Monthly Archives: September, 2012

Managing Stress with Yoga

In recent weeks, I’ve given a few presentations on stress management, and have heard a lot of great suggestions from participants on techniques that they use to manage their stress.  One stress management practice that hasn’t yet been discussed at length, but should be, is yoga.  Yoga seems like an obvious choice for stress management as it combines physical and mental disciplines to reduce stress and anxiety by achieving a calm and peaceful body and mind.   Hatha yoga in particular is recommended for stress relief, as it moves at a slow pace and is easy to follow. 

When you’re under stress, your sympathetic nervous system (SNS) kicks into gear and your body goes into “fight or flight” mode.  Under normal, non-stressful conditions, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) is in charge.  It is involved in everyday “rest or digest” activities. When the SNS takes over, your body reacts  to the threat of either physical or psychological stress in the following ways:

  • heart rate increases
  • blood pressure increases
  • blood sugar increases
  • the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol are produced

These changes can have long-lasting effects (like an increased risk of heart disease; hypertension; or weight gain) if stress is left unchecked; fortunately, yoga practices such as slow breathing, asana (basically, posture control), guided imagery, and meditation stimulate mental relaxation and help the parasympathetic nervous system take back control.  In particular, controlled breathing as practiced in yoga can help calm the mind and body, or as a friend and devoted yoga practitioner puts it, “yoga teaches your body to deal with stress in a positive way…through breathing.”  At last week’s DMH “Celebrating the Whole You” event, yoga teacher Mary O’Toole led attendees in a yoga exercise that involved controlling breathing and movement in our whole body, one body part at a time.  This exercise took about 5 minutes and was done while we were sitting up in chairs, so it would be easy to replicate in almost any setting, including at the office.  Which means that yoga, a practice that some people often think of as being inaccessible, can actually be done anywhere and by almost anybody.  I encourage you to try to incorporate some of yoga’s practices and philosophies (deep, controlled breathing; mental relaxation) into your every day life in order to manage stress.  I know I am going to try to do so, and will be sharing my experiences at future Lunch ‘n Learns!


Should you go gluten-free?

As part of my weight management Lunch ‘n Learn seminars, I spotlight my personal list of the worst diets to follow. I get a lot of questions about fad diets, and I think it’s important to set the record straight as to why most of these diets are neither safe nor effective in promoting weight loss.  Several people have spoken to me about going gluten-free in order to lose weight, as they’ve heard that friends or celebrities have had success with this diet.  In reality, most doctors and nutritionists recommend against going gluten-free, unless it’s medically necessary to do so.

Gluten is a protein found in grains like wheat, barley, rye, and spelt.  It gives food made with these grains a unique texture, but for some people it can cause a serious reaction.  Celiac disease is an autoimmune disorder in which a person’s body negatively reacts to even a small amount of gluten, causing severe stomach upset, joint problems, depression, or even intestinal cancer.  The only treatment for celiac disease is complete elimination of all gluten-containing foods.  Gluten sensitivity is a less-serious problem in which the ingestion of gluten can cause digestive upset, but usually no lasting damage.  I liken this to lactose intolerance, in that eating gluten foods can be uncomfortable, but not dangerous to one’s health.  People with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity are really the only ones who need to avoid gluten products.

For the rest of us, going gluten-free is probably not going to have any major positive changes on our health, especially when it comes to weight loss.  In fact, many people on gluten-free diets often gain weight!  There are several reasons for this:  gluten-free foods are often higher in fat, sugar, and calories than their gluten-containing counterparts.  They are  usually made with refined carbohydrates, which cause unstable blood sugar levels that may lead to overeating.  In addition, it’s very easy for gluten-free diets to become too high in protein and fat (and, therefore, calories) due to the elimination of many major sources of carbohydrates. 

There are other, non-weight loss downsides to going gluten-free.  Gluten-free foods are often expensive, so a gluten-free diet can be very costly.  Also, many gluten-free products are lacking in the nutrients that are found in most gluten-containing foods, including B vitamins, vitamin D, calcium, iron, and magnesium, so it’s non uncommon for someone on a gluten-free diet to have several nutrient deficiencies.

The bottom line:  unless a gluten-free diet is carefully planned out, it’s very easy to consume more calories, and fewer key nutrients, neither of which are beneficial to weight loss or overall health.  Unless your doctor specifically tells you that you have celiac disease or a gluten sensitivity, you should probably consider a different strategy for losing weight.

Celebrate the Whole You during Wellness Week

As some of you may be aware, this week has been designated National Wellness Week by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).  To celebrate this week of encouraging “individuals, families, and communities across the country to improve their health behaviors, while also exploring their talents, skills, interests, social connections, and environment to incorporate other dimensions of wellness,” the DMH Northeast Suburban Area Recovery Action Team and Healthy Changes Task Force in conjunction with the DMH Office of Recovery & Empowerment put together a great event called “Celebrating the Whole You” that featured presentations on all aspects of wellness.  The event was held yesterday at Tewksbury Hospital and included a wellness walk (which was a great opportunity for Step It Up! participants to add some extra steps to their day); a workshop on overall wellness by Beth Frates, MD; and presentations on the Eight Dimensions of Wellness, yoga, and creating a welcoming home and work environment.  DMH Northeast Suburban Area Director Susan Wing and Bureau Director for Public Health Hospitals Sandra Akers kicked off the event by talking about their own wellness adventures, and DMH Commissioner Marcia Fowler provided opening remarks that tied in her incredible passion for running with the importance of staying well.  I was also fortunate enough to be able to give a presentation on nutrition – and play a fun game with participants called “It’s Healthier Than You Think!,” and I’d like to thank Wellness Champion Eileen Weber and the planning committee for both giving me the opportunity to be a presenter and for putting on a great program from which I learned a lot of useful information.

While I could fill several blog posts with everything that I learned yesterday, I will save space and time by listing a few of the items that stood out the most:

  • Did you know that there are eight “dimensions” to overall wellness?  Being truly well involves achieving balance in the following areas:  emotional, environmental, financial, intellectual, occupational, physical, social and spiritual.
  • Yoga is accessible to everyone!  As long as you can take a few minutes each day to step away from what you’re doing and just breathe deeply and consciously, then you too can practice yoga. 
  • Positivity is an important component to being well, and there is a positivity ratio of 3:1 that instructs us to think three positive thoughts for every one negative thought.  This is something I plan to start practicing in my every day life, and I never would have thought to think this way before yesterday’s conference. 

I hope that you can take some time to reflect on your overall state of wellness during National Wellness Week – even a small change to one component of being well can make a huge difference in how you feel.

Desk Yoga?

Wellness Champion Martina Jackson is a great resource for health and wellness articles, so I was not surprised at the timeliness of a news story she sent me last week that focused on a unique way of incorporating exercise into the workday.  Washington Post fitness columnist Vicky Hallett is on a year-long quest to create a healthier office environment, and her article “Centeredbeing:  Getting exercise at your desk” detailed a “mindful movement system that’s designed to fight sedentary behavior and stress.”  The Centeredbeing program combines moves from yoga and pilates – and an office chair – to create a workout that can be done in short bursts at your desk, so there is no excuse for not having time to fit physical activity into your day.  The Centeredbeing movement fits nicely into the principles of the Step It Up! walking campaign in that it encourages thinking creatively to fit in activity whenever possible.  Every bit of activity counts, and you don’t need to be active for long periods of time all at once in order to see health benefits.  Mindful stretching activities are also great stress-reducers, as they can help you step away from your work and refocus for a few minutes at a time, without taking too much time away from your job duties, since they can be done right at your desk.  Stretching, like other forms of exercise, triggers the release of endorphins, positive mood chemicals within the brain, so even a short burst of exercise will leave you feeling a little less stressed.

Several agencies are ahead of the game when it comes to daily stretch breaks, and from the feedback I have heard, their employees are reaping the benefits of a little extra movement during the day.  The Executive Office of Elder Affairs has a daily Stretch & Smile program, Department of Career Services employees “Stand & Stretch” every afternoon, and the Group Insurance Commission has “stretch at your desk” breaks (often accompanied by fun music!) several times each day.  If your agency has a daily stretch break, I’d love to hear about it.  And if it doesn’t, I’d encourage you to try and incorporate some sort of stretching or movement into your day – your body, and mind, will thank you!

Join a Walkathon!

Looking for a way to get some extra steps in while helping out a good cause at the same time?  Well, you’re in luck, because there are a number of walkathons being held in the Boston area this fall.  In my opinion, this is the best time of year to be outside – it’s still warm enough that you don’t need a heavy coat, but cool enough that you won’t work up too much of a sweat going for a walk.  And, it’s always a good time to give back to the local community by walking for a good cause.  Every walkathon is going to have different fundraising requirements and walking routes, so there should be something out there for everyone.  The list below, graciously compiled by Liz Layton, provides a sampling of upcoming walks:

Sunday, September 23, 2012:  AIDS Walk for Life (

Saturday, September 29, 2012:  Pancreatic Cancer 5K Walk/Run (

Saturday, October 06, 2012:  Somerville Homeless Coalition 5K (

Saturday, October 13, 2012:  March of Dimes 5K (

Saturday, October 13, 2012:  Walk to Cure Diabetes (

Sunday, October 14, 2012:  Making Strides Against Breast Cancer (

Saturday, November 03, 2012:  Breathe Deep Boston 5K Walk (

Sunday, May 05, 2013:  Walk for Hunger (

If you’re interested in joining a walk, try to get a team together – walking is always more fun with friends!  And if you haven’t walked in awhile, start slow and don’t feel like you need to walk far or fast; any exercise is better than none at all, especially if you’re doing it for a good cause!

What’s For Lunch at the Ashburton Cafe?

When Wellness Champion Linda Wilson of the State Auditor’s Office approached me with the idea of conducting a tour of the Ashburton Cafe, my first thought was, “I wish I had thought of that!”  Once I realized I couldn’t take credit for her great idea, my next thought was, “How soon can we make this happen?”  Thanks to Ashburton Cafe nutritionist Carole Grandon Harris and the Cafe staff, yesterday we were able to hold two 30-minute tours of the Cafe that highlighted its many healthy options and the fact that it is possible to have a healthy, balanced meal in a cafeteria setting.

Many state employees eat one or more meals at the Cafe, and I’m sure many struggle with all of the choices with which they are presented.  A lot of people automatically assume that it’s hard to eat healthfully away from home, and that most “healthy” options at cafeterias or other dining spots are pretty unappetizing.  Carole certainly proved this notion wrong yesterday, as she took the group on a tour of each of the Cafe’s stations and spotlighted multiple tasty ways to eat healthfully at each. 

Tuesday is Taco Bar day at the Cafe, and Carole showed us that it’s surprisingly easy to create a healthy, delicious taco for around 500 calories.  By adding lean protein like chicken or beans and lots of fiber-rich vegetables and brown rice, and going easy on fatty (and calorie-laden) toppings like cheese and beef,  you can create a filling lunch that tastes good and doesn’t break your calorie budget.  If you’d rather skip the taco shell and use a potato as your base instead, opt for a sweet potato, which has fewer calories, more fiber, and more vitamins C and A than a white potato.

The Soup Station can be another healthy option, as broth-based or vegetable soups are filling options that aren’t full of calories.  Some soups can be high in sodium, however, so be on the lookout for lower-sodium (usually vegetarian) options like potato, lentil, or grilled eggplant and zucchini soups.  If you’re watching your sodium, it’s also a good idea to limit deli meats like ham, any entrée with an Asian sauce, and salad toppings like feta cheese.

Other good strategies for eating healthfully at the Cafe are to limit your trips to the fry station, as fried foods are going to be higher in calories than anything baked, broiled, grilled, or steamed; look for meals that contain both a protein and a fiber-rich carbohydrate like vegetables or whole grains; include fruits and vegetables in your meal to fill you up for not a lot of calories; go easy on sauces and cheese, as these can often add more calories to a meal than we think; and try to choose zero- or low-calorie beverages rather than soda, which can add at least 200 empty calories to your meal.

An aspect of the tour that I found particularly eye-opening was how Carole pointed out some little-known nutrition facts about foods we often eat.  Did you know that one bagel can contain over 500 mg of sodium (and that the recommended daily intake for sodium is only 2,300 mg)?  Or that hard cheeses like cheddar are higher in saturated fat than soft cheeses like mozzarella?  These facts, and the tour as a whole, really solidified for the participants (and me!) the importance of really thinking about all of the foods we put on our plates.  It’s not difficult to take a step back,weigh the health value of each option presented to us, and choose the better option most of the time.  Eating out can be costly to both our wallets and our waistlines, but with a little practice, it doesn’t have to break the (calorie) bank.

If you’d like to learn more about the nutrition of the food served at the Ashburton Cafe, you can go here.  WellMASS is planning on holding additional tours of the Cafe, so please send me an email if you’re interested in joining a future tour.  In the meantime, enjoy your lunch!

How Healthy is Organic Food?

I get a lot of questions about whether or not organic foods are “healthier” than their non-organic counterparts.  My philosophy is that organic food can often be cost-prohibitive, and it’s a matter of personal choice as to whether or not you want to buy organic items.  A recent study from the Annals of Internal Medicine shines new light on the differences between organic and non-organic food – in reality, the two are a lot similar than we previously thought.  The study found that overall, organic foods do not contain more vitamins, minerals, or other nutrients than conventional foods.  Some organic foods were shown to contain higher levels of phosphorus (which can be detrimental to bone health in large quantities), although this difference was not clinically significant.  So, what does this mean?  In terms of health benefits, eating a food labelled as “organic” is not going to produce any more benefits than a non-organic variety of that same food. Organic spinach is not going to contain more iron than conventional spinach, so if you choose to buy organic, it should be for reasons other than nutrient content.

The study did find that organic foods had lower overall levels of pesticides and antibiotic-resistant bacteria than conventional varieties, although it is uncommon for either type of food to contain levels of pesticides above the allowable limits.  If pesticides are a concern for you, the Environmental Working Group issues a great guide each year on which fruits and vegetables contain the highest (and lowest) levels of pesticides.  The “Dirty Dozen” fruits and veggies contain high levels of pesticides, and, if you want to start buying certain types of produce organic, these are good options to start with.  They include:

  1. apples
  2. celery
  3. sweet bell peppers
  4. peaches
  5. strawberries
  6. imported nectarines
  7. grapes
  8. spinach
  9. lettuce
  10. cucumbers
  11. domestic blueberries
  12. potatoes

Other fruits and veggies generally contain low levels of pesticides, and it should be safe to buy conventional varieties of these “Clean Fifteen”:

  1. onions
  2. sweet corn
  3. pineapples
  4. avocado
  5. cabbage
  6. sweet peas
  7. asparagus
  8. mangoes
  9. eggplant
  10. kiwi
  11. domestic cantaloupe
  12. sweet potatoes
  13. grapefruit
  14. watermelon
  15. mushrooms

In general, organic produce is cheaper when it’s in season, and sale prices can often be the same, or less than, the price of conventional produce.  If you are unsure of whether or not you want to buy organic produce, start by looking for sales on in-season organic foods, and try to buy organic varieties of the Dirty Dozen whenever possible.

Step It Up – Even in the Rain

I’m very excited that the Step It Up! walking campaign has finally begun, although I am not too thrilled about the rainy weather we’ve been having!  As was evident at yesterday’s kickoff walk, however, a little (or a lot of!) rain shouldn’t have to stop you from incorporating physical activity into your day.  One of our Wellness Champions had the great idea of walking indoors, in the McCormack Building garage, and a group of 25 eager walkers joined in on this activity.  In about 30 minutes, we walked 10 laps around the 4th level of the garage, which equalled around 3,000 steps, or 1.5 miles.   Although a parking garage may not be an obvious – or ideal- venue to walk around, it does serve as an option when the weather is less than perfect for walking outside.  Many state buildings in Boston and throughout the state have garages that can serve this same purpose – just be careful and watch out for cars and make sure the garage is ventilated well enough so that you are able to walk around it comfortably. 

A parking garage is not the only option for walking when the weather is bad; there are many other ways to work toward 10,000 steps without getting wet.  Almost all buildings have stairs, and stairclimbing is a great way to add steps, build muscle, and burn calories.  If you work in a tall building, start slowly and walk up a few flights of stairs at a time until you can build your resistance up enough to walk all the way to the top.  If you work in a low-rise, walk up and down the stairs several times a day.  Try to take the stairs in any building that has them (as long as you can get to them without an id badge or security code). 

If you’d like more interesting scenery, try walking around a mall or other enclosed public space on your lunch break, after work, or on the weekends.  Some malls even have walking clubs that you can join, if you’d like to walk as part of a group.  If you don’t have time to make it to the mall, try to add in more steps around the house by doing a little extra vacuuming or putting laundry away one piece at a time.  Walk around the house when talking on the phone instead of just sitting down.  While watching tv, stand up and walk in place, at least during commercial breaks.  Or better, yet, instead of watching tv, pop in an exercise dvd and get in 30-45 minutes of aerobic activity.  It’s still very much possible to be physically active on rainy days like today.  If you have a unique way that you stay active when the weather is bad, feel free to post it in the Comments section!