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Getting Healthy in a Hurry

Welcome to Part Two of our Getting Healthy in a Hurry series! Last month I wrote about different ways to get our grub on, healthy style—even during our most hectic days. This time around I want to talk about a couple of other facets of healthy living: exercise and relaxation. Having jam-packed schedules or too many tasks on our to-do lists can lead to unhealthy living habits right at the times our bodies need us to take the best possible care of ourselves. In addition to affecting our eating and food choices, stress can also negatively affect our health in other ways.

Stress in the U.S.A.
In November of 2010 the American Psychological Association reported that 3 out of every 4 U.S. adults reported feeling stressed. Twenty-five percent of adults reported feeling extremely stressed.

“America is at a critical crossroads when it comes to stress and our health,” says psychologist Norman B. Anderson, PhD, APA’s chief executive officer and executive vice president. “Year after year, nearly three-quarters of Americans say they experience stress at levels that exceed what they define as healthy, putting themselves at risk for developing chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes and depression. Stress is hurting our physical and emotional health and contributing to some of the leading causes of death in this country.”

Results from the survey also showed that kids are affected by parents’ stress. When parents frequently seemed stressed out, children were more than seven times more likely to report feeling stressed themselves. Some of the physical symptoms of stress include sleep problems, headaches, and binge eating. Stress can also wreak havoc in our bodies at the cellular level. “New findings suggest a cellular mechanism for how chronic stress may cause premature onset of disease,” says Elissa S. Epel of the University of California at San Francisco. “Chronic stress appears to have the potential to shorten the life of cells, at least immune cells.”

Bad Stress vs. Good Stress
The APA study was looking to measure rates of “bad stress” among Americans. I want to clarify a common misconception about “stress.” Not all stress is bad. Stress is a natural part of life, and can motivate us to accomplish our goals and go the extra mile. However, mismanaged and overwhelming stress can be detrimental to our physical, mental and emotional well-being.

You say Tomato, I Say To-mah-to
Another mistaken belief is that we all experience stress in the same ways. This is not the case. Bioindividuality (the notion that everyone’s body is unique and different) also applies to the ways we feel stress. Stress is not the same for everyone. Not only do we all manifest stress in our bodies differently, but different situations evoke different levels of stress for each person. What is intense or upsetting to me may be a walk in the park for you. In the same way, what works to reduce my stress may not be effective for someone else. There is simply no universal way to manage stress—we each have to learn what works for our own unique body. Furthermore, the way we react and manage stress changes over the course of our lives. It’s important to pay attention to the signals our body is sending us, and continuously try new approaches to dealing with negative stress.

What to Do?
“People are saying they have difficulty implementing the changes they know will decrease their stress and improve their health. All of us, including themedical community, need to take stress seriously, since stress could easily become our next public-health crisis,” says Dr. Anderson.

So, what are we busy people supposed to do with all of the stress in our lives? This month we are passing along a few suggestions about how to max and relax your way into a healthier 2011.

Tips for Maxing and Relaxing
It is so important to take time to reduce your stress levels through relaxation and exercise, especially when we are all super busy. Fortunately, a little bit can go a long way toward life-long health and wellness. Here are a few suggestions to get you going!

Tip #1: Take Time for Yourself
This tip may seem counterintuitive: you’re super busy and now I’m recommending that you add something to your schedule? Ludicrous? Perhaps. Incredibly important? Absolutely. No matter how hectic life gets, carving out a little niche of time to do something that makes you feel better is vital. Even if it’s 15 minutes of reading your favorite book or listening to your favorite music, even a short amount of time doing something you enjoy can go a long way toward easing your stress levels and generating overall feelings of wellness.

Tip #2: Take a Walk
Don’t have time to make it to a gym? Take a walk instead! According to the Mayo Clinic, walking has been proven to reduce cortisol levels (a hormone produced by a body under stress) and increases good mood hormones such as serotonin and dopamine, similar to a “runner’s high.” Plus, according to the American Heart Association, walking comes with the lowest dropout rate of any form of exercise. Taking a short walk on your lunch break, or after dinner in the evening, can make a huge difference, as well as help stimulate blood flow and digestion.

Tip #3: Get Outside
Researchers at Washington University recently conducted a study on stress and nature. Theymeasured heart-rate recovery (an indicator of stress) among a group of volunteers performing somewhat stressful tasks in an office. They found that volunteers with a view overlooking a nature scene recovered from stressful situations much faster than their counterparts. Taking advantage of one of our area’s wonderful hiking, walking or biking trails is an excellent way to help manage stress while also maxing on some workout time!

Tip #4: Incorporate Physical Activity into Your Life... Gradually
The APA Stress report found that stress is linked to more health problems, including high blood pressure, high cholesterol, chronic pain, and being overweight. Stressed-out individuals are more likely to have been diagnosed with depression, anxiety disorders, or chronic pain. To address these health concerns, doctors and nurses have overwhelmingly prescribed more exercise and weight loss. Unfortunately, many people do not take this advice, with a lack of willpower cited as the most common thing standing in the way of good health.

I’m willing to bet that we’ve all heard about the importance of being physically active. So why is it so hard to follow through?
If anyone reading this is like me, when I decide I need to boost my daily allotment of exercise, I really boost it. I go to gym classes, start running again, try to do leg lifts while no one is looking at work. After about a month, I am totally burned out, and behind in all of the other things I shoved aside for my maniacal new workout schedule. Within another month, I’m doing next to nothing. It’s time to break the cycle.

As with changing eating habits, it’s important to make gradual lifestyle changes when it comes to physical activity. Though perhaps not as satisfying in the short term, making incremental shifts dramatically reduces the rates of burn outs and drop outs, and gives you time to figure out what forms of exercise work for you. Try making weekly or biweekly goals for yourself and your family. (Ex: Take one 15-minute walk as a family three times per week.) At the end of each week, assess what worked and what didn’t work, and build on those observations when setting your goals for the next week.

Tip #5: Find the Fitness that Works for You
Here I am, talking about bioindividuality again! Just as with, well, nearly everything else, each person reacts to different exercises in distinct ways. As you cultivate a wellness based fitness routine, make sure to listen to the kinds of movement your body craves. Different kinds of exercise give you different kinds of energy—find a balance. Exercise needs also change as we do, so experiment and find a routine you can nourish, adapt and grow over time.

Tip #6: Give Yourself a Pep Talk
Focus on doing things that help you feel better, rather than on the things weighing you down, especially when you’re feeling the most overwhelmed. Sometimes taking a moment when we are feeling the most stressed to remind ourselves of something that makes us feel contentment (a pet, kids, a favorite song, etc.) can help push our perspective back into alignment.

Tip #7: Take a Deep Breath
If you’re having a stressful day, taking a few seconds to do a deep breathing exercise can really help a lot. Pause for a moment and inhale deeply, hold for 10-30 seconds, and than release. Repeat as many times as you like. Deep breathing can slow our heart rate and relax our mind and body. Incorporating a calming essential oil, such as lavender, can increase this effect.

Tip #8: Stop and Smell the Oils
Aromatherapy can be wonderfully effective at combating stress levels, as well as adding some nifty scents into our lives. Aromatherapy is the practice of using volatile plant oils, including essential oils, for psychological and physical well-being. Different plant scents have different properties, some of which can be marvelously relaxing. The Co-op sells a variety of high quality essential oils, and the friendly faces in the Wellness department would be happy to help you find something that works for you!

Tip #9: Get a Massage
If you can afford them, massages are an excellent way to unlock deep-seated stress from the body by relaxing tense and strained muscles. If you don’t have the cash to pay for someone to give you a massage, try picking up some massage oil and giving it a try at home. Though I certainly don’t advise getting into any deep-tissue or more exotic techniques, there are plenty of light massage options that are perfectly safe to try at home, either by yourself or with a partner. Once again, our Wellness sections at the Co-op have a host of options for you to choose from.

Tip #10: Get Your Zzzzzzs
Getting enough sleep is crucial to managing stress, and to feeling our best overall. If your mind is spinning and keeping you up at night, try journaling about the things that are occupying your thoughts before you go to bed. Studies have found that when people journal about what makes them anxious and write down the things they’ll need to deal with the following day, they sleep better at night. Also, avoid drinking water too close to bedtime, so your deep, restful sleep won’t be interrupted. If you are still feeling wound up by bedtime, try some herbal chamomile tea, or perhaps a hot bath with lavender.

Tip #11: Kick the Caffeine
“Coffee is, essentially, an adrenaline delivery system that jolts the body’s central nervous system. In the short term, this jolting action wakes us up and gets us going. In the long term, the constant and unnatural stimulation of our nerves creates stress levels that damage the resilience of the immune system, which protects against disease. Americans drink 400 million cups of coffee per day, making the US the world’s largest coffee consumers.” -Joshua Rosenthal, Institute for Integrative Nutrition

My mom hated it when I brought this tip up—she is the most avid coffee drinker I know. Unfortunately, the caffeine in coffee can perpetuate our stress cycle, leaving us caught on a hamster wheel of stress and stimulation. Caffeine is a powerful drug, and should be given up gradually. Rather than go cold turkey, try crowding out coffee with water and other beverages. Try some green or white tea, both of which have lower caffeine levels than coffee as well as a host of antioxidants. Teas can be found right next to the coffee section at the Co-op, or in bulk in the Wellness department. Pero or Cafix are other coffee alternatives that can be used to wean a person off the real stuff.

Tip #12: Cut What You Can
Take a long hard look at the lists, schedules and priorities in your life. Which of these can be dealt with and taken off the list? Which of these really matter? Which can go away, to make time for you and your holistic wellness? Sometimes simplifying our lives can be the hardest, but most rewarding, stress reduction technique of all.

Cheers to all of us as we continue to work toward achieving greater wellness in this new year and new decade!

Fenske Holistic Healthcare Center