who have — cardiovascular disease.  Research has shown that omega-3 fatty acids decrease risk of arrhythmias (abnormal heartbeats), which can lead to sudden cardiac death. Omega-3 fatty acids also decrease triglyceride levels, slow the growth rate of atherosclerotic plaque and lower blood pressure.

Fatty fish like salmon, mackerel, herring, lake trout, sardines and albacore tuna are high in two kinds of omega-3 fatty acids which have demonstrated benefits at reducing heart disease.

That’s all positive. But here’s the negative: Some types of fish may contain high levels of mercury, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), dioxins and other environmental contaminants. Levels of these substances are generally highest in older, larger predatory fish and marine mammals.

The benefits and risks of eating fish vary depending on a person’s stage of life:

  • Children and pregnant women are advised by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to avoid eating those fish with the potential for the highest level of mercury contamination (e.g., shark, swordfish, king mackerel or tilefish); to eat up to 12 ounces (two average meals) per week of a variety of fish and shellfish that are lower in mercury (e.g., canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, catfish).
  • For middle-aged and older men and postmenopausal women, the benefits of eating fish far outweigh the potential risks when the amount of fish that are eaten is within the recommendations established by the FDA and Environmental Protection Agency.
  • Eating a variety of fish will help minimize any potentially adverse effects due to environmental pollutants.

Nutritional experts recommend eating fish (particularly fatty fish) at least two times (two servings) a week. Each serving should be approximately 3.5 ounces cooked, or about three-quarters of a cup of flaked fish.  Enjoy fish baked or grilled, not fried.  Choose low-sodium, low-fat seasonings such as spices, herbs, lemon juice and other flavorings in cooking and at the table. 

For many people, tuna is a lunchtime staple. The FDA and EPA continue to recommend that no more than six ounces of fish per week (of your 8 to 12 ounces weekly) should be white (albacore) tuna. Although canned light tuna is lower in mercury, albacore tuna has more of it.

Five of the most commonly eaten fish or shellfish that are low in mercury are shrimp, canned light tuna, salmon, pollock, and catfish.   

Avoid eating shark, swordfish, king Mackerel, or tilefish because they contain high levels of mercury. Also, be careful when buying canned seafood, as cans often are lined with a BPA-plastic coating. Look for seafood packed in shelf-stable, flexible pouches, as this is the environmentally preferable packaging.

Regardless of your age or gender, check local advisories about the safety of fish caught by family and friends in local lakes, rivers and coastal areas. If local advice isn’t available, you should eat six ounces or less of these locally caught fish per week, and children should eat no more than one to three ounces per week. Then avoid eating other fish for the rest of the week.

Potential exposure to some contaminants can be reduced by removing the skin and surface fat from these fish before cooking. Consumers should also check with local and state authorities about types of fish and watersheds that may be contaminated and visit the FDA website for the most up-to-date information on recommendations for specific subgroups of the U.S. population such as children and pregnant women.

Last, but not least, another important consideration when you consume fish should be about environmental sustainability. Some varieties of seafood have been overfished or caught in ways that may cause lasting damage to our oceans and marine life. Here are some basic rules to make smart seafood shopping choices that are good for your health and the health of our oceans.

  • Eat fish that are lower on the food chain – typically, smaller fish are more plentiful and contain less mercury.
  • Know how sustainable your seafood choices are. This link to the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guide provides valuable information on which fisheries provide the most sustainable seafood choices, based on health and a variety of other measurements.
  • Buy American. The United States has stricter fishing and farming standards than do other parts of the world.
  • Know how it’s caught. Hook and line is a low-impact method of fishing that does not damage the seafloor and let’s fisherman use intelligently designed traps and throw back unwanted species.
  • Eat Local. You’re usually better off eating the local variety of a particular type of fish instead of its counterpart from across the country or another part of the world, unless that species has been depleted in local waters. Even out of season, the local fish that has been frozen is preferable, since fresh fish must be transported by air, the most energy-intensive method of shipping.
  • Look for the label. The Marine Stewardship Council certifies seafood that is caught or raised in a sustainable, environmentally friendly manner. Items that meet its criteria are marked with a MSC-certified label.

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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!

Who’s got time for sleep?!

It’s April. We’ve already sprung forward an hour, and can now enjoy the lengthening days and milder temperatures. With the longer daylight hours, though, come increased outdoor activity and often a quickening life pace. If you’re already tired, it’s just going to get worse, and that hour of sleep you lost a few weeks ago is one of several elements potentially wreaking havoc silently.

When we’re tired, we become irritable. Productivity, service and quality of work often suffer. Being fatigued tests the patience of everyone around us, increases chances of accidents or mistakes, and aggravates chronic health conditions. It also reduces our natural immune system, making us more susceptible to illness.

Humans have a 24-hour internal clock called circadian rhythm that controls our eating and sleeping patterns, internal bodily functions and the timing of hormone secretions. We might have trouble falling asleep at night or waking up in the morning if our internal clock gets out of sync with the external day-night cycle. This happens with multi-time zone travel and is the basis for jet lag. With the daylight savings time shift, the external time has shifted while the internal clock has not, and even though it’s been weeks, there’s still a lag.

The more stable and consistent our circadian rhythm is, the better our sleep. This cycle also may be altered by the timing of various factors including naps, bedtime, exercise, diet, and especially exposure to light.

Aging also plays a role in sleep and sleep hygiene. After the age of 40 our sleep patterns change and we have many more nocturnal awakenings than in our younger years. These not only directly affect the quality of our sleep, but they also interact with any other condition that may cause arousals or awakenings, functioning like the withdrawal syndrome that occurs after drinking alcohol close to bedtime. The more times we awake at night, the more likely we will feel unrefreshed and unrestored in the morning.

Psychological stressors like deadlines, exams, marital conflict and job crises may prevent us from falling asleep or wake us from sleep throughout the night. It takes time to “turn off” all the noise from the day. No way around it. If you work right up to the time you turn out the lights, or are reviewing all the day’s events and planning tomorrow, you simply can’t just “flip a switch” and drop off to a blissful night’s sleep.

What we can do to sleep better

You’d think that because we all sleep, we’d be good at it by now . . . but of course, that isn’t the case. Millions of Americans suffer from fatigue caused by poor sleep habits. And while chemical imbalances and chronic conditions such as sleep apnea — where the body doesn’t get enough oxygen during sleep — can be affecting you, there are many simple solutions you can try before turning to medications or running off to get a sleep study.

The most important sleep hygiene measure is to maintain a regular sleep and wake pattern seven days a week. It’s also important to spend an appropriate amount of time in bed — not too little, or too much. This may vary by individual; for example, if someone has a problem with daytime sleepiness, they should spend a minimum of eight hours in bed, but if they have difficulty sleeping at night, they should limit themselves to seven hours in bed in order to keep the sleep pattern consolidated.

Here are 10 good sleep hygiene practices to consider:

  • Avoid napping during the day; it can disturb the normal pattern of sleep and wakefulness.
  • Avoid stimulants such as caffeine, nicotine, and alcohol too close to bedtime. While alcohol is well known to speed the onset of sleep, it disrupts sleep in the second half as the body begins to metabolize the alcohol, causing arousal.
  • Exercise can promote good sleep. Vigorous exercise should be practiced in the morning or late afternoon. A relaxing exercise, like yoga, can be done before bed to help initiate a restful night’s sleep, but avoid exercise close to bedtime.
  • Food can be disruptive right before sleep; stay away from large meals, spicy foods which increase metabolism, sweets or unhealthy snacking. And, remember, chocolate contains caffeine, though it has many helpful properties, as well.
  • Ensure adequate exposure to natural light. This is particularly important for older people who may not venture outside as frequently as children and adults. Light exposure helps maintain a healthy sleep-wake cycle, though try to avoid too much light exposure in the evening if you’ve been having trouble sleeping.
  • Establish a regular, relaxing bedtime routine, and try to wake up at the same time every day.
  • Limit stimulating activities, electronic games and TV shows before trying to go to sleep.
  • Don’t dwell on, or bring your problems to bed, and try to avoid emotionally upsetting conversations when it’s time to relax.
  • Associate your bed with sleep. It’s not a good idea to use your bed to watch TV, listen to the radio, or work.
  • Make sure that the sleep environment is pleasant and relaxing. The bed should be comfortable, and the room should not be too hot or cold, or too bright.

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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!

Becoming mindful of the stressors around us

How many times have you sat in meetings watching people check their emails and text messages, or had everything stop for a phone call? Have you ever been at your desk, on the shop floor, at a team function or driving a vehicle while thinking about life, other work, a relationship, a sick parent, or how you’re going to get your kid to soccer practice at the end of the day? Have you ever blown past an exit on the highway, made a mistake on an assignment, gotten hurt or missed a deadline because you were distracted or not paying attention to details?

We’ve all been there. Truth is, we have a lot on our minds — and pressure to get too much done at once. In today’s world, multi-tasking is seen as an essential skill, not the liability it actually is. Oftentimes, it becomes more important to get things done than to get them done well — or we struggle finding that “well-enough” zone.

When we allow our minds to drift — when we are not present in the moment — we can’t achieve our potential. The need to remain focused is critical, but we also need tools to help us concentrate effectively, as well as to relieve stress, frustration, anger, anxiety and negativity. These side effects of our work and lives interfere with our relationships, and have an impact on teamwork, morale, productivity and our physical, mental and spiritual health.

April is Stress Reduction Awareness Month. If we clarify our thoughts, use relaxing techniques and calm our approach to life and work, it will make us more productive, happier and healthier.

The pursuit of “mindfulness” is one valuable approach to gaining control of attention span, focus and concentration. It is now gaining significant traction in large and small organizations across America, especially for its value in reducing the unhealthy results of stress.

Mindfulness essentially means moment-to-moment awareness. Although it originated in the Buddhist tradition, you don’t have to be Buddhist to practice or find value in its benefits. In fact, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is being taught in colleges, yoga studios, meditation centers and workplaces across America. The benefits can be dramatic — in addition to supporting overall health and well-being, mindfulness has been linked to improved cognitive functioning and lower stress levels. That’s even more important when we are being constantly bombarded by email, texts, Facebook, Twitter and other electronic and social media.

When we are mindful we become keenly aware of ourselves and our surroundings by simply observing these things as they are. We are aware of our own thoughts and feelings, but do not react to them in negative or distracted ways. There’s no “autopilot” when we’re focused. By not labeling or judging the events and circumstances taking place around us, we are freed from our normal tendency to react to them, and shift from a subjective to an objective mindset.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, is founding executive director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts. He established MBSR in the 1970s to help patients suffering from chronic pain. Mindfulness experts teach us to not resist our mind’s natural urge to wander, but to train it to return to the present, and to center ourselves in the moment. Mindfulness enhances emotional intelligence, notably self-awareness, and the capacity to manage distressing emotions. It also reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, improves memory and lessens depression and anxiety.

Mindfulness is being practiced at a number of large companies including Proctor & Gamble, Apple, Google, Deutsche Bank, Astra Zeneca, General Mills and Aetna. It includes a broad spectrum of informal activities, in addition to meditation, movement and structured MBSR techniques.

Here are simple tips that we can incorporate every day, even at work:

  • Spend at least three to five minutes a few times each day doing nothing but breathing and relaxing in the moment, whether at work or at home.
  • Manage distractions like noisy co-workers by tuning into them, instead of letting them drive us crazy. . . by noticing the sounds and their effects on our bodies, we rob the distraction of their power over us.
  • Pay attention to our walking by slowing our pace and feeling the ground against our feet.
  • Anchor our day with a contemplative morning practice, such as breathing, Zen, yoga, meditation or even a walk.
  • Before entering the workplace, remind yourself of our organization’s purpose, and mentally recommit in that moment to our vocation and to being a leader.
  • Throughout the day, pause to make sure we’re fully present before undertaking the next critical task, call or meeting.
  • Practice “strategic acceptance,” which is not seeing every setback in catastrophic terms. When we feel our stress levels rising, we shouldn’t try to force ourselves to cheer up or calm down — rather, simply accept how we feel. That doesn’t mean to ignore the problem, but instead, to observe and accept reality in that moment before making a plan to tackle the problem.
  • Find time to unplug from electronic gadgets, phones, computers and video games — studies have shown that excessive reliance on technology can make us more distracted, impatient and forgetful.
  • Get in touch with our senses by noticing the temperature of our skin and background sounds around us.
  • Review the day’s events at the close of the day to prevent work stresses from spilling into our home lives.
  • Before going to bed, engage in some spiritual reading.

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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!

Mmm, mmm . . . almost good

When you’ve just come into the house from shoveling, working outdoors, sledding in the snow or any winter activity, little is more comforting, nostalgic and pleasing than a nice hot bowl of soup. In fact, it’s hard not to love soup, any time of year. But if you want to add “nutritious” to the list of popular soup accolades, you have to be aware of hidden dangers from excess salt and additives.

That’s not to snow on our parades, but since it’s National Nutrition Month – and soup is part of most American diets – it bears taking a closer look at how to ensure that this popular and diverse staple is as healthy as it is filling.

It’s hard to imagine that any delicious steaming concoction brimming with vegetables, grains, noodles, meat or fish isn’t good for us. But truth be told, there’s typically one prime ingredient hiding in soup that is a major contributor to heart disease, high blood pressure and stroke – if you guessed “salt,” you’re right!

More than 75 percent of the sodium in the average American diet comes from salt added to processed foods. We often don’t even know we’re eating it. And while cutting table salt is wise, it may only be putting a tiny dent in our sodium total.

Sodium is a major flavor additive and preservative in canned soups, and in homemade or restaurant soups that use canned or pre-packaged chicken, beef or vegetable stocks as a base. With so much salt in our food, it’s no wonder the average American gets more than 3,400 milligrams (mg) of sodium per day. That’s more than double the American Heart Association’s recommended limit of 1,500 milligrams.

Manufacturers use salt to preserve foods and modify flavor, and it’s included in additives that affect the texture or color of foods. Sodium is an essential nutrient, but very little is needed in the diet – it’s estimated that the body needs less than 500 mg of sodium a day to perform its functions, an amount much lower than what the average American consumes.   

In an ideal world we’d all handpick fresh ingredients and cook them at home, ensuring a limited sodium, fat and preservative intake. In the real world, however, we don’t always have time to cook.  So how can we ensure that we’re consuming soup and other “healthy” products that are truly good for us?  The answer lies in knowledge and smart shopping.

Preserving our health

Food additives help process or prepare soups and foods, keep the product fresh, or make it more appealing. This includes emulsifiers that prevent liquid products from separating, stabilizers and thickeners that provide an even texture, and anticaking agents that allow substances to flow freely. They also prevent fruits and vegetables from turning brown when they are exposed to air. Finally, they provide color, and enhance the taste.

In the supermarket, your best ally is the Nutrition Facts Label on product packages, which lists how much sodium is in each serving, and other content. As a guideline, to include a “sodium free or salt free” claim on the label, a product cannot exceed 5 milligrams of sodium per serving.  A product with a “low sodium” claim must not exceed 140 mg per serving.  A “no salt added or unsalted” claim on the label does not mean the food is “sodium free.”  Compare food labels and choose the product with the lowest amount of sodium.

Also, look for the American Heart Association’s Heart-Check mark to find foods that can be part of a heart-healthy diet. This red and white icon on the package means the food meets specific nutrition requirements for certification. You can learn more about the Heart-Check Food Certification Program and find foods that are currently certified by visiting heartcheckmark.org.

The bottom line is to take time and learn about the different products we’re putting in our bodies, and make smart choices that achieve a balance between convenience, cost and content. Making soup and other foods from scratch or knowing how it’s prepared by others is your best option. Ask questions when you’re purchasing meals from restaurants and take-out counters, and read the food labels on prepared products you purchase at the grocery store. You can then make an informed choice and consider product alternatives.  The truth is, if you’re careful and smart, you can still have your soup and eat it, too!

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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!

When it comes to vitamins, C it all clearly

Spring is only weeks away, and the worst of cold and flu season, hopefully, is behind us. But we still can’t let down our guards. It’s a germ jungle out there, and we have to stay on our toes when it comes to nutrition, exercise and general health.

Chances are many of us aren’t eating the right foods to help strengthen our immune systems. We also may be inclined to take supplements to prevent illness, or larger doses of vitamins to fight cold and bugs once they have us in their grasps. If you fall into either of these categories, you’re not alone – supplements are a multi-million-dollar industry. But it’s important to separate fact from fiction, and to understand what works best, why and how.

To start, nothing we take as a supplement beats the benefits of eating healthfully and obtaining the vitamins and minerals we need through our diet. One of the best-known and most-studied examples is Vitamin C, which we get naturally through fruits and vegetables.

Vitamin C, also known as ascorbic acid, is a water-soluble nutrient that acts as an antioxidant, helping to protect cells from damage caused by free radicals, compounds that are formed when our bodies break down food or when we are exposed to tobacco smoke or radiation and air pollution. Vitamin C is also needed for the growth and repair of tissues in all parts of the body, and it helps the immune system work to protect the body from disease. 

Sufficient quantities of Vitamin C must be consumed every day. Unlike fat-soluble vitamins, vitamin C is not stored in the body. That is why eating at least a few servings a day of citrus fruits and other vitamin C-rich food is so important. Luckily, getting the recommended daily amount of Vitamin C is not difficult, since a single orange contains 150 percent of the government’s recommended daily allowance of Vitamin C.

Vitamin C is cited as effective for fighting infections including gum disease, acne and other skin infections, bronchitis, and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) disease. It is used for infections of the bladder and prostate, and people also put vitamin C on their skin to protect it against the sun, pollutants, and other environmental hazards. Vitamin C is also applied to the skin to help with damage from radiation therapy.

Additionally, Vitamin C is used for fighting depression, dementia, Alzheimer’s disease, physical and mental stress, fatigue, and attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). It’s also believed that Vitamin C might help the heart and blood vessels. It is used for hardening of the arteries, preventing clots in veins and arteries, heart attack, stroke, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Other uses include improving physical endurance and slowing aging, as well as counteracting the side effects of cortisone and related drugs, and aiding drug withdrawal in addiction.

Where to find it, and where not

Most experts recommend getting Vitamin C from a diet high in fruits and vegetables rather than taking supplements. Fresh-squeezed orange juice or fresh-frozen concentrate is a better pick than ready-to-drink orange juice. The fresh juice contains more active Vitamin C. Drink fresh-frozen orange juice within one week after reconstituting it for the most benefit. It you prefer ready-to-drink orange juice, buy it three to four weeks before the expiration date, and drink it within one week of opening.

People may view supplements such as Airborne and Emergen-C as quick and easy fixes; each contains 1,000 milligrams (mg) of Vitamin C along with other vitamins and minerals. And while Vitamin C has been seen as a potential remedy for the common cold, research shows that for most people, Vitamin C supplements or Vitamin-C- rich foods do not reduce the risk of getting a cold. And once you have a cold, rest, fluids and a healthy diet stimulate recovery. However, people who take Vitamin C supplements regularly might have slightly shorter colds or somewhat milder symptoms when they do have a cold.

The minimum daily requirement of Vitamin C for adults is 75 mg for women and 90 mg for men, with an extra 35 mg needed by smokers.  Citrus fruits, such as oranges and grapefruit, along with their juices, have high amounts of Vitamin C. Five servings a day of fruits and vegetables – or about 2 1/2 cups – averages out to between 200 mg to 250 mg of Vitamin C. Besides citrus, the fruits that have high amounts of Vitamin C include: 

  • Cantaloupe
  • Kiwi fruit
  • Mango
  • Papaya
  • Pineapple
  • Strawberries, raspberries, blueberries, cranberries
  • Watermelon

Vegetables that have the highest amounts of Vitamin C include: 

  • Broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower
  • Green and red peppers
  • Spinach and other leafy greens
  • Sweet and white potatoes
  • Tomatoes and tomato juice
  • Winter squash

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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!

Spring into action on your personal health plan

It’s hard to believe March is already here . . . which means spring, warmer weather and a return to outdoor activities aren’t far behind.  As many of us shed heavy jackets and winter clothes, we also may need to shed winter pounds or consider other healthy behaviors that may have gone by the wayside during our winter hibernation. Fortunately, March is a great time to renew our personal wellness resolutions and goals, well before we start to unpack our bathing suits, tank tops and shorts.

At least half of Americans make New Year’s resolutions. Maybe we intended to lose weight, or exercise more, or quit smoking. But the vast majority of Americans who made such resolutions won’t meet their goals. Polls have found that by springtime, 68 percent of Americans who made a New Year’s resolution have broken it.  After one year, only 15 percent claim success.

But that’s okay – as philosophers and quality gurus remind us, it’s the journey not the destination! The secret to self-improvement is persistence, not perfection.  Now is our opportunity to see what we’ve done or haven’t done, set new goals and get started – or started again.

A more feasible strategy might be to set goals we can measure – and achieve – on a quarterly basis. For example, losing 10 pounds between April and June, cutting back coffee, smoking or alcohol consumption by a certain percentage, getting to the gym three times a week, consciously reducing sugar and fat intake every time we eat, walking on the weekends . . . whatever works for you.

Additionally, this is a good time to think about walks, runs and other charitable or competitive events that traditionally take place in the late spring. If you set a goal to walk or run in a 5k coming up in a few months, you can begin your training now. Or you can adjust your diet by eliminating pasta and bread from one or more meals a day and substituting more fruit and vegetables. The trick is to modify your strategy – especially if you haven’t been successful at meeting your goals over the past few months.

The challenge, of course, is that wanting to lose weight and knowing how to lose weight are different objectives, and achieving and sustaining that weight loss requires smart planning, dedication, and good information.

We can cut carbs and sugar, eat lots of raw veggies, replace a meal with a protein shake, or count calories.  Diets will take off weight, but staying healthy and not regaining the weight is another matter. Instead of simply dieting, we need to focus on nutrition, health and exercise, and to recognize that there are benefits to be gained from a healthful diet besides just weight loss.

Simplicity is a useful tool for altering your diet. Vegetables, experts stress, can be eaten raw or cooked in the microwave just as easily as heating processed food. And there is an enormous amount of self-help literature available online and in book stores, and through nutritionists, your physician and other health professionals.

It’s also important to choose high-quality foods over low-quality foods. Fast food and snack foods are low quality, which means they have a lot of calories without a lot of nutrients. And when we try to appease ourselves by adding processed cheese sauce to the broccoli or deep frying our veggies, we’re not improving our diet. 

It starts by making up our minds to eat better, and by experimenting with changes that we can sustain, unlike those offered in fad diets. Actually engaging our brains, paying attention to what we’re eating, how much and when are important first steps. Frequency and understanding the chemistry of food, what we’re putting into our bodies and how it affects us, will make a big difference. And changing our diets without adding exercise is not going to be as effective a means of losing weight or achieving improved overall health.

Success is incremental, but you can reward yourself as you make changes. Once you start substituting vegetables and fruit for heavy carbs and prepared foods high in fat, sugar and sodium, you’ll get used to the healthier eating style and smaller portions will become enough. But that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy pizza, ice cream and fast food once in awhile – as long as it becomes the exception, not the rule.

Healthful living is a lifestyle choice, and extra weight a prime contributor to most chronic diseases. Set reasonable goals – both in terms of nutrition and exercise – track your progress, involve family members or friends in setting and sharing goals, and you’ll be amazed at how much easier it is to make simple changes that will have a profound effect on your long-term health and wellness.

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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!

Investing in employee health and wellness

It’s often said that to succeed, you have to walk before you run. In the case of C.M. Smith, it might be seen as the other way around: Employees started with a marathon and, in short order, followed that effort by walking themselves toward a wide variety of health and wellness programs that has morphed into a year-round sprint.

Since 1974, the C.M. Smith Agency, Inc. and C.M. Smith Financial have provided businesses and individuals with a broad range of employee benefits, insurance, and retirement services. Focused on their customers’ financial health and wellness, it made sense to target their own employees’ health and wellness, too.  And they were able to find creative ways to both encourage wellness and enhance employee engagement through programs designed and implemented by employees, with the blessing, support and encouragement of C.M. Smith management.

Brigid Gunn is the company’s Human Resources and Operations Director, and their Wellness Champion. She explained that when the company moved its offices from Glastonbury to Hartford in 2013, some employees were discouraged by the longer commute and perceived inconvenience of working in the city. A CBIA Health Connections member since the 1990s, the company wanted to find a way to improve morale, support team activities, encourage wellness, and link employee interests with the advantages of working in downtown Hartford.

An employee wellness committee was formed, and meets bi-monthly to brainstorm creative health ideas and to examine activities that were conducive to being downtown. It also was important, she explained, to offer a diverse selection of events, programs and activities that would appeal to differing employee interests, while being convenient and easily accessible.

“We already were a reasonably healthy population,” Gunn observed, “with few smokers and pretty active employees. But not surprisingly, reducing life and work stress was typically mentioned by staff as a key goal. So we set about finding ways to help reduce stress and encourage participation across the board. We also were hoping that every employee would participate in at least one activity in 2015.

“Not everyone likes to walk or run recreationally, and some people want to go home right after work, or exercise early in the day or at lunch, Gunn added. “Like most organizations, we’re a real melting pot, so we needed to make sure we offered something that would appeal to every employee at some point. Also, with two related but separate businesses, we wanted to encourage people to ‘play’ together, as possible, but also feel free to pursue activities on their own.”

The company created an activity budget of $50 per employee, and also arranged to pay for employees to use a fitness center located in their building. Three offsite employees who are on-staff personal health coaches are available to their associates, and the wellness committee sponsored lunchtime learning sessions; lunchtime yoga classes are now planned for March.

“There’s no shortage of clever, fun and interesting ideas to try when you’re committed and have management support,” said Marah Block, Marketing & Data Reporting consultant, whose responsibilities include managing internal employee communication. “We held our own, very successful ‘Biggest Loser’ contest for employees and most of the office attended a UCONN hockey game at the XL Center. We’re also planning downtown clean-up days, and a variety of contests and exercise opportunities. Once you get started, it becomes contagious, and employees have responded very positively to our efforts.”

The company still supports employee participation in The Hartford Marathon and gathers donations for local charities and events. Their medical director recently gave a presentation on healthy dieting, and walking challenges, downtown scavenger hunts, UV and sun protection education, and a harvest fruit and vegetable month are all in the works.

“For us, wellness started by encouraging our team to complete the CBIA Healthy Connections health assessments, but to work effectively and keep people engaged, it has to escalate into a far more comprehensive and energetic effort,” Gunn concluded. “Our employees are heathier, downtown has become an asset, and having this program in place makes coming into work a lot more fun!”

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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!