Today’s article is a bit more personal than usual because graduation is right around the corner, and I’ve been feeling very nostalgic. It’s a bittersweet time – Our son Matthew is graduating from high school – Class of 2015! – and with this time so close at hand it’s been impossible for me to avoid feeling a bit misty at times.
I became a mother somewhat later than most – well into my 30’s. Looking back, I don’t think my age really felt like much of an issue. I felt really good most of my pregnancy, I worked out, and went to yoga class into my eight month. I remember talking to my yoga teacher, planning to bring the baby in his carrier after he was born so “he could sleep while we had class.” Neither of us ever having had children, we were clueless as to how completely unrealistic that was. (I went back to yoga class 12 years later.)
I have not ever before or since experienced what I felt when Matthew was born. Suffice it to say that from that moment on, I was changed forever.
When I look back now, I realize I had two guiding principles throughout his growing up years that today I feel very grateful for.
- It goes so fast. From the time Matthew was very young, I heard this from friends and strangers alike. People would stop to visit and maybe fuss a bit over him, as we do with babies and small children, and it seems I heard that repeated, often wistfully, more times than I could count. I am so glad I paid attention, because I felt that what they spoke was true and so I became determined to be there as much as possible for everything I could. I am so glad I did. It went so fast.
- “If you bungle raising your children, I don’t think whatever else you do well matters very much.” – Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis I came upon this quote around the time Matthew was born. It rang true for me then and it rings true for me today. It was my call to action when it came to child-raising – whatever else I did, I wanted to be the best mother I could be for him. I wanted to be present in his life, and see to it that he had everything he needed to grow well. Most mothers I talk to are this way. Motherhood is initiation into that group of women who have in their lives that special person or persons that are more important than themselves, that they would pretty much be willing to do anything for. As a youngish mother once said to me, “You can’t remain self-absorbed and be a good mother.”
I’m fortunate that Matthew was raised in a loving home with two parents who made him a priority. My husband was, and is, a devoted father and has been a strong partner in our marriage and family. We’ve had a lot of fun over the years, leaving some great memories. We always travelled as a family, starting with a trip to Canada and New York when he was just two months old, and have been able to experience many wonderful countries and cultures together. I am so grateful to have had these times.
Mostly, though, I’m grateful for Matthew and who he has become – a kind, intelligent, responsible and honorable young man and, often, the funniest person I know. It’s been my gift to be his mom. So to Matthew, and the Class of 2015 – Congratulations and the best of everything always – Well done!
I’m big on bookmarking health and wellness websites and blogs I think I may want to refer to in the future. Every so often, I go through and delete whatever is no longer relevant for me for whatever reason. It occurred to me during one of these sessions that there are certain blogs I tend to refer to again and again, because the content is always fresh, relatable and valuable. Here are a few of my go-to sites:
This site does a great job of providing current information on trending topics from relationships, personal growth and spirituality to nutrition, fitness and body image. It’s got an eco-friendly section, a wealth of free videos on topics ranging from domestic violence to Crossfit to addiction. Alternative and traditional concepts offer something for everyone.
This site was created and is maintained by the students of Dr. William Dement. Dr. Dement is considered the world’s leading authority on the topic of sleep, and founded Stanford University’s Sleep Disorders Clinic and Research Center, the world’s first sleep disorders center. Anything and everything on how to be intentional about getting a good night’s sleep so that you can get out there and take on the world.
This site is sponsored by the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing. It’s the most comprehensive site I’ve come across to date on alternative medicine, complementary therapies, and natural healthcare remedies and practices. Some, such as massage and meditation, are pretty much mainstream these days. Others, such as cupping, moxibustion, and tui na, might not be familiar at all. Here’s the place to explore the unfamiliar.
This newer site is exactly what the name suggests – all about healthy living. What I like about it is the design – it’s eye-catching, yet clean and user-friendly. Great information and articles on everything from the usual (food and fitness) to goals and performance and beauty and style. I particularly like the section titled, “Effortless Good Looks Take Some Effort.” How true.
This site grew out of the book of the same name. The book sub-title is: Live Strong, Fit, and Sexy – Until You’re 80 and Beyond, which gives you an idea of the target audience, but it’s good advice at any age. It’s well-researched with up-to-date info on how to turn back our biological clock, and minimize many of the accepted difficulties of aging such as weakness and problems with balance, and remain functionally younger well into the golden years. Chris Crowley, one of the book’s authors, lends a companionable voice to the site as he did in the book.
Since I aspire to be minimalist someday, I included this site. Founder Courtney Carver describes it better than I could: “Be more with less is about simplifying your life and really living. Living with less creates time and space to discover what really matters. Through decluttering, and focusing on the best things instead of all the things, you can create a life with more savings and less debt, more health and less stress, more space and less stuff, and more joy with less obligation.” Like I said, I aspire to this. (I’m a work in progress, in case you’re wondering.) The site itself is lovely and peaceful. The FAQ’s on simple living are a good place to start.
Everyone feels a certain amount of stress from time to time. Stressful events or circumstances sooner or later impact everyone’s life. A certain amount of stress is normal, and can even be healthy. Having a deadline about getting a project or report done can spur you to completion. Stress in one form or another is a fact of life, but chronic stress can take a toll on our health. The good news is that our lifestyle choices have a lot to do with how much influence stress has on our daily life.
The American Psychological Association’s annual Stress in America (2015) survey provides data on the leading causes of stress in our society, and there’s both good news and not-so-good news. Since 2007, the year of the survey’s inception, stress levels have been trending downward overall, however, women, young adults and parents still report higher levels of stress. The survey also found that “Regardless of group, Americans continue to report stress at levels higher than what they believe is healthy, struggle to achieve their health and lifestyle goals, and manage stress in ineffective ways.”
By now the interconnection of mind/body/spirit is well established yet many people in Western culture still neglect their basic health needs – nutrition, exercise, and getting enough rest/sleep. It’s easy to skimp on sleep or grab a fast food lunch when we’re on the go, but neglecting our health impacts everything else in our lives – our families, our work, our enjoyment of life.
We all want satisfaction and fulfillment from life, but what really drives these things? Science has come up with some answers. What researchers have discovered over decades is this: Happiness is determined 50% by genetics, 40% by our behavior and choices, and only 10%(!) by our circumstances (i.e., marital status, income, etc.) That’s great news because it means we have a lot of control in influencing our wellbeing, including how we deal with stress.
Successful people know that they need to be in top physical shape to perform at their best. This includes both body and mind. A meditation practice provides proven benefits such as reduced stress, increased focus and clarity, enhanced levels of productivity and greater energy.
Many highly effective individuals and public personalities have a regular meditation practice that enables them to sustain their high levels of achievement and sense of wellbeing. Ray Dalio – the billionaire CEO and founder of Bridgewater Associates, the largest global hedge fund, has been a regular meditator for years and has said that meditation has played a role in every success he has had in life. Oprah meditates daily, as does Ariana Huffington, Russell Simmons, Jerry Steinfeld, and George Stephanopoulus, to name just a few. Far from being a passing trend, meditation is now mainstream, a part of daily life for many.
What other behaviors and choices can determine our reactions to stressors in our life?
- According to the APA survey, those of us who have others they can rely on for emotional support (family, friends or community) have lower stress levels than those without. The answer: Build relationships with trustworthy people you can count on (and who can count on you.) Nurture and make time for relationships with family and friends, and be open to new ones. If you’re dealing with a specific challenge such as a chronic illness, or a difficult family situation, consider finding a support group to meet others who are experiencing similar difficulties.
- Take a walk. The benefits of a regular exercise routine continue to pile up. Aerobic exercise reduces levels of the body’s stress hormones – adrenaline and cortisol. It also stimulates production of endorphins, chemicals in the brain that are the body’s natural painkillers and mood elevators. Release of endorphins promotes feelings of both mental and physical relaxation. Even a brisk 20 minute walk, jog or bike ride can take the edge off when you’re having a difficult day.
- Take a break. Walking away from a tough or challenging situation even for a short time can provide much needed breathing room, and enable you to return with a clear head and different perspective.
- Share a laugh. If you’ve ever been in the middle of a tense situation that suddenly turned comical, you’ve experienced the power of laughter as a stress reliever. It may not be a cure for everything that ails you, but there’s a reason for the old adage, “Laughter is the best medicine.”
- Help someone else. The APA study reports that, “when it comes to longevity, research suggests that providing social support to friends and family may be even more important than receiving it.” (Psychological Science 14(4), 320-327.)
If ongoing stress is impairing your ability to function, it may be necessary to consult with a licensed mental health professional. Such a person can help to identify and develop helpful strategies to manage the stress in your life more effectively.
Over the last several weeks, I’ve been talking about four elements of wellbeing: Sleep, Food, Mood and Exercise. I’ve also discussed how these four areas interact and support each other. Understanding these interactions can play a major role in being able to maintain changes in lifestyle habits over the long haul.
Changing habit patterns isn’t easy and maintaining those changes over time can be even trickier. Even with all the helpful information we have today, lifestyle-related illnesses are more widespread in modern culture than ever. Heart disease, stroke, obesity, Type II Diabetes – all are influenced by lifestyle factors. Unfortunately, despite our having choices in these matters, our best efforts at change are often met with limited success. We may lose the fifteen pounds, or start the exercise program, only to have our progress derailed and eventually fall by the wayside. We then find ourselves back at square one, feeling a little less confident in our ability to succeed in making the changes we desire.
One of the big benefits in looking at these areas of Sleep, Food, Mood and Exercise is that, because they do interact with and influence each other, it’s possible to leverage these interactions and move towards creating lasting change.
Let’s take sleep. We all know how we feel after a good night’s rest – we’re energized, focused, and our mood is uplifted. Losing sleep, on the other hand, can make us feel lethargic, less alert and irritable. Research is coming out all the time on the health and performance benefits that result from a good night’s sleep. But did you know that the amount of sleep you get can affect your appetite?
Insufficient sleep affects your body’s hunger hormones, ghrelin and leptin. Sleep deprivation increases the amount of ghrelin your body produces. The function of ghrelin is to signal your brain that you need to eat – it’s an appetite stimulant. The hormone leptin, however, suppresses appetite. When you don’t get enough sleep, leptin levels in the body drop, prompting feelings of hunger. With an increase in ghrelin and decreased leptin, controlling your appetite is that much harder.
Another area impacted by sleep is exercise. There’s a reason why elite athletes in training are in bed early! Research shows that athletic performance is improved by even one additional hour of sleep per night. Most of us aren’t going to make careers out of being competitive athletes but if one extra hour of sleep can make a difference at that level, it’s going to affect the rest of us, too. All bodies need sleep for rest, repair and optimum functioning.
Research is ongoing in this area, but the foods we eat also can affect our getting needed shut-eye. Most everyone knows that caffeine is a stimulant and things like coffee and soda should be avoided if sleep is an issue. Alcohol can also be problematic. Even a couple of drinks before bed can interfere with a normal sleep cycle. However, did you know that spicy and/or acidic foods can cause heartburn, in turn interfering with sound sleep?
Returning for a moment to exercise – studies have shown that exercise relieves stress, positively affecting your ability to get a good night of sound rest. Exercise also impacts mood. It’s well documented that exercise increases the biochemicals serotonin and dopamine, both of which contribute to feelings of wellbeing. Feelings of wellbeing, in turn, increase the likelihood of our making healthier choices.
By now you’re getting the picture of how these four areas interconnect with and support each other. Focusing on any one of these separately may work for a while, but it’s key to leverage these interactions in order to maintain lasting change over time. Not only will you set yourself up for success in maintaining those hard-won changes, you’ll feel, look and operate at your absolute best. Nice!
“We do not stop exercising because we grow old – we grow old because we stop exercising.” ~ Dr. Kenneth Cooper
By now we all know about the importance of exercise, and the benefits we get from regular physical activity. Adopting an exercise plan has been shown to improve outcomes in chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and coronary artery disease. Research proves that exercise plays a role in the treatment and prevention of more than 40 diseases, including obesity, osteoporosis, and depression. It increases energy levels, lowers blood pressure, improves muscle tone and strength, and keeps you looking fit. It also reduces stress and anxiety, improves sleep, and boosts self-esteem. Regular exercise may be as close to a Fountain of Youth as there is. Despite all this, statistics still show that the vast majority of people in the U.S. don’t meet the recommended guidelines for physical activity.
If an active lifestyle benefits the body and mind, a sedentary one does the opposite. Recent articles in Time, Forbes and The Huffington Post – among numerous others – have declared that “Sitting is the new smoking,” increasing the chances of developing cancer, heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
The case for exercise is hard to ignore. Add to that rising health care costs and an increasing emphasis on wellness and prevention, and the question becomes: Can we afford not to exercise? One of the main roadblocks to exercise for many people is finding the time to fit it in. People are busy – we work, we have families to take care of, and sometimes aging parents to tend to. We have numerous obligations both inside and outside the home. Yet some of us find the time to make exercise a part of our lives, while others don’t. What’s the difference? I believe part of the answer lies in our priorities. We make time for what is important to us. If you really want to make regular exercise a part of your life, you will find a way. Often, the hardest part is getting started. When you begin to incorporate exercise into your schedule, and give it a fair trial, exercise can and will become a habit.
How much is enough? If you are currently inactive, any increase in physical activity is good for you. The 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans recommends that healthy adults get a minimum of 2-1/2 hours per week of moderate-intensity aerobic activity, or a minimum of 1-1/4 hours per week of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity, or a combination of the two. You can break down the 2-1/2 hours over the course of a week however you like. For example, 2-1/2 hours of moderately intense activity over the course of a week could mean 30 minutes of brisk walking 5 days a week. It’s also recommended that adults do muscle-strengthening activities at least two days a week.
When it comes to exercise the most important thing you can do is this: Find a plan that works for you so that it becomes a part of your routine. Make that time non-negotiable.
If you tend to be more social, having a scheduled time to walk or workout with a friend or your spouse is a great idea. Schedule exercise into your weekly calendar, just as you would any other activity. (I’ve done this forever.) This way, you’ll have the time blocked out at the beginning of the week, so you know you have it.
I have a friend who walks 5-6 days a week for an hour. She kept a pair of walking shoes in her car and took advantage of breaks in her work day to fit in a walk between appointments. She’s still one of the fittest and most energetic people I know.
Deciding to take responsibility for your health and making exercise part of your life is a choice that you make. The philosopher, Wolfgang von Goethe, said, “We always have time if we will but use it aright.” Keep the big picture in mind: you, strong, fit and healthy – for life.
My last couple articles have dealt with the fundamentals of a healthy life: Sleep, Food, Mood and Exercise. Today I’m going to talk about mood – why it’s so important, and how it integrates into the mix.
Everyone has a bad day every now and then. Occasionally, we’ll experience a more prolonged period of difficulty and stress, such as long term illness, whether our own or that of a loved one. That’s just life. It’s usually easy to bounce back from a “bad day,” but what about those times of life that come along and challenge us all. That’s where our overall mindset – our attitude towards life and our circumstances – comes into play.
Whether we’re having “one of those days” or something more, our outlook on life plays a large part in how we feel, and how successful we are in meeting life’s challenges. And, increasingly, research shows that health and happiness really do go together – your good health supports your happiness and your happiness supports your health!
Research on happiness by positive psychologists, Martin Seligman and Sonja Lyubomirsky, among others, shows that happier people on the whole enjoy better health, live longer, have closer friendships, are more resourceful and productive and, generally, are more successful than their less contented counterparts. They are better leaders and negotiators, tend to make more money, and are more likely to get and stay married. Overall, happiness tends to lead to accruing more good in our lives in general.
Before you think you have to go around with a fake smile plastered on your face from here on, I want to point out the broader definition of happiness I am speaking about here. In this case, happiness = well-being. Well-being, as defined by Seligman in his book, Flourish, 2011, is comprised of five elements: positive emotion, engagement, meaning, relationships, and accomplishment, or PERMA for short. True well-being, according to Seligman, is achieved when a healthy balance in each of these areas is achieved.
Positive psychology has identified five core character strengths that most correlate to happiness. These are:
- Curiosity and interest in the world;
- Capacity to love and be loved;
- Zest, energy, and enthusiasm; and,
- Hope, enthusiasm, and future-mindedness.
Of these five, gratitude is the most malleable, meaning it can be influenced and increased. That’s why keeping a gratitude journal really does work! It increases your focus on the good things in your life and, by doing so, those things become amplified. As a result, you are naturally going to find yourself feeling more contented overall. And, if you don’t find yourself to be zesty and enthusiastic by nature, not to worry. Studies have shown that roughly 50% of our happiness is determined by genetics, 10% by our circumstances, and 40% by our behavior. That’s great news, because it means that much of our happiness is within our control and can be cultivated.
Psychologist and researcher Barbara Frederickson developed the “Broaden and Build Theory,” which states that our positive emotions, such as love and gratitude, are essential to our well-being. Positive emotions, according to Frederickson, promote strong relationships, increase resilience, and stimulate new ideas and possibilities. This has the effect of “broadening” one’s mind while at the same time allowing an individual to build their personal wellness resources – physically, mentally and emotionally.
So what’s the takeaway?
- Happiness and positivity are transforming.
- You have more control over your happiness than you may realize.
- People and relationships are important – nurture those you have with family, friends and community.
- Cultivating meaning and purpose is key to well-being.
- Count your blessings – be grateful for the good!
- Positive accomplishment is vital – have goals that matter to you.
I’ve been addressing the basics recently – Sleep, Food, Mood and Exercise – the fundamentals of a healthy lifestyle. Today, let’s talk about food – healthy nutrition and how good food habits impact optimal health and performance.
Food is a very popular topic nowadays. From vegan to gluten-free to Paleo to low-carb, there are a multitude of options to choose from. And lots of information out there as to why a particular one is the best for you.
I am personally not a proponent of any particular diet plan. Clients who wish to lose weight will often ask me to recommend one or the other, and I have to admit my reluctance to do so.
Why? Because research shows that around 95% of people who lose weight on a diet will regain it in 5 years. Being on a particular diet is, by definition, temporary. Following a prescribed diet in order to lose weight may help you to lose the weight in the short term, but often neglects teaching healthy eating habits over the long term. Losing weight without learning how to make different choices in eating is going to lead back to the same eating patterns that caused the weight gain to begin with. And you’re back at square one.
What I am a HUGE advocate of is eating a variety of healthy foods, in moderation. I’m also an advocate of finding what works for you, of having a plan of eating that helps you function at your best. If you find that you feel better on a gluten-free plan, then go with it. There has been a huge rise in the number of vegetarians in the United States which some individuals choose for health reasons, environmental concerns or animal rights. The USDA adopted the MyPlate icon in 2011 to encourage consumers to adopt a healthy style of eating, emphasizing fruits, vegetables, grains, protein and dairy. There are lots of options to choose from, and there are also general guidelines that seem to be applicable across the board. These include:
- Fruits and vegetables are mainstays of a healthy eating plan. A minimum of 5 servings a day is recommended. The more colorful, the better. Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables ensures a diet high in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants.
- Choosing unprocessed food in its most whole, natural state, without additives or preservatives is the way to go whenever possible. A great way to do this is to choose regionally or locally grown foods in season. Look for simple recipes that include a few fresh ingredients.
- Don’t forget about water. Don’t go through the day dehydrated. Water is vital to essential functions that rid our bodies of waste and toxins. Drinking water is also essential to the health of our skin, hair and nails. Not drinking enough can cause us to feel tiredness, lack of energy, and increased feelings of hunger. Staying hydrated throughout the day ensures that your body – and you – will operate at an optimal level.
- Choose high-quality protein. If you eat meat, do so occasionally and choose lean cuts; vary your protein intake with fish, chicken, or plant-based proteins such as nuts, beans or tofu. Choose low-fat milk and cheeses over whole.
- Healthy fats are vital for optimum brain and cell functioning, and include those found in olive and canola oils. Good food sources of healthy fats are avocadoes, certain nuts, and fatty fish such as salmon. Avoid saturated fats found in animal and dairy products, and trans fats found in processed and fried foods and chips.
Most nutrition experts can agree upon these ideas. The goal for healthy eating is to develop a way to eat that is sustainable over the long haul, not just until you lose the weight. Food is the fuel our bodies operate on, and we need a balance of nutrients. And, in the end, we should enjoy our food and how it makes us feel.