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Turn Your Holiday Shopping Trip into a Workout

When it comes to shopping for holiday presents, people generally fall into one of two camps:  they love it and take any opportunity they can to hit the stores; or they hate it and try to put it off until the last minute, if not avoid it all together.  Coincidentally, the same can be said for people’s feelings on exercise.  Whichever camp you most identify with for either activity, try thinking outside of the box this holiday season to combine shopping and exercise for a win-win situation that will benefit your family and friends and your body.  Here are some tips to help you increase your heart rate and calorie burn while you’re out decking the malls this holiday season:

  • Step it up. Challenge yourself to meet a daily goal of 10,000 steps by wearing a pedometer, comfortable clothes, and sneakers while you’re out and about. You’ll have an easier time racking up the steps if you’re comfortable and have a tool to instantly track your progress.
  • Go the distance. To add extra steps to your trip, park your car as far away from the store or mall entrance as you can.  Once inside, take the stairs instead of the elevator or escalator, and talk a lap around before deciding what you’d like to purchase.
  • Fit in a strength training workout. Think of your shopping bags as weights – the more filled with presents they are, the better workout you’re going to get.  As you’re carrying them around the mall or back to your car, slightly lift your shopping bags then lower them for an instant workout for your biceps and triceps.
  • Work your lower body. See an item you like on a higher shelf? Do some calf raises by stretching to reach or look at it.  For items at floor level, squat down to pick up or view them.

Neither holiday shopping nor working out need to feel like chores if you approach them with a positive attitude and the belief that you’ll be making others happy and improving your health in the process.


The WellMASS Blog is Taking a Break

The WellMASS blog will be on hiatus until November.  Please feel free to check out our archive of Healthy Ingredients of the Week and other wellness-related posts!

I Say Sauna, You Say Banya

By Guest Blogger Liz Layton, GIC

You think it’s cold here?  WIMPS!  Check out some real winter weather – and prescriptions for warming up.

In Vermont, cold weather and snow can start in October and last through April.  Lake Champlain towns may get 60 inches of snow a year, while the Green Mountains get covered in up to 120 inches.  The average winter temperature is 22 degrees Fahrenheit.   So it’s understandable that ski places really took to the Jacuzzi after it was invented by an Italian family in California in the late sixties.

In Hokkaido, Japan’s big island of the north, winter temperatures average 21°F while inland basin areas can drop to a frigid -22° F. The lowest recorded temperature in Japan was -42°F (Asahikawa, January 1902).  No wonder Japanese baths have a long tradition as community meeting places – from the many hot springs to public bathhouses.

Northern Russian winters are long and harsh, with plenty of snow and temperatures falling below -40°F. The coldest inhabited place on Earth is the Russian Far East. The lowest temperature registered there was −96.2 °F (Yakutia, 1924).   Clearly there’s a reason for banyas – the winter Russian steam bath ritual. 

In Finland winter is the longest season and lasts from 100 days in southwestern Finland to 200 days in Lapland. The coldest temperatures in winter go as low as -58°F in Lapland and eastern Finland; to -13°F in the “warmer” regions.  So of course Finns built little heated houses where you could sit inside and sweat while the wind blows outside.  According to the Lonely Planet travel blog, “Sauna is seen as a sacred place in Finland, where babies were once born and ailments treated. Finns still take their sweating needs seriously – there are two million saunas in this country of five million. No wonder Finland is home to the International Sauna Society.”  

A sauna is a small room or house where people communally enjoy heat that promotes sweating and relaxation.  When they say heat, they mean it.  Russian and European saunas can achieve temperatures over 200°F, but the United States limits sauna heat to 194°F. Infrared saunas are generally less hot. The key to enjoyment is alternating periods of hot and cool – generally about 15 minutes of heat to 10 minutes of cooling off.

Although even today “many middle-aged Finns boast of being born in the sauna,” American doctors caution pregnant women, particularly in the first trimester, to avoid high heat including steam rooms, saunas, hot tubs, and Jacuzzis.  However, there are also studies which have found that saunas can be helpful to cardiac patients.  If you have concerns, talk with your doctor before visiting a sauna (and take a look at the medical journals referenced at the end of this blog).

Ask about the type of sauna and how hot it will be inside:

Finnish dry saunas 160°-194°F

Russian steam saunas 90°-120°F

Infrared saunas 80°-125°F

Finns say “In the sauna one must conduct himself as one would in church.” Ask about etiquette at the sauna you visit – particularly if you care whether or not there are separate sections for men and women and if clothing is optional or not.

If you’re visiting a hotel or have a gym membership, use of the sauna, steam room, or Jacuzzi is probably included.  For other rates, check the list of Local Saunas and Steam Baths below.  All of them cost much less than a ticket on a plane, boat, or train to a warmer place!


  • Do not drink alcohol beforehand.
  • Shower before entering the sauna.
  • Bring a towel to sit on.
  • Remove jewelry – metal gets hot!
  • Remove contact lenses.
  • Drink plenty of water during the sauna.
  • Spend 8-10 minutes in the first dry sauna session and no more than 15 minutes on later sessions. Limit steam saunas to 10 minutes.
  • Between each session in the heat, spend 10-15 minutes cooling down.
  • Make showers cool, not cold.


Dillons Russian Steam Bath
Chelsea, MA

Banya Russian Steam Bath & Spa
Allston, MA

Health clubs/Gyms

Arch Phys Med Rehabil. 2009 Jan;90(1):173-7. doi: 10.1016/j.apmr.2008.06.029.
Safety, acceptance, and physiologic effects of sauna bathing in people with chronic heart failure: a pilot report.
Basford JR, Oh JK, Allison TG, Sheffield CG, et al, Mayo Clinic Rochester, Rochester, MN, USA.
Sauna bathing under the moderate and supervised conditions of this study appears to be well tolerated and may be safe for people with CHF. More research is needed to further evaluate the safety and potential benefits of this approach.

Can Fam Physician. Beever R, 2009 Jul;55(7):691-6.
Far-infrared saunas for treatment of cardiovascular risk factors: summary of published evidence.
Four papers support the use of FIRS therapy for those with congestive heart failure and 5 papers support its use for those with coronary risk factors.

Int J Circumpolar Health. Kukkonen-Harjula K, Kauppinen K, 2006 Jun;65(3):195-205.
Health effects and risks of sauna bathing.
Baths did not appear to be particularly risky to patients with hypertension, coronary heart disease and congestive heart failure, when they were medicated and in a stable condition.

Ann N Y Acad Sci. Kauppinen K, Canadian Sauna Society, 1997 Mar 15;813:654-62.
Facts and fables about sauna
Cardiovascular patients with essential hypertension, coronary heart disease or past myocardial infarction, who are stable and relatively asymptomatic in their everyday life may also take sauna baths without undue risk. As a rule of thumb, if a person can walk into a sauna, he or she can walk out of it. Misuse and abuse of the sauna are another matter.

For more about Finnish saunas and Russian steam baths:

Healthy Ingredient of the Week – Avocado

By Guest Blogger Becka Levin, GIC

Every Monday for the next few weeks, we’ll spotlight a different healthy ingredient.  We’ll include information on its health value and share some unique ways for cooking with it.

This week we will highlight avocado. While the bright green color may discourage some picky eaters (I know I was too scared to try avocados until college), your taste buds and body will appreciate the addition of this nutritious and delicious food.

 Why are avocados healthy anyways?

Avocados are considered “superfoods” by some: they contain over 20 essential nutrients to help our bodies function. As an incredibly nutrient-dense food, avocados pack a large number of nutrients for a relatively small amount of calories. They contain fiber, which helps you feel  full, and 13 vitamins that your body needs to function. Avocados are full of healthy unsaturated fats that can lower blood cholesterol levels, which helps decrease your risk of heart disease. The creamy taste of avocados can make you think you are getting away with something!

 Avocados are grown mostly in Mexico and California (where the popular Hass avocados are from). They are ripe when soft.


Easy Guacamole
Serve with whole grain tortilla chips for a little extra fiber.


½ cup finely chopped white onion

2 Tbsp. finely chopped fresh cilantro (optional)

½ tsp. salt, or to taste

2 ripe Avocados, halved

½ cup coarsely chopped tomato


1. Combine half the onion, and half the cilantro in a bowl.

2. Add salt, then grind into a smooth paste. Transfer to a serving bowl.

3. Make crosshatch incisions in avocado pulp with a knife.

4. Scoop pulp out with a spoon; combine with onion mixture. Mix well.

5. Stir in remaining onion (and cilantro if used); gently mix in tomatoes.

6. Adjust seasoning with salt and serve immediately.


Artichoke, Avocado, and Chicken Salad

This easy salad recipe is comprised of only four ingredients! It also falls into the Mediterranean Diet, a “diet” that copies the eating and food preparation methods of the Italians and the Greeks.  This diet is consistently ranked in the top 5 for Best Diets by US News and World Reports.


1 (14-oz.) can artichoke hearts, rinsed and drained cup pimento-stuffed green olives, sliced

10 oz. cooked chicken, shredded

1 (10-oz.) bag chopped romaine lettuce

2 ripe Avocados, peeled, seeded and chopped

Dressing of choice (consider using olive oil and lemon or a light version of your favorite)


1. Gently toss a small amount of the dressing with each of the artichoke hearts, olives, chicken. Reserve remaining dressing.

2. Place lettuce in a large flat serving bowl. Toss with half of the dressing.

3. Top lettuce with the artichoke hearts, olives, chicken and avocados.

4. Serve immediately and pass remaining dressing on the side.


Easy Turkey Sandwich

Try this variation of a turkey sandwich for lunch, or add slices of avocado to your favorite sandwich.


2 slices whole wheat bread

2 lettuce leaves

1 tomato, sliced

1 avocado, sliced

3 slices sliced turkey breast


1. Toast bread (optional, but definitely adds to flavor and texture).

2. On one slice, layer lettuce leaves, sliced tomato, and sliced turkey.

3. On the other slice, place your sliced avocado or spread into a paste.

4. Place the slice with avocado on top of the turkey.

5. Enjoy!


California Avocado Scramble

Start your day with a filling, healthy breakfast!


2 eggs

Handful spinach leaves

2 tomato slices – diced

1 oz. red onion – diced

⅓ avocado, diced

1 oz. Bell pepper mix

1 oz. shredded jack cheese


1. Sauté vegetables (except avocado) in frying pan, with a drizzle of olive oil.

2.  Whisk eggs and pour on top of vegetables, then scramble eggs with vegetables.

3. Cook until done, sprinkle with cheese and top with avocado.


Avocado Smoothie

Satisfy your sweet tooth with an extra healthy kick from avocado.


1 cup low fat vanilla yogurt

¼ cup low fat milk

1 ripe avocado, peeled and halved

1 ⅓ cups frozen strawberries

1 Tbsp. honey or maple syrup

1 tsp. nutmeg

1 tsp. cinnamon


1. Put yogurt, milk, avocado, and strawberries into blender.

2. Add remaining ingredients and blend until smooth.

3. Pour into tall serving glass.


Information and recipe ideas from

AGO Bikes to Work. Do You?


From L-R: Peter Downing, Helen Hood, Wendoly Langlois, Tom O’Brien, Tiffany Bartz, Will Matlack, and Courtney Aladro

Are you looking for a way to fit exercise into your day without taking time away from your busy schedule?  If so, you may want to try following the lead of a group of intrepid employees at the Attorney General’s Office by biking to work.

Every day, over half a dozen AGO employees get to their offices in Boston’s Saltonstall Building by biking.  Their commutes range from 2-11 miles, and all agree that biking is their preferred method of transportation for several reasons:  it’s cost-effective (no need to pay for parking or public transportation), often faster than driving or taking the T, a great way to de-stress before and after work, and most importantly, it kills two birds with one stone by fitting exercise into a necessary part of their day – getting to work.  Many of the riders are working parents who find it hard to fit physical activity into their already busy schedules, so biking to work is the most efficient way to get a workout in.  The bikers can also feel free to work up as much of a sweat as they want during their commute, as the Saltonstall Building is a green building with men’s and women’s locker rooms complete with showers.   The building also has an indoor bike room, so riders can store their bikes in a safe, warm place.

When asked how their biking group got started, all riders immediately pointed to Assistant Attorney General Tom O’Brien.  Tom has been an avid biker for years, and encouraged his coworkers to join him in biking to work each day.  Almost every division of the Public Protection and Advocacy Bureau has staff members who commute to work by bike – one of whom was actually scheduled to give birth yesterday, and is still actively biking!  Several riders have challenged each other to see if they can keep biking to work throughout the winter, proving that exercise knows no season.

As the employees of the Attorney General’s Office prove, biking to work can be an easy way to fit exercise into your busy day.  I encourage you to choose biking or another alternative way (like walking) to commute to work, at least one day a week.  Who knows – you may enjoy it so much that you’ll make it part of your daily routine!

Should I Take a Multivitamin?

At almost every lunch ‘n learn on nutrition and weight loss, I have received the same, very good question:  Should I take a multivitamin?  My standard answer?  Yes.  Multivitamins have received a bad reputation in several recent studies, which link them to an increased risk of death.  The fact is that for almost every study that comes up with a certain result, there is going to be another study that gives the exact opposite result.  Overall, there are more studies that support the use of a daily multivitamin than recommend against doing so. 

The truth is, no matter how hard you try, it’s virtually impossible to receive all of the nutrients you need each day, while still staying under the amount of calories you need to maintain or lose weight.  I like to think of a multivitamin as an insurance policy to cover any nutrients you may not be getting the full recommended daily allowance (RDA) of on a given day.  Multivitamins should not be used as an excuse to eat unhealthfully; rather, they should be a supplement to a healthy, balanced diet that is rich in whole grains, lean protein, healthy fats, and fruits and vegetables.  Remember, your body is going to absorb nutrients best in their natural form – i.e. when they are contained in real foods – so it is very important to eat a nutritious diet.

Some people worry that they may be going well over the RDA for certain vitamins and minerals if they combine a healthy diet with a multivitamin, but there are two main reasons why this usually does not occur:  for most vitamins and minerals, your body can only absorb so much at a given time – any extra gets excreted out; and, even though a food or supplement may claim to contain a certain percentage of the RDA for a nutrient, your body will probably not absorb 100% of the nutrient, which means it’s important to obtain nutrients from a variety of different sources all throughout the day.

So what should you look for when it comes to choosing a multivitamin?  If you are in overall good health, my recommendation is to choose a vitamin that contains close to 100% of the RDA for most nutrients, and never (with the exception of vitamin D) any more than 100%.  Generally, the one-a-day varieties are pretty spot-on when it comes to nutrient content, so those are always a good bet.  Women should also look for vitamins with added calcium and vitamin D, and women of childbearing age should make sure their multivitamin contains folic acid, which prevents neural tube defects in unborn children.  I normally don’t recommend adult gummy vitamins, as they often contain either too high or too low percentages of most nutrients, and they may not be absorbed as well as vitamins you swallow.  Finally, if you are concerned about taking a multivitamin or have specific questions about what nutrients you need, talk with your doctor or pharmacist – vitamins can only be beneficial if they’re used properly and you’re taking one that contains the right nutrients for you.

Is Soda Bad News For Your Bones?

We had an interesting discussion about the relationship between soda and bone health during yesterday’s weight management Lunch ‘n Learn seminar at the Department of Environmental Protection in Wilmington, which inspired me to write this post.  A common recommendation for anyone trying to lose weight is to cut down on consumption of soda and other calorie-laden beverages.  Regular soda can contain a lot of unnecessary calories, so eliminating what may be a major source of empty calories is an easy way to work toward the goal of burning more calories than you consume.  For some people, an easy solution may be to switch to diet sodas, which are virtually calorie-free.  BUT, that doesn’t mean that diet sodas are “healthy,” and recent evidence shows that they may have more negative effects than we initially thought.  Obviously, the artificial sweeteners contained in diet sodas pose concerns due to their chemical properties, but that is a discussion for another post.  As we discussed during yesterday’s Lunch ‘n Learn, soda, whether it be diet or regular, can actually be detrimental to bone health, and frequent consumption of soda may increase a person’s risk of developing osteoporosis. 

The correlation between soda and osteoporosis is still being researched, but there are several schools of thought as to why soda is bad for your bones:

  • Many sodas, especially colas, contain phosphorus (listed as phosphoric acid on the ingredients list).  Phosphorus leeches calcium from bones, so consuming too much of it can strip calcium away from your bones, leaving you more susceptible to osteoporosis.
  • Cola also contains caffeine, which has been known to interfere with calcium absorption.  Calcium makes bones strong, and if it is not properly absorbed, your bones will not be as strong as they should be.
  • For some people, frequent consumption of soda replaces consumption of calcium-rich beverages like milk or fortified orange juice.  If this applies to you, it might mean that you are not getting as much calcium from food as you need.

Whether you are concerned about your bone health, weight, or both, it might be a good idea to cut back on your consumption of all types of soda.  Try to drink more water, milk or non-dairy alternatives (like ricemilk or almondmilk), 100% fruit juice (in moderation, as even 100% juice still contains calories!), or unsweetened iced tea.  I am a reformed diet-soda drinker who now drinks unsweetened iced tea almost exclusively.  I received an iced tea maker as a gift (you can buy one at department or home stores for about $20), and use it several times a week to brew different types of flavored herbal (and caffeine free!) teas.  It takes time to kick a soda habit, so try to gradually decrease your soda consumption by slowly switching to one or more alternative beverages.  Your body (especially your bones)  will surely thank you!