Exercising for Financial Health

We may love money, but it doesn’t love us. Ralph Waldo Emerson famously quipped, “Money costs too much,” warning about the unhappiness associated with pursing wealth. We all need money to pay bills and to enjoy a better quality of life. But there’s an insidious nature to how we spend money, how we talk with our significant others about it, and the impact finances have on our mental and physical health.

Debt, financial stress and spending behaviors are a major cause of relationship problems and often cited as a significant contributing factor in many divorces and breakups. Worrying about money and debt also causes increased anxiety, sleeplessness, depression and stress that taxes our hearts, contributes to high blood pressure, aggravates stomach issues like acid reflux and ulcers, and can lead to strokes and heart disease. When you consider that more than three out of four American families are in debt, the weight of all that anxiety becomes more apparent.

Most of us worry about money, and this time of year, that worrying gets worse. Or, we cast caution to the wind, spend beyond our means for the holidays, and figure we’ll bear down come January . . . much like we view our diets and holiday eating.  Granted, December may not be the best time to be considering cutting back on spending, so if we allow for reality and the joys of the season – and think about what we’re going to do differently in the coming months and years — that would be a great gift to ourselves and our families.

Planning and focus pay big dividends

There’s a difference between active coping and comfort coping – some of us eat more, spend more, devise short-term solutions, and find other creative avoidance mechanisms. Instead we should be thinking about informed, collaborative planning and strategies for dealing with our money issues. Creating goals is important – if we are working toward a home purchase, a special vacation, college or retirement savings we need a clear game plan and tools to help realize our dreams. So it’s important to think long term, but live with short-term daily strategies, as well.

Here are some tips for improving our financial health:

  • Make a budget. That sounds so basic and simple, yet many people fail to truly organize their financial lives, and to understand what they bring in and what goes out . . . and what they can truly afford. Is it possible that you actually spend $25 a week buying coffee and drinks on the road? Sure it is – and that’s okay, if you can afford the extra C-note a month. If you have a detailed budget and you stick to it, buying things during the day that make you happy is okay. If you can’t pay your phone bill, purchase oil for your furnace or buy a new interview suit, it isn’t.
  • Track your expenses. Whether you write it in a notebook, record it on your computer or download one of the many spending applications available for phones and laptops, tracking what we spend is an important tool for understanding our spending habits and for charting behaviors.
  • Avoid credit, or use it wisely. All that talk about how important it is to use credit cards to build up your credit report is bologna. If you can afford something, buy it with cash or use a debit card. If you can’t afford it, and it’s really important (like fixing the car, and for travel), use a credit card, but be diligent about paying it off as quickly as possible to avoid exorbitant finance charges or the seductive allure of instant gratification.
  • Talk to others about your financial concerns. Share your worries and issues with people close to you, especially your partner. Money worries cause countless troubles for individuals, for couples, and for families. The stigma and shame that accompanies money problems – and the weight of hiding those pressures – causes stress, anxiety and depression, as well. Candor and good communication helps alleviate some of the stress that comes with feeling like you’re bearing the financial burden on your own, or the sense of hopelessness that comes with every bill or debt collector’s call.
  • Consult a financial expert. You don’t have to have a ton of investment income to seek guidance from a financial planner or consultant. He or she can help you devise a savings strategy, determine wise, affordable investments, build your budget, and plan for the future more effectively.
  • Get help for managing your debt. If you have debt and it’s wearing you and your loved ones down, there are options and strategies for addressing your bottom line. Consolidation loans with a lower monthly finance charge can help you rid yourself of credit cards. Banks love when we only pay the minimum due, and profit greatly when we miss a payment and they can charge a hefty penalty. Avoid both by paying more than the minimum monthly payment, or by paying off the card completely as soon as possible.

There are services available to help negotiate payment plans and for consolidating debt, but many of them charge a service fee for this assistance. There also are support groups, free counseling services, and programs such as Debtors Anonymous, a confidential 12-step program available in Connecticut and across the country, where people with debt or spending issues can come together to examine solutions to their money issues, and find fellowship and support.

Money challenges us all, and there’s no reason to think that’s going to change. What can change is how we view our spending habits – if we’re not vague or frivolous about how, what and when we spend, we can take a big step toward improving our financial health, as well as our overall 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!

Is Facebook Making You Sick?

Chances are you’re reading this article on your laptop or a mobile device. Hopefully you’re not reading it late at night, because if you are, it may be making you sick.  That’s because the artificial light from computer and smart phone screens is interfering with our ability to sleep properly. And when we don’t sleep well, or enough, we fail to benefit from our body’s natural restorative abilities.

But that’s only one piece of the bad news relating to electronic gadgets and our health. For all it’s given us, modern technology also is hurting our physical and emotional health, and changing behaviors in adults and children in ways that will have far-reaching, yet still undetermined consequences.

Melatonin is a hormone that regulates sleep and wakefulness in humans and animals. It is produced in darkness. Researchers have determined that the blue light from our electronic devices affects melatonin production and melanopsin stimulation, which throws off our circadian rhythms, our internal body clock. This interrupts or prevents deep, restorative sleep, causing an increase in stress and depressive symptoms.

Research shows that interactive technologies such as video games, cell phones and the Internet might affect the brain differently than those which are “passively received,” such as TV and music. That’s even more meaningful when it comes to our kids.

Children’s brains are much more sensitive to electronics use than most of us realize. In fact, contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t take much electronic stimulation to throw a sensitive and still-developing brain off track. Many parents mistakenly believe that interactive screen-time – such as the Internet or social media use, texting, emailing, and gaming — isn’t harmful, especially compared to passive screen time like watching TV. In fact, interactive screen time is more likely to cause sleep, mood, and cognitive issues, because of hyper-arousal and compulsive use.

Recent statistics show that 63 percent of American Facebook users log on to the site daily, while 40 percent of users log on multiple times a day. If you or your kids are spending a lot of time in chat rooms and on social-networking sites, a number of studies now suggest that this can be associated with depression, particularly in teens and preteens.

Internet addicts may struggle with real-life human interaction and a lack of companionship, and they may have an unrealistic view of the world. Some experts even call it “Facebook depression.” In a 2010 study, researchers found that many people ages 16 to 51 spent an inordinate amount of time online, and that they had a higher rate of moderate to severe depression. However, the researchers noted that it is not clear if Internet overuse leads to depression or if depressed people are more likely to use the Internet.

We all have our own reasons for using social media, but one of the main reasons we use it is for self-distraction and boredom relief. In essence, social media delivers reinforcement every time a person logs on. It may seem harmless to knock out a few emails before bed or unwind with a favorite movie, but by keeping our mind engaged, technology can trick our brain into thinking that it needs to stay awake. When surfing the web, seeing something exciting on Facebook, or reading a negative email, those experiences can make it hard to relax and settle into slumber. After spending an entire day surrounded by technology, our minds need time to unwind.

Why we need technology down time

Research into the use of technology produced other startling results, including sleep disorders and an increase in depressive symptoms from heavy cell phone use or the regular use of computers at night. Researchers have established that screen time:

  • Disrupts sleep and de-synchronizes the body clock. Just minutes of screen stimulation can delay melatonin release by several hours and desynchronize our body clock. Once the body clock is disrupted, all sorts of other unhealthy reactions occur, such as hormone imbalance and brain inflammation. Plus, high arousal doesn’t permit deep sleep, and deep sleep is how we heal.
  • Desensitizes the brain’s reward system. Many children are “hooked” on electronics. In fact, gaming releases so much dopamine — the “feel-good” chemical — that on a brain scan it looks the same as cocaine But when reward pathways are overused, they become less sensitive, and more and more stimulation is needed to experience pleasure. Meanwhile, dopamine is also critical for focus and motivation, so even small changes in dopamine sensitivity can wreak havoc on how well a child feels and functions.
  • Produces “light-at-night.” Light-at-night from electronics has been linked to depression and even suicide risk in numerous studies. Animal studies show that exposure to screen-based light before or during sleep causes depression, even when the animal isn’t looking at the screen. Sometimes parents are reluctant to restrict electronics use in a child’s bedroom because they worry the child will get upset — but to the contrary, removing light-at-night is protective.
  • Induces stress reactions. Both acute stress (fight-or-flight) and chronic stress produce changes in brain chemistry and hormones that can increase irritability. Cortisol, the chronic stress hormone, seems to be both a cause and an effect of depression — creating a vicious cycle. Additionally, both hyper-arousal and addiction pathways suppress the brain’s frontal lobe, the area where mood regulation actually takes place.
  • Fractures attention, and depletes mental reserves. Experts say that what’s often behind explosive and aggressive behavior is poor focus. When attention suffers, so does the ability to process one’s internal and external environment, so little demands become big ones. By depleting mental energy with high visual and cognitive input, screen time contributes to low reserves. One way to temporarily “boost” depleted reserves is to become angry, so meltdowns actually become a coping mechanism.
  • Reduces physical activity levels and exposure to “green time.” Research shows that time outdoors, especially interacting with nature, can restore attention, lower stress, and reduce aggression. So time spent with electronics reduces exposure to natural mood enhancers, as well as to chemicals which also keep us alert, and wake us up.

Most Americans admit to using electronics a few nights a week within an hour before bedtime. But to make sure technology isn’t harming your slumber, give yourself at least 30 minutes of gadget-free and TV–free transition time before hitting the hay. In fact, it’s even better if you can make your bedroom a technology-free zone. And just because you’re not using your cell phone before bed doesn’t mean that it can’t harm your sleep: Keeping a mobile within reach can still disturb slumber, thanks to the chimes of late-night texts, posts, emails, calls, or calendar reminders.

This is a growing and serious public health hazard that isn’t being adequately acknowledged and addressed by both the medical community and technology industries. About 72 percent of children ages six to 17 sleep with at least one electronic device in their bedroom, which leads to getting less sleep on school nights compared with other kids. The difference adds up to almost an hour per night, and the restful quality of their sleep is negatively affected too. To ensure a better night’s rest, parents should limit their kids’ technology use in the bedroom, and can be solid role models and improve their own health by doing the same.


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!

Emotional Wellness During the Holidays

The holidays are great, aren’t they? They’re also exciting and fun, right?  Sure, they’re stressful, expensive and busy, too . . . and can be nostalgic and a little sad, especially when we think of those who aren’t alive anymore, or who live far away, or have fallen out of our lives. Maybe we’re feeling a little isolated, or alone, and all this happiness around us is just making us more miserable. And wow, somehow another year has passed, and we’re kind of in the same rut – and now we have to put on our best mask to face family and old friends. Honestly, January can’t come fast enough.

Perhaps the best adjective for this season is “complicated.” For many people it’s a time of joy and happiness, but for others, sadness, depression and sorrow.  Add to this potent mix the stress of running around, shopping, cooking, parties, cold weather and time and fiscal constraints, and we have the makings of a poignant spicy holiday chili and the accompanying emotional heartburn.

It’s important to find ways to calm ourselves in the moment, to find perspective and to reduce stress and anxiety. Some people find release through exercise or physical activity, others through music, cooking, reading or scores of other favored activities. But we can’t always just drop whatever we’re doing to prepare a meal, take a hike in the mountains, or practice yoga stretches. Sometimes, we need to simply catch our emotional breath.

Meditation and the pursuit of “mindfulness” are valuable approaches to gaining control of attention span, focus and concentration, and for reducing stress. Meditation takes guidance, practice and, for some, years to truly understand and incorporate. It’s a cognitive “cleansing” that allows us to relax, rest our brains, regain contact with our bodies, and establish context for things going on around us. Millions of people around the world incorporate daily meditation in their lives, and find it extremely valuable and healthy.

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, and Twitter.

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.

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. There are many classes offered locally, as well as books and online instruction. Additionally, 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 its power over us.
  • Pay attention to 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, we should remind ourselves of our organization’s purpose and our personal and professional goals, 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 relaxing or spiritual reading.

There are so many simple, inexpensive things we can do to regain emotional control, and to help reduce or prevent stress in our lives – at the holidays, or any time of year. Learning to appreciate and be grateful for what we have is a wonderful gift, and seeing the New Year as a fresh start can be liberating. But we often need perspective and useful coping mechanisms to get us to this cheerier and healthier horizon, and to help us avoid the “holiday blues.”

 


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 the Lead on Workplace Wellness

It’s that time of year again – the apex of when distracted and cheerful meet pressured and busy. People are running around and more stressed than usual, especially as the days until the holidays count down. It’s also a challenging time in many workplaces, as year-end deadlines, workloads and customer expectations peak.

The good news is that the season will be done before we know it. But keeping employees healthy and well is a year-round venture. Thinking creatively and strategically, you can use the season to remind staff about healthy practices and to reinforce behaviors for the holidays, and for the new year.

Sharing educational materials about healthy eating is a good start. Eating a balanced diet that is low in saturated fats and salt and rich in fruits, vegetables, fiber, and whole grains — as well as healthy sources of proteins, vitamins and calcium — are critical ingredients for a healthier future. Eating smart helps us maintain a healthy weight and reduces our risk of chronic illnesses, including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers.

Remind employees that the best way to avoid overeating is to maintain a routine eating schedule during the holidays, pile our plates with vegetables and fruits, eat mindfully, take the time to enjoy our food, and consume a healthy breakfast every day. Additionally, employees can be encouraged to share meals at work, and explore smart nutrition and dietary practices informally, or through sessions at or after work with nutritionists and dietitians.

Variety is also important — sampling a small amount of everything that has different textures and colors on the table can help alleviate cravings. And eating in moderation is always key.  For more information, a good guide is the USDA nutrition website called “My Plate.” It can be found at www.choosemyplate.gov.

Plan exercise and good health practices

Physical activity is one of the most important steps we can take towards a healthier future. If employees are not currently exercising, encourage them to start slowly and build up – employers can think about introducing incentives and friendly competitions, and offering time and space for these team-building activities. Fitness experts are happy to come into workplaces to meet employees and to help them design team or personalized fitness routines.

Set simple goals such as at least 30 minutes three to five days a week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, or an hour per week of high-intensity aerobic exercise. The trick is to stay active – staff can take the stairs instead of elevators, and engage in a power walk instead of a power lunch. By setting goals and measuring achievement weekly, it makes exercising more fun and helps improve morale and teamwork. And by offering rewards to all who participate, you both condone and thank employees for their efforts to remain healthier and more productive.

Here are few other tips for improving health and wellness at the holidays, and throughout the year:

  • Stop smoking. Use the end of the year as an opportunity to remind employees of the value in reducing or eliminating smoking and the use of smokeless tobacco products at work and away from work. Point them to programs that are available online, in groups, and through local organizations. Many employers choose to bring smoking-cessation programs into the workplace, as well.
  • Drink alcoholic beverages in moderation. Alcohol adds calories, interferes with restful sleep and leaves you dehydrated. And while one glass a day of red wine might help prevent heart disease, alcohol abuse accounts for 79,000 preventable deaths every year, and is associated with an increased risk of liver disease and some forms of cancer, as well as tens of thousands of motor vehicle accidents annually.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water throughout the day, and avoid snacks and foods high in salt, fats and sugar.
  • Get plenty of rest. Between traveling, shopping, and attending holiday events, it can be difficult to get enough sleep during the holiday season. But getting a good night’s rest will leave people refreshed and can also help to reduce stress. Most adults require seven to eight hours of sleep per night. Even if traveling or away from home during the holidays, try to maintain a regular bedtime routine. Also, avoid caffeine, alcohol, heavy meals and exercising right before bedtime.
  • Set realistic team and personal goals. This is a great time to plan healthy activities for the upcoming year. Consider creating a health and wellness planning team or committee, link activities to monthly health-awareness topics, and work with your Wellness Champion to incorporate ideas available through CBIA, insurance providers, and other health and wellness resources.

Employers play an important role in their employees’ health and wellness. By taking the lead, communicating your interest, and encouraging participation, 2017 will be a healthier year for everyone!


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!