Monthly Archives: July, 2012

The Best Diets Are Not Actually Diets

As I begin Lunch ‘n Learns on weight management, I am reminded of a question I have already been asked several times:  Which diet is the best?  Although there is no clear-cut answer to this question, as each person has differing needs and may have to try several different programs before finding the one that works best for them, I would not hesitate to say that the best “diets” out there are actually not diets at all.  By this I mean that these “diets” are more lifestyles than anything else, and they teach lifelong eating habits that can be continued even after weight loss has been achieved. 

U.S. News & World Report recently analyzed 25 different diets and ranked them according to several factors:  nutrition, safety, how easy they are to follow, and effectiveness in weight loss and prevention of diabetes and heart disease. Many of the top diets all fit the criteria listed above, in that they emphasize healthy eating habits more than counting calories and quick weight loss.  If you are looking to successfully lose weight and keep it off, you might want to give one of the following eating plans a try:

  • DASH Diet:  Although this diet was designed to combat high blood pressure (DASH stands for Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension), its emphasis on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other unprocessed foods earned it the top spot on the list.  Since processed foods usually contain more sodium (and fat, sugar, or calories) than we should be eating, it makes sense to stick to whole foods that are as unprocessed as possible.  These foods are also often more satisfying, so you’ll need to eat less of them to feel full, which will in turn save you calories.
  • TLC Diet:  The TLC, or Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes, Diet was created by the National Institutes of Health with the aim of helping to lower cholesterol.  The key to this diet is cutting back on fat, especially saturated fat, which can raise cholesterol levels and, by extension, raise one’s risk of heart disease.  Since all fat is high in calories, it makes sense to cut back on your intake of fat in order to lose weight.  Including some fat in your diet, however, is a good idea, since fat helps us feel full and is essential to keeping our bodies working properly.  The TLC Diet also emphasizes increased fiber intake, as certain types of fiber may lower cholesterol level and help contribute to satiety and regularity, which are both important in weight loss.
  • Mediterranean Diet:  The Mediterranean Diet instructs us to eat like the locals – that is, the locals of Mediterranean countries like Italy and Greece, who generally live longer and suffer from fewer chronic illnesses than Americans do.  The Mediterranean Diet is rich in fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, fish, plant oils, nuts,  legumes, and overall fresh and unprocessed ingredients.  It also encourages regular physical activity and moderation when consuming red meat, sweets, and foods high in saturated fat.  In my opinion, this diet should be fairly easy to follow as it allows for the inclusion of a lot of tasty and satisfying foods.

If you have questions about any other diets or eating plans, send me an email, and I’ll include information in an upcoming post.  In the meantime, don’t get discouraged if you are struggling to lose weight, as it may take a while to find the eating plan that’s right for you.  Obviously, if you are considering losing weight, you should check with your doctor before starting any sort of diet.  But choosing a “diet” than more closely resembles a lifestyle – one that you can continue long after the pounds have come off – should make your journey to weight loss much easier.


Step It Up! is Coming

On September 4, WellMASS is launching an exciting new pedometer campaign called Step It Up! – a fun, six-week program designed to help you increase the number of steps you take each day. The goal of Step It Up! is to work toward 10,000 steps — or approximately five miles — most days of the week.  While five miles might seem like a lot, it’s important to remember that you take steps while doing everyday activities and routines, like walking to the car or subway, stopping by a co-worker’s desk to chat, and taking out the trash.  By being conscious of how many steps you take, you’ll be motivated to add more activity to your day by squeezing in extra steps whenever possible. 

Step It Up!  begins on August 20 at, and the program is open to employees of the Executive and Legislative branches and Constitutional Offices and early retirees and their spouses who are enrolled in a GIC health plan.  Step It Up!  will show participants how to:

  • Learn how to use a pedometer (all participants who register for the program will receive one for FREE)
  • Understand why aiming for 10,000 steps is important
  • Track steps and progress
  • Learn how to properly stretch before exercise
  • Discover proper walking technique
  • Gather tips to keep you motivated
  • Squeeze in extra steps whenever possible

 I’ll be providing tips on increasing physical activity, facts about the benefits of walking, and other related information in the weeks leading up to and during the campaign, so please check back often, and get ready to Step It Up!  in September!

Get Ready to Stretch and Smile!

Last Thursday, I had the pleasure of joining in on the Executive Office of Elder Affairs’ daily Stretch and Smile exercise program.  Since I was fully occupied with learning the exercises and making sure I performed them correctly, I asked ELD’s Wellness Champion Martina Jackson to describe the program:

“Every afternoon, at 3:00 p.m., Massachusetts Executive Office of Elder Affairs employees meet in a back corridor on the fifth floor of the McCormack Building near the freight elevators to spend fifteen minutes in a stretch and strengthen exercise routine.  Led by Emmett Schmarsow, Director of the Commonwealth’s Council on Aging program, the group, with a variable number of participants (sometimes as many as fifteen), has been exercising together for about eighteen months.  Ranging in age from mid-twenties to eighty-one, the Stretch and Smilers begin with three warm-up exercises to loosen arms, shoulders and hips and stretch and expand rib cage and lungs (up to five minutes).


Once warmed up and loosened, the participants jump into the (yoga) warrior pose, stretching arms, torso and legs, and then bringing the opposite arm forward and up; the arm that led now becomes the back arm.  We then reverse position (holding for about thirty seconds on each side).   Exercise five is the aerobic feature of the routine, involving raising left knee to right elbow and reversing, repeated, vigorously, fifty times or as many as people care to do. 


Having stretched, jumped and moved up and down, we cool off with a stationary “best foot forward,” (exercise six) approximating ballet’s “fifth position,” by reaching upward with the arm on the same side as the front foot.  We then reverse front foot and arm (holding each position for thirty seconds).

In exercise seven, we concentrate on downward stretches by standing with legs a shoulder-width apart and slowly bending from the waist flattening our spines as they bend forward, creating a “table”.   Stretching arms to the side, we touch left ankle with right hand and right ankle with left hand, trying to keep backs straight and parallel to the floor.  After five sets, keeping arms outstretched we straighten up slowly (using stomach muscles to pull up to normal standing position).

The eighth exercise, known as “The Larch,” is a combination of balance and stretch in which participants, using their left hand, grab and pull their left ankle up and behind, as close to their waist as they can, while reaching upward with the right arm (for a count of thirty seconds), then repeating by holding their right ankle with their right hand, with left arm “upstretched.”  Some prefer to do the exercise by simply thrusting one leg behind and stretching up with the opposite arm. 


Exercise nine involves more downward stretching as we bend down as far as possible, keeping legs straight, feet slightly apart, with the back relaxed and rounded.  Touching (or trying to touch ankles or toes), we hold the position for about 15-20 seconds and pull upright using stomach muscles.  Repeat the exercise five times.

Our finale combines stretching, strengthening and balance; as we stand with feet a shoulder’s width apart, we raise our arms and make five large slow circles first clockwise, keeping backs straight and bending knees as much as we can, then making five large counterclockwise circles. 


At the conclusion of this exercise we slap ourselves all over to stimulate circulation and nerve endings and applaud one another and our leader.”

Programs such as Stretch and Smile are great for several reasons:  They encourage employee camaraderie, provide a welcome break from what can sometimes be a long workday, strengthen muscles, and promote proper form and posture.  As someone who could admittedly work on that last item, I found myself standing and sitting up much straighter for the rest of the day (and feeling more energized as well!).  I’d like to thank Emmett, Martina, and the rest of the Stretch and Smile participants for welcoming me into their group and showing me the ropes.  They have extended the invitation to participate in their daily routine to anyone who is in the area and would like to join in.  Sessions are held at 3:00 daily near the 5th floor freight elevators in the McCormack Building.  I strongly encourage anyone who is interested to stop by for a session – who knows, you just might be inspired to start a similar program at your own agency!


Summer is Farmers Market Season

As I go throughout the Commonwealth giving Lunch ‘n Learn seminars on nutrition, one piece of information I mention in my presentation always seems to draw a lot of gasps – the recommendation to eat between 5-13 servings of fruits and vegetables each day.  While I admit that 13 servings seems a little high, aiming for a number in the middle of this recommendation is definitely do-able, especially if you include fruit with every meal and veggies with lunch and dinner.  It might seem much easier to get the daily recommended servings of produce during this time of year, as summer is one of the best times to eat fresh fruits and vegetables, for several reasons:

1.  There are so many varieties currently in season.  When you buy produce in season, it’s going to have a higher nutrient content (and a lower price!) than if you were to buy it out of season.  Fruits and veggies currently in season in our area include:  beets, blueberries, carrots, cucumbers, onions, peas, radishes, squash, strawberries, and zucchini.
2.  The summer heat can easily dehydrate us.  Many fruits and vegetables have a high water content, and can be a tastier treat than just drinking a glass of water to hydrate and cool down.  Watermelons, which come into season in early August, are 92% water!
3.  The summer heat makes it less tempting to turn on the stove or oven.  Instead of going out for meals, consider serving a no-cook meal containing lots of fruits and vegetables.  A cold salad with strips of zucchini and squash or a fruit salsa served with a grilled lean protein like chicken are easy ways to get in a serving of fruits and veggies without heating up the whole house in the process.
4.  As the title of this post alludes to, summer is Farmers Market season!  Cities and town all across Massachusetts are hosting weekly farmers markets – the Mass Farmers Markets website has a detailed listing of markets by city/town (click on the Find tab, then select Market), and with over 250 markets across the state, there is bound to be one near you.  Farmers Markets spotlight the freshest in-season produce from the region and are a good opportunity to discover and try a fruit or veggie you may have never seen or tasted before.  Who knows – you may just find a new favorite piece of produce to enjoy long after the summer is over!

EOPSS Steps It Up With Stairway Challenge


Climbing twenty flights of stairs may seem like a nightmare to some people, but several state employees proved that it was all in a day’s work when they completed the Executive Office of Public Safety and Security’s (EOPSS) Stairway Challenge.  Working with the WellMASS Program, EOPSS Wellness Champion Annette Powell designed a 10-week challenge that encouraged participants to start taking the stairs and walk up two additional flights each week, so that by the 10th week they were walking all the way up to the 21st floor of Boston’s McCormack Building!  Participants who followed the 10-week program were challenged to a group stairclimb on Friday, June 8th, and they were greeted with a certificate of completion, a water bottle, and some healthy snacks when they reached the “finish line” at the EOPSS offices on the 21st floor.  All participants said they would continue taking the stairs every chance they got, and were appreciative of the encouragement and support the program provided. 

As the EOPSS Stairway Challenge participants proved by incorporating stairclimbing into their daily routine, it’s not difficult to add regular physical activity into the workday.  Starting September 4, WellMASS participants will have the ability to join a state-wide pedometer campaign focused on adding more steps to their day.  Step It Up! will allow participants to track their daily steps online, create and join teams to compete against other state employees and agencies, discover creative ways to add activity to their day, and maybe even win some prizes along the way!  Be sure to visit starting on August 20 for more information on this exciting opportunity.

All About WellMASS!

Welcome!  I’m very happy to be making my first post on the Group Insurance Commission’s WellMASS pilot wellness program blog.  Please check back frequently for information on key dates and events, including the beginning and end of campaigns, challenges, and incentives;  frequently asked questions/concerns about the program; pictures and stories from agency challenges and events; success stories from participants;  and information on a variety of wellness topics.  

For those of you unfamiliar with the program, WellMASS  launched on March 1, 2012 with the goal of providing state employees and early retirees an opportunity to improve their health through several tools:  a Health Assessment; online resources; health coaching by phone, mail, or online; and Lunch ‘n Learn seminars and other on-site programming.  The Health Assessment and other online resources can be accessed at

Since WellMASS launched, I have received several recurring questions from participants.  Below are some of these “Frequently Asked Questions,” and their answers:

Q.  Am I eligible for the WellMASS pilot wellness program?
A.  Currently,the online portion of the WellMASS Pilot Program is open to active state employees working in the Executive Branch, Constitutional Offices, and the Legislature, and early retirees between the ages of 55-64 and their spouses.  To be eligible, you must be enrolled in a GIC health plan.  Employees of authorities, municipalities, higher education, and the Judicial Trial Court system are not eligible for the program at this time.  Depending on the outcome of this pilot, and the availability of funding, we hope to extend the program next year.

Q.  If I am not currently eligible for the online portion of the program, can I still attend Lunch ‘n Learns?
A.  Yes!   All state employees are welcome and encouraged to attend the Lunch ‘n Learns and other onsite programming.  Lunch ‘n Learn Schedule.

Q.  I tried to register at and was told that my information was not recognized.  Why did this happen?
A.  There are several reasons why this may have occurred: 

1.  You are a contractor.  Contractors are currently not eligible for the online portion of WellMASS.
2.  You get your insurance as a dependent of someone else, who does not work for the state.  Employees must get their health insurance through the GIC in order to qualify.
3.  You are a state employee in one of the eligible agencies but you get your GIC coverage as a dependent of someone else.  You DO qualify if this is the case, but are not currently in the system.  In order to be able to access the website, you will need to email with your name, agency, and home address.  We update the list of eligible employees on the second Tuesday of every month.
4.  You are a new employee.  If you just started, you will be added to the system the second Tuesday of the month after you are enrolled in your GIC health benefits.

Q.  I am concerned about entering personal information into the Health Assessment.  Is this information shared with the GIC, my health plan, or anyone else?
A.  NO!  The information you enter into your Health Assessment is confidential and will not be shared with anyone.  Neither the GIC nor your health plan will be able to see the information you entered or your HA results.  Your answers will not affect your premium or health insurance coverage. 

Q.  I do not have the biometric information requested on the last page of the Health Assessment.  What should I do?
A.  You have several options:  You can either save your HA and come back later, once you have obtained these results from your doctor’s office, or just enter your height and weight and hit “Submit.”  Height and weight are the only data needed to complete your HA; your results will not be as detailed without all of the requested biometric information, but you will still be able to submit your HA and receive personalized results.

If you have any other questions or concerns you would like answered in this blog, please email me at  I also welcome and appreciate any other feedback about the blog or the WellMASS pilot wellness program.