Smart Tools Help Employees Stay Healthy and Engaged

Thanks to the popularity of smart phones, Fitbits, Apple Watches, mobile wellness applications and other easy-to-use “smart” portable technology, employers now have more opportunities to work with their employees on health and wellness programs that can be tracked, measured and reported, synergistically, using today’s accessible technologies.

Wearables such as the Fitbit or the Apple Watch do more than simply measuring steps – they can help monitor stress levels and heart rates. They also aid in implementing fitness plans, so they can be a valuable tool in encouraging workplace health. Simply having access to apps on already existing smartphones can be effective as well.

Progressive employers are using these tools to support employee wellness engagement, taking an interest in the shape of each employees’ health efforts across multiple dimensions including fitness, movement, stress, disease risk and disease management.

The challenges inherent to employer involvement in wellness at work always have included time constraints, encouraging employee engagement, privacy issues and the employer’s willingness to participate or fund these proactive efforts.

However, effective wellness programs improve workforce health, reduce healthcare costs, improve morale, boost teamwork and increase productivity. Corporate wellness programs strive to get employees more active, but, like too many New Year’s resolutions, programs often fall short because people stop participating — and return to an unhealthy, sedentary lifestyle.

This has led many businesses to investigate the use of technology combined with wellness programs to increase and maintain employee engagement. But throwing technology at the problem without proper strategy and support programs will not accomplish the desired result.

With so many millennials and their younger associates, “Gen-Z-ers,” adept at personal technology and absorbed in social media, employers can work with their staffs to encourage personal goal-setting, as well as team goal-setting, and consider setting up online tools, social media groups or dedicated websites for employees to report and track their own and one another’s progress involving mutually agreed-upon goals linked to walking, running, fitness, weight loss, nutrition, hydration, sleep and more.

Some wellness devices wirelessly and securely transmit all activity data through the Cloud to personal web applications without employees lifting a finger. Their daily activity is automatically recorded and uploaded where it is available for easy viewing and personalization. Coupled with incentives provided by a supportive employer, this can create an excellent opportunity for organizations and individuals to get on the same preventive health-care page.

Data gathered from wearables can help an organization make a business case for a wellness program or fine-tune one already in place. Wearables can provide employers with a vast amount of biometric data and help evaluate the return on investment — but only if employees consent to share this information.

Using wearables can decrease the sedentary lifestyle that often pervades present-day working generations. With features such as activity apps, employees can track their physical movements and set reminders to stand when sitting for long periods of time, drink water, track their sleeping patterns, meditate, count calories, and much more.

Make It Easy, and Make It Fun

A growing number of companies, embracing wellness as a positive business model, are facilitating the use of digital technology tools and programs for their employees.

For instance, by demonstrating the impact of poor eating and exercise habits for a person with high cholesterol and a family history of heart disease, or for someone who is pre-diabetic, immediate lifestyle changes can be recommended through a simple mobile app that can also help the user set personal goals. This technology then provides ongoing motivation by displaying their progress along their journey to improved health. If employees agree to share the results, these changes and progress can then be monitored and recommendations adjusted accordingly.

Monitoring and evaluating real-time data of employee’s physical activity, sleep patterns, and stress levels can help employers evaluate the drivers of health risks to their employees, and potentially mitigate illness and prevent long-term disability leaves. Also, it provides the ability to examine the health risks and trends facing the organization’s entire workforce, not just specific individuals.

Employers can create fun challenges, promote friendly competition for willing participants, and reward participation as well as individual or team progress with time off, sponsorships, gift cards, cash prizes, team outings and a variety of “bragging-rights” incentives. Some employers actually purchase wearable technology for their teams as added incentive and a strong sign of commitment.

However you proceed, include employees in the planning and execution. Consider working with an outside firm, fitness expert or wellness professional when possible to establish reasonable goals and review procedures, and practice these simple steps when designing your program:

  • Make it as easy as possible to participate
  • Use helpful reminders
  • Develop engaging programs
  • Seek employee consensus and participation
  • Provide incentives that motivate employees
  • Recognize and reward all participants

With today’s popular and affordable technologies, it’s easier than ever now to engage employees in improving their own health and wellness. Everyone wins, and the only losers are the ones who shed pounds or unhealthy behaviors in favor of fitness, good nutrition and the satisfaction of setting and achieving personal health goals.

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!

Spring Bling Brings the Sneezing Thing

Red itchy eyes, sinuses blocked, throat tender and nose running like a faucet? Yup, sounds like allergy season is back! Along with the much-heralded return of daffodils, crocuses, budding trees and the reappearance of robins and cardinals, springtime also afflicts millions of Americans with the sneezing, wheezing and sniffles that mark the perennial onslaught of typical allergy culprits, pollen and mold. And it starts weeks before the air seems filled with fluffy snow-like flakes that cover our cars in a whiteish-green film and drive us to refuge indoors.

Seasonal allergic rhinitis is usually caused by mold spores in the air or by trees, grasses, and weeds releasing billions of tiny pollen grains. The severity of allergy season can vary according to where you live, the weather, indoor contaminants, and many other elements. Here in Connecticut, outdoor molds are very common, especially after the spring thaw. They are found in soil, some mulches, fallen leaves, and rotting wood.

Everybody is exposed to mold and pollen, but only some develop or suffer from allergies. In these people, the immune system, which protects us from invaders like viruses and bacteria, reacts to a normally harmless substance called an allergen (allergy-causing compound). Specialized immune cells called mast cells and basophils then release chemicals like histamine that lead to the symptoms of allergy: sneezing, coughing, a runny or clogged nose, postnasal drip, and itchy eyes and throat.

Additionally, asthma and allergic diseases, such as allergic rhinitis (hay fever), food allergy, and atopic dermatitis (eczema), are common for all age groups in the United States. For example, asthma affects more than 17 million adults and more than 7 million children. It’s also estimated that one-fifth of all Americans are allergic to something, whether seasonal, airborne, or food related.

Nasal allergy triggers can be found both indoors and outdoors, and can be seasonal or year-round. It’s important to be aware of the times of day, seasons, places, and situations where your nasal allergy symptoms begin or worsen. If you can identify your triggers, and create a plan for avoiding them when possible, you may be able to minimize symptoms.

Here are a few points to remember:

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

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

Another potential solution is cromolyn sodium, a nasal spray that inhibits the release of chemicals like histamine from mast cells. But you must start taking it several days before an allergic reaction begins, which is not always practical, and its use can be habit forming.

Immunotherapy, or allergy shots, is an option if the exact cause of your allergies can be pinpointed. Immunotherapy involves a long series of injections, but it can significantly reduce symptoms and medication needs. Your physician can help pinpoint what you are allergic to, and tell you the best way to treat your nasal allergy symptoms. Providing detailed information about your lifestyle and habits will help your physician design an appropriate treatment plan for relieving your symptoms.

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

  • Wash bed sheets weekly in hot water.
  • Always bathe and wash hair before bedtime (pollen can collect on skin and hair throughout the day).
  • Do not hang clothes outside to dry where they can trap pollens.
  • Wear a filter mask when mowing or working outdoors. Also, if you can, avoid peak times for pollen exposure (hot, dry, windy days, usually between 10:00 a.m. and 4:00 p.m.).
  • Be aware of local pollen counts in your area (visit the National Allergy Bureau Website).
  • Keep house, office, and car windows closed; use air conditioning if possible rather than opening windows.
  • Perform a thorough spring cleaning of your home, including replacing heating and A/C filters and cleaning ducts and vents.
  • Check bathrooms and other damp areas in your home frequently for mold and mildew, and remove visible mold with nontoxic cleaners.
  • Keep pets out of the bedroom and off of furniture, since they may carry pollen if they have been outdoors, or exacerbate your allergies if, for example, you’re allergic to cat dander.

Pass the Honey, Honey

There are many over-the-counter treatments available for seasonal allergies, but some people prefer natural treatments instead. One example rumored to help with seasonal allergies is raw, unprocessed honey made close to where you live. This local honey is rumored to help allergies, but scientists and doctors are skeptical.

 The idea behind honey treating allergies is similar to that of a person getting allergy shots. But while allergy shots have been proven to be effective, honey hasn’t. When a person eats local honey, they are thought to be ingesting local pollen. Over time, a person may become less sensitive to this pollen. As a result, they may experience fewer seasonal allergy symptoms.

It’s true that bees pollinate flowers and make honey. But the amounts of pollen from the environment and plants are thought to be very small and varied. When a person eats local honey, they have no guarantee how much (if any) pollen they’re being exposed to. This differs from allergy shots that purposefully desensitize a person to pollen at standard measurements.

You should not give honey to a child under the age of one. Raw, unprocessed honey has a risk for botulism in infants. Also, some people who have a severe allergy to pollen can experience a serious allergic reaction known as anaphylaxis after eating honey. This can cause extreme difficulty breathing. Others may experience allergic reactions such as itching or swelling of the mouth, throat, or skin.

We can’t always avoid the pollens, mold, and other triggers that aggravate our allergies, but we can try to limit or control exposure and pursue medical interventions to help mitigate our suffering. Spring is a wonderful time of year – enjoy it to its fullest, and pass the tissues!

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 Forward, but Watch Your Back

After an inactive winter it’s easy to strain or hurt ourselves the first time we’re working outdoors, clearing or preparing a garden, swinging a golf club or baseball bat, moving outdoor furniture or simply doing anything physical.  There are a number of tips we can follow to prevent or limit muscle strain, aches and injuries, including stretching before and after physical activities, remaining properly hydrated, getting enough sleep, eating well and knowing our own limitations.

One of the keys to remaining injury-free before work or working out is to make sure to stretch properly and bend and lift carefully to avoid back, knee and shoulder injuries. Always stretch before, and when possible, after working or exercising.

Proper stretching loosens up tight muscles and makes us more limber. When stretching, focus on the big muscles first. The quadriceps and hamstrings in our thighs are generally the largest muscles of the body and deserve special attention, particularly because they play a key supporting role for our backs. That means stretching the back, front, and inner and outer thigh. Then continue to work the other muscle groups, from your neck to your toes, tightening and loosening each as you move down your body.

Besides warming up, when gardening, doing yard work or taxing ourselves physically, it’s important to use proper techniques for bending and lifting. Simple tips include keeping objects close to our bodies when lifting, and maintaining the natural curves of our spine as we work. It’s useful to bend our knees and squat or kneel to get to ground level instead of bending over. And when kneeling, be mindful of position: try kneeling with one knee on the ground and the other up, and periodically switch knees to alleviate pressure. Also try to avoid sudden twisting or reaching motions, keeping movements smooth, and adjust posture frequently to reduce the risk of repetitive-motion injuries.

Another trick for staying loose and avoiding aches and pains is to apply heat before and after a workout. Heat prior to working out can minimize muscle strain. After a workout, muscles and joints are potentially dehydrated and, because they are weakened, are not as stable as when they have been resting. Applying a heating pad or wrap for 10 – 15 minutes while seated or lying down after a workout session or strenuous activity like spring cleaning can help muscles calm down and return to their normal state without seizing up.

Proper Bending Is Key to Avoiding Injuries

Always be sure to bend at the hip, not the lower back. Most people believe bending their knees will ensure a safe lift, but this form alone can still lead to a back injury. The most important tip is to bend the hips and keep the upper body upright as much as possible, pointing forward.

Keeping the chest forward also is important. When the chest is kept forward and the body is bent at the hips, the back is kept straight and back injury can be avoided. The back muscles will then be used most effectively for maintaining good posture, as they are designed to do. The knees will bend automatically so the muscles of the legs and hips will produce the power for lifting correctly.

Twisting, repetitive lifting or hefting strenuous amounts of weight is another dangerous mistake that can lead to back or shoulder injury. The shoulder is one of the most complex joints in our body; comprising more than 30 muscles and six major ligaments, it can move and articulate into more than 1,500 different positions. Our shoulders should be kept in line with the hips to avoid twisting movement. For changing directions, move the hips first so the shoulders will move in unison.  When moving the shoulders first, the hips tend to lag behind creating the dangerous twisting that can cause back injury, especially to the joints in the back and pelvis.

Here are some additional tips for avoiding injuries and remaining healthy, especially as the spring draws us out of hibernation and into a full range of outdoor and indoor activities:

  • Stay hydrated. This is good advice anytime, but especially when engaged in sports or working outdoors. Dehydrated muscles and tendons are less flexible and less resilient. If you’re a coffee drinker, reduce your risk of muscle strain by drinking more water than coffee, and avoid excessive alcohol, another cause of dehydration.
  • Avoid smoking. In addition to its other downsides, nicotine impairs the healing process for tendons and muscles.
  • Vary activities: Mix it up to prevent muscle imbalance. If repeating the same overhead motion, shoulder muscles will get overworked and others will decondition; this can throw off the shoulder’s balance, resulting in tendon damage.
  • Use proper form when lifting and carrying heavy items. Keep an upright position to help protect the back. And if you’re doing overhead work, use a ladder or step stool to put the work at eye level and reduce stress on the shoulders.
  • Eat well: Without the nutrients our muscles need to stay healthy and to heal if they become strained, we put ourselves at constant risk. Avoid sweets, fried foods and excessive salt, and focus on a broad mix of fruits, vegetables and grains, as well as fish and other proteins.

Preventing injuries and staying healthy is a day-by-day activity – if you hurt yourself right out of the gate in the spring, it may take months to heal . . . and before you know it, winter will be here again!  So, remember to stretch before and after physical activity to help your muscles relax and rebound more quickly, and take care of your body!

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 Oral Hygiene Improves Overall Health

Good oral health is a critical aspect of overall health and wellness, yet many Americans take it for granted. While properly brushing and flossing teeth is an important prevention component, along with regular dental visits, the rise of oral cancers is reaching serious proportions and, sadly, the causes of many oral cancers are largely preventable.

The prevalence of oral cancer in the United States is typically associated with four behaviors that, if avoided or minimized, could have a significant impact on reducing incidences. They include the use of all tobacco products – including cigarettes, snuff, chewing tobacco and vaping; alcohol consumption; oral sex leading to acquiring sexually transmitted diseases, especially involving Human papilloma virus (HPV); and excessive sun exposure.

Oral health is not only important to our appearance and sense of well-being, but also to our overall health. Cavities and gum disease may contribute to serious conditions such as diabetes, heart and respiratory disease, and untreated cavities can be painful and lead to serious infections. Poor oral health has been linked to sleeping problems, as well as behavioral and developmental problems in children. It can also affect our ability to chew and digest food properly.

Nearly one-third of all adults in the United States have untreated tooth decay. One in seven adults aged 35 to 44 years has gum disease; this increases to one in every four adults aged 65 years and older. Oral cancers are most common in older adults, particularly those over 55 years who smoke and are heavy drinkers, but those statistics are changing in younger people who indulge in excessive smoking, use of smokeless tobacco products, vaping, alcohol consumption and oral sex.

Reducing Plaque Buildup

Plaque is a sticky, colorless film of bacteria that constantly builds up, thickens and hardens on the teeth. If it is not removed by daily brushing and flossing, this plaque can harden into tartar and may contribute to infections in the gums. Left untreated, gum disease can lead to the loss of teeth and an increased risk of more serious illnesses.

The bacteria in plaque can travel from the mouth to the lungs, causing infection or aggravating existing lung conditions. It creates risks for heart patients, too, as it can travel through the bloodstream and get lodged in narrow arteries, contributing to heart attacks. There also is a link between diabetes and gum disease.

Everyone should brush their teeth at least twice a day, preferably within 30 minutes of eating. When bacteria in plaque come into contact with food, they produce acids. These acids lead to cavities. Flossing is critical, as well, and does about 40 percent of the work required to remove plaque from the hard-to-reach spaces between our teeth.

Proper nutrition plays a key role in oral health, as well. Food high in processed sugars and fats are not good for body or teeth – they contribute to weight gain, diabetes, heart disease, hypertension and even certain types of cancers. A well-rounded, vitamin-rich, balanced diet high in fiber and filled with vegetables, fruits and plenty of water will help maintain a healthy mouth, as well as a healthier body. And regular visits to the dentist are essential for screening for cavities, infections and other abnormalities that can be reflective of heart health and other diseases.

Preventing Oral Cancer

Signs and symptoms of mouth cancer may include:

  • A sore that doesn’t heal
  • A sore that bleeds
  • A growth, lump or thickening of the skin or lining of the mouth
  • Loose teeth
  • Poorly fitting dentures
  • Tongue pain
  • Jaw pain or stiffness
  • Difficult or painful chewing
  • Difficult or painful swallowing
  • Sore throat

Tobacco and alcohol use are among the strongest risk factors for oral cavity and oropharyngeal cancers. When tobacco and alcohol damage the cells lining the mouth and throat, the cells in this layer must grow more rapidly to repair this damage. The more often cells need to divide, the more chances there are for them to make mistakes when copying their DNA, which may increase their chances of becoming cancerous.

Many of the chemicals found in tobacco can damage DNA directly. Research has shown that alcohol helps many DNA-damaging chemicals get into cells more easily. This may be why the combination of tobacco and alcohol damages DNA far more than tobacco alone. This damage can cause certain genes (for example, those in charge of starting or stopping cell growth) to malfunction. Abnormal cells can begin to build up, forming a tumor. With additional damage, the cells may begin to spread into nearby tissue and to distant organs.

Oral cancer may occur on the floor of the mouth, the lining of the cheek, the gingiva (gums), the lips or the palate (roof of the mouth). Early-stage symptoms can include persistent red or white patches, a non-healing ulcer, progressive swelling or enlargement, unusual surface changes, sudden tooth mobility without apparent cause, unusual oral bleeding or prolonged hoarseness.

Smokers are many times more likely than non-smokers to develop these cancers. Tobacco smoke from cigarettes, cigars, or pipes can cause cancers anywhere in the mouth or throat, as well as causing cancers of the larynx (voice box), lungs, esophagus, kidneys, bladder, and several other organs.

Oral tobacco products (snuff or chewing tobacco) are linked with cancers of the cheek, gums, and inner surface of the lips. Using oral tobacco products for a long time poses an especially high risk. These products also cause gum disease, destruction of the bone sockets around teeth, and tooth loss. It is also important for people who have been treated for oral cavity or oropharyngeal cancer to give up any oral tobacco products.

Most brands of e-cigarettes on the market contain high amounts of nicotine, typically more than found in regular cigarettes. E-cigs or vaping liquids also contain formaldehyde, which is a chemical used in some building materials, as well as in the process of embalming dead bodies. Formaldehyde is a known cancer-causing agent, and repeated exposure to it can result in precancerous changes in the lining of the mouth that can be the beginning stages of oral cancer. And the various flavorings used to make e-Cigarettes taste pleasant can also contain cancer-causing compounds, as well as lung irritants.

HPV and Oral Cancer

Human papilloma virus (HPV) is a group of more than 150 types of viruses. They are called papilloma viruses because some of them cause a type of growth called a papilloma. Papillomas are not cancers, and are more commonly called warts. Infection with certain types of HPV can also cause some forms of cancer, including cancers of the penis, cervix, vulva, vagina, anus, and throat. Other types of HPV cause warts in different parts of the body.

HPV can be passed from one person to another during skin-to-skin contact. One way HPV is spread is through sex, including vaginal and anal intercourse and even oral sex.

Most people with HPV infections of the mouth and throat have no symptoms, and only a small percentage develop oropharyngeal cancer. Oral HPV infection is more common in men than in women. The risk increases with the number of sexual partners a person has, and smoking also increases the risk of oral HPV infection.

At this time the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has not approved a test for HPV infection of the mouth and throat. Cancers of the oral cavity and oropharynx usually take many years to develop; most patients with these cancers are older than 55 when the cancers are first found. But this is changing as HPV-linked cancers become more common. People with cancers linked to HPV infection tend to be younger.

There’s no proven way to prevent mouth cancer. However, we can reduce our risk of mouth cancer if we avoid or limit tobacco products, consume alcohol moderately, avoid excessive exposure to the sun (when outdoors, use sunscreen and lip balms with UV protection), eat a wide variety of fruit and vegetables, and visit the dentist regularly!

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!