Your Monthly Check-Up: February is American Heart Month

With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, there’s no better time to celebrate American Heart Month than February. Heart disease in the US has reached epidemic proportions; it is now the leading cause of death for both men and women, according to the CDC. While about 715,000 people suffer a heart attack each year, only about 27 percent of people who recognized chest pain as a symptom could recognize other major symptoms.

The good news is that heart disease is both preventable and controllable. In her article “Reading the Signs” in the January/February issue of “Healthy Living Made Simple,” Dr. Joanne Foody outlines the warning signs, risk factors and ways to prevent heart disease in yourself and your loved ones.

“A heart attack usually occurs when a blood clot blocks the flow of blood through an artery that feeds blood to the heart, causing permanent damage to the heart muscle unless treated quickly,” Dr. Foody explains in the article. While the most common cause is atherosclerosis, other causes can include very low blood pressure, a tear in the heart artery, drug use or small blood clots or tumors that form elsewhere in the body and travel to the heart.

While severe chest pain is the most commonly associated symptom of a heart attack, there are other important symptoms that should not go overlooked. “Shortness of breath and pain that spreads to the shoulders, neck, arms or jaw,” are common especially for men. “Conversely, women often experience atypical heart attack symptoms such as nausea or vomiting, dizziness, fatigue, inability to sleep and breaking out in a cold sweat,” according to Dr. Foody.

However, she says that because every case is different and everyone experiences varying degrees of symptoms, it’s easy to ignore certain ones, like indigestion and fatigue. “The key is to listen to your body and seek immediate medical treatment if you experience symptoms of a heart attack,” she says.

But how do you know if you’re at risk in the first place? Factors such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes, obesity and lack of exercise can all play into the potential for a heart attack. “Simply put, the more cardiovascular risk factors you have, the greater your risk,” Dr. Foody says. “The key is knowing your numbers and addressing any risk factors you may be living with to help prevent ever having a heart attack.”

Recognizing a heart attack early can greatly reduce long-term damage caused to the heart muscle. If you think you are having a heart attack, do not hesitate in calling 911 and take an aspirin to reduce blood clotting. If you see someone else having a heart attack, CPR can help deliver oxygen to the brain, even if it’s hands-only.

“It can’t be repeated enough: Always call 911 when you begin to have any symptoms of a heart attack,” says Dr. Foody. “Don’t be concerned about having a ‘false alarm’ or bothering others.” Heart attack survivors may suffer from damaged tissue resulting in abnormal heart rhythms. They are also at increased risk for future heart attacks.

Besides monitoring blood pressure, cholesterol and getting plenty of exercise, getting a good dose of omega-3 fatty acid can help protect you from heart disease. But you don’t have to get your omega-3s from fish oil alone anymore. Krill oil is relatively new and developed from a small crustacean. It is delivered as a phospholipid as opposed to the traditional triglyceride form. Early studies have indicated that the body may be able to utilize smaller amounts of the phospholipid krill oil to achieve the same results as triglyceride sources, according to the article.

Why not celebrate American Heart Month by getting your numbers checked and being proactive about one of the most important muscles in your body? You won’t regret it, and your family, friends and loved ones will thank you!

Read the full article here.

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Your Monthly Check-Up: Meditation, Down Time and the Power of a Good Night’s Sleep

Part II: Meditation

(Click here for Part I: Relaxation)

While you’re on one of your breaks, why not try a little meditation on for size? Meditation may seem like a fad due to its recent rise in popularity in the States, but it’s a wellness practice that’s been helping people around the world for thousands of years. As daunting as it is to even think about sitting still and being quiet in this time of hustle and bustle, even adding a few minutes of meditation into your daily or weekly routine promotes life-sustaining benefits.

In “The Strength to Sit Still,” EXPERIENCE L!FE fitness editor Jen Sinkler recounts her first attempt at meditation as a fitness buff and how it not only altered her thoughts about meditation, but her thoughts about thinking in general.

Instead of “crack[ing] open the meditation CDs that I bought three years ago,” Sinkler went all out for her first meditation experience with a 3-day beginner’s retreat at Shambhala Mountain Center (SMC) in Red Feather Lakes, Colo. “…stillness emanates from the surroundings here, and when I arrive I finally feel like I have time to meditate,” Sinkler says. “Cell phones don’t work and my laptop is back home, edged out by the towel on the SMC packing list. I suspect this sort of sacred space can be created anywhere, but signing up for a retreat has given me formal permission to carve it out for myself.”

According to Sinkler’s instructor, Charles Rosicky, “The first rule of meditation is to have no expectations,” Sinkler recounts in the article. “It’s like being excited to go on vacation. The vacation you go on is never the vacation you think you’re going to go on. In the same way, it’s better to meditate without ambition.”

Unfortunately, Sinkler broke this rule. “I didn’t expect to find enlightenment over the weekend, but I did want the act of meditating to feel blissful, life-altering and important,” she says. “I didn’t go on the vacation I thought I was going on. Meditation felt…ordinary. Unspectacular and, at times, like déjà vu.”

But here is where Sinkler’s moment of insight came through. Although she arrived at SMC thinking she had never meditated before, she had in fact experienced the “flow state” of meditation many times, “during particularly good workouts or standout rugby games, where my focus was so singular it became everything.”

That’s all meditation is, anyway – focusing your attention on the task at hand; remaining in the present moment when unrelated thoughts attempt to disrupt your meditative flow. Focusing on your breath is a great way to get started. Sit comfortably and breathe. When your mind starts to wander, which it inevitably will, bring your focus back to your breath. The point of meditation is not to clear your mind. That is impossible. The point is to allow your thoughts to pass by your consciousness without reacting. You can always come back to them later.

“One of the first benefits is that you begin to see that you are not your thoughts,” says Ron West, ecologist for Boulder County Parks and longtime meditator, who was one of Sinkler’s instructors on the retreat. “We self-identify with our thoughts – meaning, bad thoughts equal bad person. You slowly see that thoughts arise in a vast and neutral space, and that it is possible to see that the mind is not solid. The thoughts just become interesting-to-look-at fish swimming in a very large aquarium.”

Sinkler has since incorporated 10 to 30 minutes of near-daily meditation into her weekly routine and has been singing its praises and reaping its benefits ever since her weekend retreat.

Stay tuned later this week when we wrap up our series with Part III - Sleep!

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Your Monthly Check-Up: Meditation, Down Time and the Power of a Good Night’s Sleep

Part I: Relaxation

We’ve talked a lot about exercising, eating right and the benefits of corporate wellness to your bottom line in our monthly column. But something we haven’t discussed is how sleep, relaxation and meditation all contribute to your overall health and well-being.

The March 2013 issue of EXPERIENCE L!FE magazine is chock full of information related to all three of these areas that seem to fly under the wellness radar. Many people don’t realize that rest, recovery and relaxation are just as important to a healthy lifestyle as nutrition, exercise and hydration. Relaxation in particular is beneficial in the workplace, since giving your brain a break lets it recharge and gear up for the next big task.

In “Take a Break,” the EXPERIENCE L!FE team urges that, “Random moments of ‘unproductive’ time don’t just make you healthier, happier and more resilient. They help you work smarter, too.” For example, have you ever come up with a brilliant idea whilst showering? We have, too – and so have plenty of other people, which prompted a discussion of this very topic in “Take a Break”:

You’ve no doubt heard the rumored story of Archimedes, who shouted his now-legendary ‘Eureka!’ when he stepped into the bath, saw his bathwater rise and suddenly understood that the volume of water displaced must be equal to the volume of the part of his body he’d submerged, abruptly intuiting the answer to what had previously been an intractable mathematical problem.

“There’s a reason so much genius has occurred in bathrooms…and it’s the same reason we often get great ideas while puttering in the garden, getting a facial, taking a walk or just waking up from a nap,” the article states. “Because these are precisely the types of circumstances in which we’re not trying to come up with genius ideas, or really any ideas at all.”

Cognitive neuroscientist Mark Jung-Beeman, PhD, a researcher at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., has dedicated his working life to studying the brain circuits involved in these eureka moments and offered up his insight for the article:

The body is relatively relaxed; the brain is being allowed to do whatever it likes, its circuits freed up for whatever associations and information-shuttling activities it deems worthwhile. And it’s those random associations that seem key both to large-scale breakthroughs and handy “aha!” moments. … While the brain lays much of the groundwork for insight by expending focused attention on a particular problem, certain parts of the brain must actually relax and be allowed to wander a bit for the necessary connections and associations (most of which are churned up by the more loosely organized right hemisphere) to be made.

According to the article, psychologist Joy Bhattacharya, PhD, a researcher at Goldsmiths, University of London, has perpetuated this point by using electroencephalography (EEG) to predict these aha moments up to eight seconds before they even occur. One key indicator is the presence of alpha waves – the brain-wave pattern associated with relaxation – emanating from the right hemisphere of the brain. Bhattacharya suggests this activity makes the mind more susceptible to new and creative ideas.

The moral of this story is that, “Beyond a certain point, sitting for hours at your desk and working harder to solve that problem or come up with that big idea may actually work against you.” The article suggests listening for your “ultradian rhythms” – bodily cycles that occur many times throughout your day – and paying attention to when your body is telling you it’s time for a break. Get up for 20 minutes after every 90- to 120- minute cycle of energy expenditure and let your brain recharge. You’ll end up being more productive than if you don’t!

Stay tuned next week when we cover Parts II and III of our series - Meditation and Sleep!

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Your Monthly Check-Up: Stressed Out?

Work-related stress is not a new concept, but what exactly are the implications of being stressed out at work or due to workplace factors? A recent article in Incentive Magazine addresses this issue.

In “Worker Stress is a Top Concern,” writer Alex Palmer focuses the results of a new report by UK-based health insurance company Aviva, which shows that employers are starting to take the health of their employees into greater consideration.

About two-thirds (65 percent) of employers say it’s more important than ever to protect the health of their employees, with 43 percent offering programs to encourage work-life balance, 21 percent promoting healthy eating and the same amount offering  cycle-to-work programs. These efforts have had an impact on employees: 57 percent said that if they feel healthy, they are more productive at work, while 52 percent believe that they are more loyal to a company that helped them look after their health.

While the focus on employees’ health is improving, stress is still a top concern, according to the report. Palmer’s article states that more than half – about 53 percent – of employees responded that stress is a problem within their places of employment.

“Over the years we’ve seen an increased appetite for workplace well-being,” says Mark Noble, health director for UK Life for Aviva, in the report as quoted in Palmer’s article. “Moreover, we’ve seen a gradual recognition of the importance of putting proactive solutions into place to help keep employees healthy and aid early intervention.”

Increased expectations within many of these jobs may be part of the reason for this motivation toward healthier lifestyles, according to Palmer. For some employers, it is becoming a necessity for their employees to work harder and put in more hours, which makes a case for maintaining optimal health by practicing healthy habits.

Underestimating job requirements may also be leading to increased employee stress. According to Palmer’s article, “55 percent of employees report that a high-pressure work environment has become the norm, compared to just 26 percent of employers who said the same.”

What kinds of practices are in place to help offset the effects of stress in your office? Do your employers actively promote healthy habits both at work and at home? What personal tactics do you take when you feel the effects of stress creeping in that could potentially help some of your employees or coworkers? Talk to us in the “Comments” section below!

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