Stretching and Relaxing Your Way to a Fitter 2012

As most Americans wrap up the year and the holiday eating frenzy that began with Thanksgiving and stretches until New Years, it’s typical to think about losing weight, exercising, and a return to more sensible, healthy habits. Exercise benefits everyone in a variety of ways, from weight loss and toning to stress reduction, but depending on your age, weight and physical condition, certain types of exercise are more difficult to practice or sustain. Maybe it’s time to consider a popular alternative to traditional workouts.

Yoga has been practiced for more than 5,000 years, with more than 11 million Americans enjoying its health benefits. Most Westernized yoga classes focus on learning physical poses. They also usually include some form of breathing technique and possibly a meditation technique as well. Some yoga classes are designed purely for relaxation. But there are styles of yoga that teach you how to move your body in new ways. Choosing one of these styles offers the greatest health benefits by enabling you to develop your flexibility, strength, and balance.

Yoga and flexibility

Many people think of yoga as having to stretch like a gymnast. That makes them worry that they’re too old or unfit to do yoga. The truth is you’re never too old to improve flexibility. Yoga poses (called asanas) work by safely stretching your muscles. This releases the lactic acid that builds up with muscle use and causes stiffness, tension, pain, and fatigue. In addition, yoga increases the range of motion in joints. It may also increase lubrication in the joints, increasing ease and fluidity.

Yoga stretches not only your muscles but all of the soft tissues of your body. That includes ligaments, tendons, and the fascia sheath that surrounds your muscles. And no matter your level of yoga, you most likely will see benefits in a very short period of time.

Some styles of yoga are more vigorous than others. Practicing one of these styles will help you improve muscle tone. But even less vigorous styles of yoga, which focus on less movement and more precise alignment in poses, can provide strength and endurance benefits. This becomes crucial as people age. The standing poses, especially if you hold them for several long breaths, build strength in your hamstrings, quadriceps, and abdominal muscles. When practiced correctly, nearly all poses build core strength in the deep abdominal muscles.

Yoga helps posture and breathing

With increased flexibility and strength comes better posture. Most standing and sitting poses develop core strength. That’s because you’re counting on your deep abdominals to support and maintain each pose. With a stronger core, you’re more likely to sit and stand “tall.” Another benefit of yoga is the increased body awareness. This heightened awareness tells you more quickly when you’re slouching or slumping so you can adjust your posture.

Additionally, because of the deep, mindful breathing that yoga involves, lung capacity often improves. This in turn can improve work and sports performance and endurance. But yoga typically isn’t focused on aerobic fitness the way running or cycling are. Most forms of yoga emphasize deepening and lengthening your breath. This stimulates the relaxation response — the opposite of the fight-or-flight adrenaline boost of the stress response.

Even beginners tend to feel less stressed and more relaxed. Some yoga styles use specific meditation techniques to quiet the constant “mind chatter” that often underlies stress. Other yoga styles depend on deep breathing techniques to focus the mind on the breath, in turn calming the mind. 

The chemistry of yoga

Among yoga’s anti-stress benefits are a host of biochemical responses. For example, there is a decrease in catecholamines, the hormones produced by the adrenal glands in response to stress. Lowering levels of hormone neurotransmitters — dopamine, norepinephrine, and epinephrine — creates a feeling of calm. Some research points to a boost in the hormone oxytocin. This is the so-called “trust” and “bonding” hormone that’s associated with feeling relaxed and connected to others.

The same is true with mood. Nearly every yoga student will tell you they feel happier and more contented after class. Recently, researchers have begun exploring the effects of yoga on depression, a benefit that may result from yoga’s boosting oxygen levels to the brain.

In addition, one of the most studied areas of the health benefits of yoga is its effect on heart disease. Yoga has long been known to lower blood pressure and slow the heart rate. A slower heart rate can benefit people with high blood pressure, heart disease, and stroke. On a biochemical level, studies point to a possible anti-oxidant effect of yoga. And yoga has been associated with decreased cholesterol and triglyceride levels as well as a boost in immune system function.

So as you weigh your body — and your resolutions for the coming year — consider yoga as a health alternative or supplement to traditional exercise, and have a healthy new year!

Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. Employees in this program have access to tools and information that can help improve their overall physical and mental well-being. The program is free to both you and your employees as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Washing Your Hands of Germs and Viruses

It’s cold and flu season and, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the single most important thing we can do to keep from getting sick and spreading illness to others is to clean our hands. As you touch people, surfaces, and objects throughout the day, you accumulate germs on your hands. In turn, you can infect yourself with these germs by touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. Although it’s impossible to keep your hands germ-free, washing your hands frequently helps limit the transfer of bacteria, viruses and other microbes.

According to CDC research, some viruses and bacteria can live from 20 minutes up to two hours or more on surfaces like cafeteria tables, doorknobs, ATM machines, and desks. Additionally:

  • 52.2 million cases of the common cold affect Americans under the age of 17 each year alone…and many of these germs are passed to adults and others.
  • Nearly 22 million school days are lost due to the common cold alone.
  • Students don’t wash their hands often or well. In one study, only 58% of female and 48% of male middle and high school students washed their hands after using the bathroom, and numerous studies measuring adult hand-washing habits show similar patterns.
  • A study of Detroit school children showed that scheduled hand washing, at least four times a day, can reduce gastrointestinal illness and related absences by more than 50 percent.

While many of these measurements document hand-washing habits in young adults and children, the findings are applicable to older adults, as well, and especially important for seniors who may lack capacity to fight germs and infections as readily as youth and younger adults.

Alcohol-based hand sanitizers, which don’t require water, are an excellent alternative to soap and water. If you choose to use a commercially prepared hand sanitizer, make sure the product contains at least 60 percent alcohol.

As a general rule, always wash your hands before:

  • Preparing food
  • Eating
  • Treating wounds or giving medicine
  • Touching a sick or injured person
  • Inserting or removing contact lenses

Likewise, always wash your hands after:

  • Preparing food, especially raw meat or poultry
  • Using the toilet
  • Changing a diaper
  • Touching an animal or animal toys, leashes or waste
  • Blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing into your hands or a tissue
  • Treating wounds
  • Touching a sick or injured person
  • Handling garbage or something that could be contaminated, such as a cleaning cloth or soiled shoes.

Of course, it’s also important to wash your hands whenever they look dirty, but as you can’t see germs, err to the side of caution and help prevent illnesses from ever taking hold.

Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. Employees in this program have access to tools and information that can help improve their overall physical and mental well-being. The program is free to both you and your employees as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Resolve to Build an Attainable Personal Action Plan

If you’re like most Americans, you’re excited about the holidays. But the other side of this perennial coin is that many adults also face higher levels of depression and stress, eat poorly, and feel badly about themselves. It’s a difficult time of year, emotionally, physically and financially, for many of us. Let’s take the “glass half full” approach, though, and assume you’re looking forward to the days ahead and trying to balance your good intentions with healthy behaviors, rather than giving in to the seasonal demons that taunt us all.

This is not another article on setting resolutions, that annual exercise in frustration that only leaves us angry or frustrated with ourselves and more likely to just spitefully eat that extra cookie and drink another glass of eggnog. Instead, the best advice is to go easy on yourself:  Drink, eat and celebrate in moderation, allow yourself some excess as expected, but say “no” when you can, keep away from the foods that hurt you the most, and don’t neglect regular exercise or routines that help you keep stress at bay.

Adopting an effective strategy for controlling excess, and setting reasonable expectations for yourself are your smartest options. Focus on short-term goals, such as eating vegetables and fruit at parties and not taking second helpings. Have a cookie and stop. If you imbibe, realize that alcohol and holiday beverages contain a lot of sugar and calories, interfere with your sleep and judgment, and may leave you with a price to pay the next day.

Resolutions should be ongoing. Yes, going back to the gym, avoiding smoking, and eating in more healthful ways are important, but you can resolve to make those changes today, and set simple, achievable, daily goals for yourself. Maybe it’s eating vegetables three times a day, or walking or exercising for 20 minutes daily — you’re not trying to change the world, just working to retain control. Write down your goals, tell a friend or family member what you’re planning, encourage them to check in on you and, if possible, team up for improved motivation and collaboration.

When it comes to purchases, learning to say “no” and practicing financial restraint are difficult challenges, but the more you cede control to impulses, the more it costs you, emotionally and financially. Make lists and a budget, tune your radar to recognize unwise spending, and plan your day carefully. However difficult, make some time for yourself daily, rather than waiting for “when things calm down.” That can include quiet time for reading or reflecting, taking a walk or a swim, going to the gym, calling a friend or whatever routine helps keep you calm and focused. Time, we all come to realize, is the greatest gift we can give ourselves, and we’re worth it.

And finally, when it comes to stress and seasonal angst, the best advice is “don’t despair.” You’re not alone, and there are people, programs and services to turn to for guidance and support. Recognize your own limitations, set reasonable boundaries, and seek help sooner rather than later. We all tend to ignore our successes and beat ourselves up over our perceived failures. Recognize what’s working well and what isn’t, and address those issues calmly and with others, including medical or behavioral health professionals.

Remember, the goal is long-term change and healthy behaviors, not short-term fixes. Surviving the holidays is like plodding through a snowstorm that lasts a full month. You put your head down, walk into the wind, and keep moving forward toward your goals, a step at a time.

Be sure to check out the CBIA Healthy Connections wellness program at your company’s next renewal. Employees in this program have access to tools and information that can help improve their overall physical and mental well-being. The program is free to both you and your employees as part of your participation in CBIA Health Connections!

Walking the Talk Pays Dividends for Cheshire Employer

For many small employers, measuring their return on investment (ROI) in health and wellness programs in the workplace is a matter of intuition and faith. While there’s a vast measurement pool for large employers, detailed, long-term studies are not yet readily available for small companies, especially those with fewer than a dozen employees. But there is now a growing library of anecdotal case studies and examples that demonstrate clear returns on time and resources invested in employee wellness. And over the coming decade, more specific measurements are likely to document what most of us already know:  Investing in our employees’ health and wellness improves morale, service, and productivity, and reduces healthcare costs.

The following profile is just one example of how investing in wellness makes a difference.

When Joanne Couceiro heard her company — Hobson Associates, a national executive recruitment organization based in Cheshire — was going to participate in CBIA’s wellness program, CBIA Healthy Connections, she was happy. When she heard that her employer would appoint her as wellness champion to help manage wellness efforts and employee involvement, she was thrilled.

Couceiro, who does marketing and sales support, was already on the fitness bandwagon. She had a personal trainer, and was working to become a Certified Group Fitness Instructor. The president of the company, Danny Cahill, also was deeply committed to fitness and wellness, and wanted his staff to have every opportunity to pursue healthy lifestyles.

“We’re ‘doers,’ working in a fast-paced, high-energy culture, constantly going with little ‘down time,” Couceiro explains. “Danny is a health buff and advocate, and wanted his team to learn more about exercise, diet and overall wellness. This was a perfect fit for us.”

A broad cross-section of Hobson’s staff, which ranges in age from 20 to 60, joined fitness classes coordinated and taught onsite by Couceiro. She created an alternating high- and low-impact aerobics step and weight-lifting class, which meets twice a week, and then added a ‘fitness boot camp’ class, as well. Employees meet after work in Hobson’s large training and conference room, averaging eight employees in each class.

Couceiro also encouraged the entire team to complete their online Health Assessments and become better engaged in a comprehensive wellness mentality. Their boss, she stresses, was right there beside her, cheering on his staff.

“We’re a family here,” says Cahill. “You can’t force people to focus on their health, but you can be encouraging and offer them opportunities. These classes help with team building, boost morale and, ultimately, increase productivity. We’re changing attitudes and the spillover effect has been terrific — it’s making a difference.”

Cahill conducted a seminar on nutrition and healthy eating, and also sponsored an onsite wellness clinic to test blood pressure, cholesterol, and to establish baseline measurements for body fat. The team discussed the risks associated with sugar and salt, tobacco, and alcohol use. Those who were interested established personal goals — whether weight loss, smoking cessation, or a commitment to regular exercise — with support and encouragement from their fellow staff members.

Cahill is convinced this commitment to wellness — supported in the workplace as well as in employees’ personal lives — is paying back in spades. “We’re changing attitudes, demonstrating that we care, and showing respect for individuals,” he says. “There’s a lot of confusing, paradoxical information out there on health and wellness, which we’re trying to clarify. Joanne’s classes are popular, with strong educational, physical, and collegial aspects that also promote teamwork and improve camaraderie. On the job, call levels are high even at 3:00 p.m, a traditionally difficult time block for generating higher energy and increased production. This has been and continues to be a good solution for us.”

To reap 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!