Dear Well & Wise,
You’ve tried to sell us on the health benefits of gardening and poetry and even love stories, but what’s with all the math and science classes in your Friday’s events listings?
Dear SR (who is in no way imaginary),
One lesson many of us have learned from working on the blog is that there are a surprising number of things that can benefit your health if done right (the flipside, of course, being that even things that are supposed to be healthy, like exercise and sunshine, can hurt you if done wrong). But it is almost as if humans, at our basic core, are meant to engage in activities that are ultimately beneficial: little slakes thirst better than water; as kids we like to run and be active; most people do crave companionship and time spent in nature, etc.
That’s not to say many people are chomping at the bit to solve quadratic equations or bust out some quantum physics theories. Although, we have seen an increase in the interest in S.T.E.M. (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), especially since the White House’s call to Educate to Innovate, through everything from Howard County Public School System’s increased focus on it to events such as the STEMtech Conference. And, of course, we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention HiTech, HCLS’ STEM Digital Media Lab for teens and classes.
So yes, this new focus on S.T.E.M. is good for us as a nation, but what about as individuals. Well, we know that doctors and nurses depend very strongly on math and science for their jobs, which benefits us, and that innovations in S.T.E.M. have lead to everything from new medicines, to ergonomically designed tools and furniture, to robots that can do some of our more dangerous jobs for us, and many more life-saving and life-enhancing contributions. BUT that’s not all. There is evidence of links between good mental health and academic excellence (of which math and science play an important part). And many feel that studying math and science can improve critical/analytical-thinking skills and can also improve confidence, literacy, and overall levels of achievement. So S.T.E.M. studies are good for us; that’s our story, and we’re sticking with it.
Well & Wise
Picture by bottled_void via Flickr.
Oh, no! Oh cripes! Is it April 25 already? We didn’t mean to wait this late to let you know that April is National Stress Awareness Month.
We all have experienced stress, which MedlinePlus defines as “a physical, chemical, or emotional factor that causes bodily or mental tension and may be a factor in disease causation; a state of bodily or mental tension resulting from factors that tend to alter an existent equilibrium .” But what are some of the common physical, chemical, and emotional factors?
Physical factors are exactly what you’d think they’d be. Anyone dealing with illness or chronic pain is prone to stress. A physical condition, even one that is temporary, that is inhibiting a person from something they want or need to do can be a great source of stress. For example, if you have a foot injury that is limiting your mobility and you have three small children at home, you are going to be stressed. Elderly people who find some of their physical abilities slipping, may experience greater amounts of stress. Additionally, poor diet and lack of sleep, excessive travel, noise and crowds, clutter, surgery, and seasonal changes can also be some common contributors to stress. And, annoyingly, stress can, in turn, exacerbate existing physical problems and/or lead to more.
Chemical factors of stress can crossover with the physical if you consider things such as hormonal changes due to factors like puberty, pregnancy, menopause, etc. One of the main chemical culprits appears to be an imbalance of neurotransmitters, and here’s where stress and depression and anxiety often intersect (a much larger topic for another day). And yes, external chemicals such as illegal drugs, or improper or overuse of prescription drugs (stress and anxiety are sometimes even side effects of some medications), smoking, alcohol abuse, too much caffeine, and poor diet are stressors too. Chemical factors may also include environmental elements such as pollution and toxins. As with physical stressors, the more chemical influences you have, the more your stress levels and internal chemicals can be affected.
Finally, emotional and mental stressors—the big ones. The easy answers to what are the greatest emotional/mental causes of stress are change and outlook. But it is waaaaaay more complicated than that. Concrete examples would include loss of a loved one, relationship troubles, overloaded work schedule, pessimistic outlook, low self-esteem… really the list goes on and on.
As mentioned before, a lot of these physical, chemical, and emotional factors of stress can often lead to the chicken or egg question as the conditions that cause stress can be increased or worsened by, well…stress. But the important thing seems to be to recognize when you are stressed and do something about it. Sometimes talking to someone (a doctor can be especially helpful) is all you need to get the stress relief rolling. There are also some simple things you can try to help alleviate stress. Most stress-relief methods involve reducing stressors in your life or finding activities that can calm you. Here are items that might help in your quest to do both:
A Calm Brain: Unlocking Your Natural Relaxation System
Element. Yoga for Stress Relief and Flexibility
Shakuhachi Flute Meditations: Zen Music to Calm the Mind
Success Under Stress: Powerful Tools for Staying Calm, Confident, and Productive When the Pressure’s On
Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers
Really, Well & Wise, again? First you you try to sell us on the health benefits of poetry, now gardening? Not buying it.
Dear, skeptical reader, do not scoff. Where poetry’s benefits may be harder to pinpoint, mostly improving mental health, gardening can make you feel better on the inside and look better on the outside. We all know that the “fruits” of one’s gardening labors can often be employed in healthful meals, but there is more to it than that.
Take for example the book, Garden Your Way to Health and Fitness: Exercise plans, Injury Prevention, Ergonomic Designs by Bunny Guinness.
By aussiegall [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)]
Guinness, a gardening designer, worked with physiotherapist Jacqueline Knox to create step-by-step movements based on Pilates and illustrate safe ways to perform strenuous garden-related tasks, such as pushing wheelbarrows, lifting pots, and picking crops/plants–ways that boost fitness while avoiding strain and injury. The book also provides real and effective gardening techniques requiring different exertion levels; planting designs for time-pressed gardeners; garden maintenance regimes to stay active; and, of course, a comprehensive guide to growing fruits, vegetables, and herbs to help maintain a healthful diet.
And, even without the book, you can still enjoy the benefits of gardening. According to Next Avenue, “this hobby offers direct health benefits to avid and casual gardeners alike. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention labels gardening ‘moderate cardiovascular exercise.’ Former National Gardening Magazine editor Dan Hickey says that according to studies he has participated in, 45 minutes of gardening can burn as many calories as 30 minutes of heart-healthy aerobics.”
They go on to say that National Institute of Health recommends 30 to 45 minutes of gardening three to five times a week and you can even benefit by breaking up the time into smaller portions. “And the cherry on top: Research shows that gardeners have an increased zest for life, sleep better, have a lowered risk for osteoporosis and diabetes….” Next Avenue even references a study, that suggests gardening can improve your sex life.
Discovery Health emphasizes the practicality of gardening for health: “Local gardening, and the resulting local food communities, may hold even more answers to the economic and health care disasters we currently face. With obesity now seen as an epidemic in developed nations, gardening represents a good source of physical activity….” Discovery Health sites how gardening can encourage kids to try a greater range of fruits and veggies and promote mental health (through relaxation and satisfaction and better nutrition) as well as physical healthThey also discuss how gardening has been linked to preventing dementia in seniors; allows for more whole foods, in place of processed options; and provides extra food and savings for the family, as well as income if sold at local farmers markets.
If you still feel like you’re just not the gardening type, rest assured–you don’t have to go out and buy loads of fancy equipment and start ordering all the latest seed catalogs to take advantage of all gardening has to offer. You can start small. Maybe check out a book like Gardening In Your Nightie: What Every Passionate Gardener Should Know But Never Dared to Ask to get things explained in plain language and an entertaining fashion. Or you can stop by and chat with some experts at one of HCLS Master Gardener classes.
Passover Seder Plate showing (clockwise from top): maror (romaine lettuce), z’roa, charoset, maror (chrein), karpas, beitzah.By [[User:Yoninah|Yon
It’s pretty much right in the middle of Passover today. But that doesn’t mean, for anyone who is observing it, that it is too late to add an element of wellness to it.
Take, for example, food; there are healthier takes on traditional food. In fact one of our regular bloggers gave us some pointers when she celebrated Rosh Hashanah with her family, vegan style. The books Party Vegan: Fabulous, Fun Food for Every Occasion by Robin Roberston, and The Healthy Hedonist Holidays: A Year of Multicultural, Vegetarian-Friendly Feasts by Myra Kornfeld, even have sections dedicated to Passover. There’s also a Huffington Post piece on celebrating Passover in a “more sustainable” way.
But probably the most sustaining aspect of Passover is that it is a celebration of liberation and tradition that you share with loved ones. So making it meaningful and inclusive for the whole family, perhaps through some ways suggested in Make Your Own Passover Seder by Alan A. Kay, will have the most positive impact. Making Passover special and memorable will provide you with opportunities to improve health, believe it or not. KidsHealth.org suggests that spirituality and family involvement can reduce stress and depression, boost confidence, and even lower blood pressure and strengthen the immune system. So however you may observe Passover, observing it with the people you’re closest to will benefit you and them.
By Cherise Tasker
By Bruce from San Francisco (living hand to paw), via Wikimedia Commons (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)
I left half a tuna sandwich on the kitchen counter for my dog, Diego. He can easily reach the counter, and he loves tuna. Tuna just smells so good, almost as good as beef barbecue. I also poured kibble into Diego’s bowl so that he has all sorts of food choices that he enjoys.
That is the true story, according to Diego. My view is different. I would have eaten the rest of the tuna sandwich. If I had wanted him to eat the tuna sandwich, I would have placed it in his bowl.
I did not get angry. I had turned my back to answer the phone, and it was my fault that I did not push my plate back from the edge of the counter. I looked at my empty plate, looked at Diego, and stated a forceful, “No.” Since several seconds had passed since the wonderful treat, Diego had no idea what the “no” could possibly be about. He continued to look at me and happily wag his tail. Perhaps you have another treat, Mom? Or maybe it’s time for a walk? Would you like to snuggle on the couch with my head on your knee?
Why does Diego mean so much to me and my family? When we Skype with my son at college, why do we have to be sure that Diego is in the room to Skype too? My belief is that the bond is formed by the unconditional love we feel from Diego. Diego is always here for us. Diego doesn’t have a bad day. Even if he isn’t feeling well, he still nuzzles up, continuing to follow us around, even if only with his eyes. Diego enjoys life and he shares that with us every day. He always catches that patch of sun coming in through the skylight. He spends those extra few minutes lying outside on the first warm day. He walks a bit faster, sniffs more, wags his tale with extra energy when the crisp autumn air arrives. Diego finds activities that make him happy every day, and he shares that love and enthusiasm with everyone around him.
When interacting with Diego, I interpret his vocalizations and actions based on what I’ve learned about him during our life together. Each pet our family has had displayed a unique personality. The fact that I treat this as “personality” and react as if I understand Diego’s emotions is based mostly on my experience with other humans. Anthropomorphizing my dog increases our bond and causes me to believe I know what he is thinking and feeling.
Although I am happy to indulge my theories about why I love my dog and think he loves me in return, there are scientific investigations on the subject. One interesting fact studies have shown is that actual hormonal changes occur when humans interact with their dogs. A 2008 study conducted in Japan reported increased oxytocin levels in dog owners after sustained eye contact with their dogs. Oxytocin is a neurotransmitter produced by the hypothalamus that increases during human-to-human attachment activities. Like the eye contact a mother shares with her child, the eye contact I share with Diego increases my feeling of connection to him. When oxytocin levels rise in humans, physiological responses can include the lowering of blood pressure and social responses can include decreased anxiety and increased calmness.
Several books about the science behind human and dog interactive behavior are available in the Howard County Library System. Dr. Patricia McConnell is a zoologist who has written extensively about animal behavior. In For the Love of a Dog, McConnell discusses the emotional link between dogs and their owners, oxytocin’s role in this interaction, and how we can use this understanding to improve our relationship with our beloved pets. Dr. Alexandra Horowitz is a psychology professor whose Inside of a Dog details the science behind dogs’ behavior. For example, Horowitz’s book explains that dog retinas process light differently than human retinas. This confirmed for me that Diego does not enjoy Skype in the same way I do. Whereas I am thrilled to see my son and my son is excited to see Diego, Diego is simply happy that I am petting him as a reward for sitting in front of the computer.
I never tire of guessing what goes on in Diego’s mind. Sometimes I wonder if he is thinking about anything at all. But about my next sandwich–I know Diego will be happy to share it with me.
Daylight Saving Time (DST) was yesterday. One hopes you remembered to reset any clocks that don’t rely on satellites, like your car, your watch, and your cellphone that’s so out of date it uses a rotary dial. If not, SURPRISE! You’re probably going to be late for work.
In addition to making you sleepy or awake at odd hours and confusing you by being sunny at 7pm, the time shift affects your health in a number of ways. Anyone’s sleep patterns can be disrupted by the switch, but “night owls” tend to be more affected by springing forward than early birds.
If your health is already compromised, the effect on your body is greater. If you’re stressed, depressed, have poor dietary or exercise habits, you are at a greater risk for and adverse reaction. The time changes can raise the levels of inflammatory chemicals and stress hormones, which can lead to serious side effects.
Because the start of DST can result in sleep deprivation for many, affecting heart health, there is a spike in heart attacks the first week after the time shift. The first week also sees a spike in car accidents due to sleepy drivers, but in general people are safer drivers during daylight hours, causing a drop in accidents during the rest of the period. U.S. News Health claims that DST can prevent hundreds of car accidents each year.
DST can keep you healthy by serving as a reminder to change the batteries in your smoke detectors. Have you done that yet? Because seriously, you should do that even if the smoke detector is hard to reach and it makes an annoying sound when you change batteries.
If you find you are not adapting to DST, you can always try these tips from Dr. Praveen Rudraraju, director of the Center for Sleep Medicine at Northern Westchester Hospital: get up five to 10 minutes earlier for the first two weeks of DST to accommodate any increased sluggishness; incorporate 30 to 40 minutes of exercise in bright daylight to your daily routine; space out your meals before you go to bed, at least 3-5 hours before hitting the hay; quit the caffeine before noon, limit drinking to one with dinner, and do not have any alcohol after dinner; don’t work on the computer at least an hour before bedtime; and stay out of the bedroom until bedtime. You can also try any of HCLS’s many resources on sleep, such as: