The Social and Emotional Benefits of Physical Activity

By Guest Blogger Kayla Mantegazza, WellMASS Program Coordinator

A few weeks ago, I visited the Department of Public Health’s Hinton State Laboratory in Jamaica Plain to participate in a Boot Camp fitness class organized by the State Lab’s Wellness Champion, Jacki Dooley.  Thanks to Jacki’s efforts, State Lab employees have the opportunity to participate in group fitness classes during their lunch breaks, which gives them an opportunity to step away from their desks and make time in their busy schedules for physical activity.  I was lucky enough to have chosen a sunny, mild day to channel my inner G.I Jane, so we were able to move the class outside and enjoy the beautiful weather.  The format of the class was very personalized and laid back.  Participants were encouraged to perform exercises at their own pace, make modifications if necessary, and take frequent water breaks.  The instructor of the class, Remy Isdaner from Soma Wellness, led us through bodyweight circuits for all of the major muscle groups such as jumping jacks, push-ups, sit-ups, planks, and yoga poses for stretching and balance.  We also jogged a lap around the parking lot between each circuit to keep our heart rates elevated.

Aside from getting a great workout in a comfortable setting where each of us received individualized attention, my favorite part of the Boot Camp class was the camaraderie between employees.  Everyone in attendance was encouraging and supportive of one another, and several people even asked about participants who were absent from that week’s class to make sure they were okay.  For fitness novices who feel intimidated by the concept of group exercise classes because they are nervous about keeping up with their peers, this class proved the contrary.  The group setting provided us with more social support and reinforcement than we would have gotten by exercising by ourselves (or not at all!), which benefitted both our physical and mental wellbeing.

Speaking of mental wellbeing, the mental health benefits of physical activity are often overlooked.  For those of us who shed a tear at the sight of a treadmill, exercise may sound more stress-inducing than stress-reducing.  However, aerobic exercise has been shown to improve blood circulation to the brain, which may help decrease anxiety and depression.   Exercise also triggers the release of endorphins, which improve mood and in turn reduce the likelihood of turning to food for comfort.  Studies show that aerobic exercise also improves quality of sleep,  and that people who exercise are less likely to feel daytime sleepiness and more likely to report an increase in vitality.  Increased mental sharpness during periods of stress is especially valuable in the workplace.

As if those benefits weren’t enticing enough to get you out of your seat, physical activity provides an outlet for social interaction and support.  Whether you join a group fitness class or simply recruit a friend to take a walk around your building during lunch, being physically active in a community setting presents opportunities to meet people with common interests who can hold you accountable for sticking to your routine.  Being able to take a mental break from your work day to exercise with co-workers also fosters a cooperative, positive, and team-oriented work environment.  Therefore, physical activity isn’t just beneficial to the mental health of the participant, but to the overall climate of the workplace as well.

If you would like to learn more about the Boot Camp class at the State Lab or you would like some suggestions on how to set up group fitness classes at your agency, send me an email at kayla.mantegazza@state.ma.us.

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Dates

We’ve been holding Take Your Health Questionnaire Days at agencies all across the state for the past month and a half.  Employees who take their HQ on the designated day at their agency get the opportunity to make their own healthy trail mix using the dozen or so dried fruits, nuts, seeds, and other ingredients we provide.  At almost every agency, the most popular ingredient at the trail mix bar has happened to be dates.  Why?  Dates are naturally sweet and look – and taste – like candy.  They seem like an indulgence but are actually highly nutritious.  Dates are high in both soluble and insoluble fiber and are a good source of potassium and B vitamins.  However, dates are also higher in sugar than many other fruits, so they’re best enjoyed in moderation – or as a substitute for a much less nutritious sweet treat. In honor of Halloween, here’s a “healthy” candy recipe featuring dates.

Chocolate Chip Oatmeal Date Balls

Ingredients
1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
½ cup pitted dates
¼ cup natural almond or peanut butter
3 tablespoons honey or maple syrup
½ cup crispy rice cereal
2-4 tablespoons mini chocolate chips

Instructions

1.  Put oats into a food processor or blender and process until they reach a fine floury consistency.
2.  Add dates, nut butter, and honey or maple syrup and continue processing until fully combined.
3.  When dough begins to form and stick together, add crispy rice cereal and chocolate chips, pulsing a few times to ensure that they distribute evenly without breaking apart completely.
4.  Using a tablespoon, scoop out balls of dough and roll them between your hands to neatly shape them.
5.  Store balls in an airtight container, either at room temperature or in the fridge. Makes 12 balls.

Recipe adapted from Running with Spoons

Cholesterol – Knowing Your Numbers

We’ve all heard that having too much cholesterol can be a bad thing – it creates fatty plaques in our arteries and can lead to heart disease, a heart attack, or a stroke.  However, we actually need cholesterol in small amounts (it’s responsible for producing the cells in our body, as well as the hormones estrogen and testosterone, bile acids, and Vitamin D), and not all cholesterol is considered “bad.”  When it comes to your cholesterol, you need to consider not just your total cholesterol levels, but your levels of each different type of cholesterol, most notably:

 

  • LDL (low-density lipoprotein, or “bad” cholesterol). LDL clings to the walls of your arteries, which leads to a buildup of the fatty plaques that can contribute to heart disease.
  • HDL (high-density lipoprotein, or “good” cholesterol). HDL protects you against this fatty plaque buildup by acting as a broom and sweeping the LDL from your arteries.  HDL also helps protect you against heart disease and stroke in other ways:  it’s anti-inflammatory, anti-thrombotic (meaning it protects against blood clots), and has antioxidant properties.

 

In the past, doctors focused mainly on total cholesterol levels, but new research is showing that LDL and HDL levels are actually a better indicator of heart disease/stroke risk.  Low LDL and high HDL levels are desirable:

 

Total Cholesterol

Less than 200 mg/dL                                       Desirable
200 – 239 mg/dL                                               Borderline High
240 mg/dL or higher                                        High

 

LDL

Less than 130 mg/dL                                       Desirable
130-159 mg/dL                                                  Borderline High
160 mg/dL or higher                                        High

 

HDL

Less than 40 mg/dL                                         Low (Undesirable)
Greater than 60 mg/dL                                  High (Desirable)

 

If any of your numbers are not within the desired range, your doctor will work with you to get them where they need to be by making certain dietary and lifestyle changes.  He or she may also run additional tests to help better determine your risk for heart disease or stroke.  Cholesterol levels alone don’t paint the entire picture, but they can help you understand your risk – and spur you to make positive lifestyle changes to reduce that risk.

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Edamame

The first time I had edamame, I didn’t know what to think of it.  It looks like a vegetable but is actually a legume – more specifically, a soybean.  Like other soy products, edamame is an excellent source of high-quality protein.  It’s also low in calories and high in fiber, potassium, magnesium, and iron, which means it’s both healthy and filling.  Edamame is sold both in the pod and shelled; while the pods are fun to pop open, make sure you don’t eat them, as they may leave you with an upset stomach.  Since it’s what’s inside the pods that really matters, here are a few ways to incorporate edamame into your next snack or meal.

Spiced Edamame

Ingredients
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon chili powder
¼ teaspoon red pepper flakes
½ teaspoon dried oregano
1 (1-pound) bag frozen edamame, in the pod

Instructions

1.  Heat the salt, chili powder, and pepper flakes in a small dry skillet over medium heat, stirring until hot and aromatic, about 3 minutes.
2. Remove from the heat and crumble in the oregano.
3.  Boil the edamame pods in water until tender, about 8 minutes. Drain in a colander and pat dry.
4. Toss the edamame pods with the chili-salt and serve warm.

Recipe adapted from Food Network 

 

Edamame Succotash with Shrimp

 Ingredients
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 bunch scallions, sliced, or 1 medium onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1½ teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
1 10-ounce package frozen shelled edamame, thawed
1 10-ounce package frozen corn, (about 2 cups), thawed
½ cup reduced-sodium chicken broth or vegetable broth
1 tablespoon cider vinegar
¼ teaspoon salt
1 pound raw shrimp, (26-30 per pound), peeled and deveined
¼ teaspoon lemon pepper

Instructions

1.  Add oil to a large nonstick skillet.  Add scallions (or onion), bell pepper, garlic and thyme and cook, stirring, until softened, about 3 minutes.
2.  Stir in edamame, corn, broth, vinegar and salt. Bring to a simmer; reduce heat to medium-low and cook for 5 minutes.
3.  Meanwhile, sprinkle shrimp on both sides with lemon pepper.
4.  Scatter the shrimp on top of the vegetables, cover and cook until the shrimp are cooked through, about 5 minutes.

Recipe adapted from EatingWell

Could Your Weight Gain Be Stress-Related?

Have you ever thought about the foods you eat when you’re stressed?  There’s a good chance your eating habits are different when you’re under stress as opposed to when you’re relaxed and calm.  If you notice that stress triggers cravings for comfort foods that are high in sugar, salt, or fat, you’re not alone – and there is science to back up why you eat the foods you do.

Stress causes an increase in the production of cortisol, also known as “the stress hormone.”  Cortisol sends signals to our brains that tell us we need three types of foods in order to feel better:  foods that contain sugar, foods that contain salt, and foods that contain fat – in other words, junk foods.  These cravings are hard to resist, and oftentimes we easily give into them in the hopes of reducing our stress levels, or at least feeling better temporarily.  If you’re constantly under stress, you may notice that your eating habits are not the only aspect of your life that’s changing – these new, unhealthy food choices, along with other cortisol-induced mechanisms that are beyond your control, can lead to unwanted weight gain.

It goes without saying that eating too much junk food that’s high in (empty) calories can cause you to gain weight.  It’s rare to see someone eat healthier when their stress levels are high, so many people under constant stress gain weight due to their poor eating habits alone.  However, even if you’re able to control your cravings under stress, the excess cortisol in your bloodstream may still cause you to gain (or have a hard time losing) weight.  Cortisol has been shown to slow metabolism, so even if you’re eating the same things you were before you were stressed, thanks to cortisol, you won’t be burning calories as efficiently as you used to.  You may be surprised if you gain weight without changing your eating habits, but you can probably blame stress, and cortisol, for the unwanted extra pounds.

Cortisol is a sneaky hormone – not only does it change our metabolism, but it changes where excess fat and weight are accumulated.  Studies show that cortisol leads to an increase in abdominal fat by diverting any extra pounds we gain to our midsections.  Abdominal fat is bad news – having excess weight around your waistline puts you more at risk for developing heart disease and Type 2 Diabetes, regardless of how much you weigh.  Women with a waist size greater than 35 inches, and men with a waist size greater than 40 inches are considered “high risk;” having too much stress in your life may make it difficult to meet these cutoffs.

So can you do anything to prevent stress-related weight gain?  Yes you can, by practicing healthy diet and exercise habits.  You can still give into your stress-related food cravings in a healthy way by choosing natural sources of sugar (low-fat dairy, fruits, veggies); eating salty foods in small quantities; and sticking to heart-healthy unsaturated fats (avocados, most nuts, peanut butter, oily fish).  You can help speed up your metabolism by exercising regularly.  Although exercise may seem like the last thing on your mind when you’re under stress, it’s one of the best things you can do for yourself.  Exercising for as little as ten minutes of a time (walking counts!) helps your body produce endorphins, feel-good hormones that directly counteract the effects of cortisol.  Exercise also burns calories, so the more you move, the better.

Stress in life may be inevitable, but stress-related weight gain doesn’t have to be!

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Red Grapes

Grapes come in many different colors, each having a different set of nutritional characteristics.  I love black grapes, but they can be hard to find, so I’m going to focus on a much more readily-available variety:  the red grape.  Red grapes are antioxidant powerhouses; they contain powerful polyphenols like flavonoids and resveratrol, the latter of which has been linked to heart health.  Red grapes are also high in Vitamin C (a known antioxidant) and Vitamin K (which is thought to have antioxidant properties, although more research needs to be done in this area), making them a tasty choice for all-around health!

Farro Salad with Oven-Roasted Grapes

Ingredients
3 cups seedless red grapes (about 1 pound), halved crosswise
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
¼ cup 100% Concord grape juice
8 ounces uncooked farro (about 1 ½ cups)
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped fresh rosemary
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
2 small red onions, sliced into ½ inch-thick rounds
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar or red-wine vinegar
4 cups mixed small greens such as baby kale, baby Swiss chard, and baby spinach

Instructions

1.  Preheat oven to 250 degrees.
2.  Arrange red grapes in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake until grapes have shrunk to about half their size but are still juicy, about 1 hour 30 minutes. Let cool.
3.  Meanwhile, combine farro and 1 tablespoon rosemary in a medium saucepan; cover with water by 1 inch. Bring to a simmer, and cook until tender, about 25 minutes. Drain, and transfer to a bowl.
4.  Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Cook onions and remaining tablespoon rosemary for 2 minutes.
5.  Reduce heat to medium, and cook until onions are golden brown, about 2 minutes more.
6.  Add 1 tablespoon oil. Cook, flipping onions, flipping until they are tender and browned on both sides, 8 to 10 minutes more.
7.  Remove from heat. Stir in vinegar and remaining 2 tablespoons oil. Pour mixture over farro; toss. Season with some pepper. Stir in red grapes. Let stand for 20 minutes.
8.  Gently stir in greens and drizzle with Concord grape juice just before serving.

 

Recipe adapted from Martha Stewart 

Be SMART and Enroll in Health Coaching

One of the perks of taking your WellMASS Health Questionnaire is that your results may qualify you for FREE telephonic or mail-based health coaching.  If your HQ results show that you are high-risk in at least one wellness category, you will be invited to opt into a personalized coaching program.

In order to determine if you are eligible for coaching, after completing your Questionnaire, click on the Programs tab and click the Health Coaching box to see the list of programs you can choose.  Health Coaching programs are available for eight different topics:

  • Back care
  • Blood pressure
  • Cholesterol
  • Exercise
  • Nutrition
  • Smoking
  • Stress
  • Weight Management

Once you’ve chosen the program in which you’d like to enroll, click the Let’s Go! button next to that program or call the StayWell Helpline at 1-800-926-5455.  If you select a mail-based coaching program, information on your topic of choice will be sent to your home address.  If you’d like a more personalized approach, you can choose to enroll in telephonic coaching, where you’ll be able to specify the days and times that work best to talk to a coach.  Your coach will call you on a regular basis to help you develop an action plan to meet your wellness goals and check in to see how you’re progressing.

One of the key areas on which your coach will ask you to focus is goal-setting.  In order to have the greatest chance of achieving your goals, no matter what they are, you will need to come up with a SMART plan to which you can hold yourself accountable.  If you’re interested in participating in health coaching, or you’re about to begin a coaching program, it’s never too early to start thinking about your goals in SMART terms.  Creating a smart goal or plan is easy!  You’ll want to make your goal:

Specific
Measurable
Action-Oriented
Realistic
Time-Restrained

Your health coach will help you begin your journey toward setting and achieving SMART goals.  If one of your general goals is to improve your overall health and well-being, don’t delay – take your Health Questionnaire and see if you qualify for health coaching!

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Swiss Chard

Swiss chard is a cool-looking vegetable.  It has full green leaves and its stalks can be red, white, green, or yellow (I like the red ones the best).  Looks aren’t everything with this veggie, however, as it’s also a nutritional powerhouse.  Like other green, leafy vegetables, Swiss chard is extremely high in Vitamin K (one cup chopped contains over 300% of the Recommended Daily Allowance!).  It’s also an excellent source of Vitamins A and C and high in iron, potassium, magnesium, and dietary fiber.  It takes a little bit of work to prep Swiss chard (you’ll need to separate the leaves from the stems and center ribs), but the results are certainly worth it, both taste- and nutrition-wise.

Garlicky Swiss Chard

Ingredients
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon olive oil
6 garlic cloves, minced
2 pounds Swiss chard, stems sliced crosswise ¼-inch thick, leaves sliced into ½-inch-wide strips
Black pepper, to taste
⅛ teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar

Instructions
1.  Heat 2 tablespoons oil and garlic in Dutch oven over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until garlic is lightly golden, about 3 minutes.
2. Stir in chard and pepper flakes. Increase heat to high and cook, covered, stirring occasionally, until chard is wilted but still bright green, 2 to 4 minutes.
3.  Uncover and continue to cook, stirring frequently, until liquid evaporates, 4 to 6 minutes.
4. Add vinegar and remaining 1 teaspoon oil and toss to combine. Season with pepper to taste.

Recipe from Cooks Country

Strategies for Managing Lactose Intolerance

Lactose intolerance, or the inability to properly digest lactose, the sugar found in milk and other dairy products, is a common ailment that becomes even more common as we age.  As we get older, our bodies produce less and less lactase, the enzyme needed to digest lactose.  People of certain ethnicities (African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans) and with other digestive conditions (Crohn’s disease, Celiac disease) are also at an increased risk of developing lactose intolerance.

For people with lactose intolerance, consuming dairy products can be uncomfortable, but not life-threatening.  The most common symptoms of lactose intolerance are bloating, gas, and an upset stomach after consuming dairy.  The good news is that these symptoms are temporary, and, unlike in some other gastrointestinal disorders, no structural damage to the digestive tract occurs.  Although lactose intolerance can be managed by avoiding dairy products altogether, this probably isn’t the best strategy, as dairy is an excellent source of calcium, potassium, and other essential nutrients.  A more nutritious way to manage lactose intolerance doesn’t involve cutting out dairy at all; rather, it requires a little bit of record-keeping and planning to incorporate dairy products into your diet with minimal disturbance to your digestive tract by:

  • Identifying your triggers. Trigger foods vary from person-to-person.  Some people will experience symptoms when consuming cheese, others when drinking a glass of milk.  Keep a food and symptom journal so you can identify which dairy products give you the most discomfort.  Many people with lactose intolerance are able to identify a few foods that give them symptoms, and a few that they can consume without any problems.
  • Choosing easier-to-digest dairy products. Hard cheeses and milk from animals other than cows (goats, sheep) tend to contain less lactose.  Yogurt contains probiotics, which help improve digestion.
  • Eating smaller portions. Many people with lactose intolerance are able to consume small portions of dairy (a sprinkle of cheese, 4 ounces of lowfat milk) without any symptoms.
  • Combining dairy with other foods. Dairy tends to be digested easier if it’s consumed alongside other foods.  Cereal with milk or a yogurt parfait with granola and fruit are good options to try.
  • Buying “lactose-free” foods. Lactose-free products, like milk, aren’t really lactose-free; they contain the addition of the enzyme lactase to help digestion.  This means that “lactose-free” milk has all the same nutrients as regular cow’s milk, but those who are lactose intolerant are able to digest it, thanks to the addition of lactase.
  • Taking lactase enzymes. Lactase, commonly sold under the brand name Lactaid, is commercially available in tablets you can chew or swallow.  Most people with lactose intolerance are able to consume dairy products when they take one or two Lactaid pills with their first bite or swallow of dairy.  The lactase in the tablets instantly helps with digestion.

These strategies prove that it’s possible to enjoy dairy and all its nutritional benefits even if you suffer from lactose intolerance.  If you choose to go dairy-free, however, pay attention to your calcium intake, and look for lower-calorie milk alternatives.  Soymilk contains the closest nutrient profile to cow’s milk, so it can be a close substitute for the real thing.  When choosing a soy or other non-dairy milk, make sure you buy the unsweetened variety, as anything else is going to be high in added sugar.


 

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Tofu

Lately I’ve noticed that whenever I talk about cooking with tofu, I’m usually met with a look of disgust.  Tofu has unfairly gained a bad reputation in certain circles for one of a number of reasons – it’s slimy, it doesn’t taste like anything, it seems too healthy to taste good – the list goes on.  I wanted to feature tofu as a Healthy Ingredient of the Week to dispel those myths and hopefully convince you to include tofu in one of your next meals or snacks.

Tofu is made from soybeans, which means it’s high in protein (and a complete source of protein, too!).  It’s also low in calories and high in calcium and iron, making it a much healthier substitute for meat in many stir-fried or baked meals.  The nice thing about tofu is that it takes on the flavor of whatever it’s cooked with, so you have plenty of room for creative seasoning.  Tofu is versatile in other ways, too, since it comes in several different textural varieties.  Silken, or soft, tofu is perfect for incorporating into smoothies for an instant protein boost, while firm tofu works well for stir-frying.  I challenge you to think outside the box and give tofu a try – you may be surprised by how easy it is to use and how much you actually like it.

 

Sweet and Sour Chili Tofu

 Ingredients
2 tablespoons peanut oil
1 14-16 ounce package firm tofu, cut into slabs
2 tablespoons rice wine vinegar
1 tablespoon tomato paste
¼ cup low-sodium soy sauce
1 tablespoon brown sugar
½ tablespoon garlic powder
½ tablespoon powdered ginger
1 tablespoon red pepper flakes
Black pepper, to taste


Instructions

1. In a large bowl, combine all ingredients except oil and tofu. Soak the tofu in the mixture and place on plate.

2.  In a large pan over high heat, place the oil and fry the tofu evenly on each side. Serve with brown rice and veggies.
Recipe from Nasoya

 

Strawberry-Banana Smoothie

Ingredients
¾ cup almond milk
½ cup silken tofu
½ medium banana preferably frozen, sliced into rounds
½ cup strawberries, frozen

Instructions

1.  Combine all ingredients in a blender, and blend until smooth and frothy.

Recipe adapted from Joy Bauer 

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