Know your numbers – but which ones?

It’s that time of year when many employers are strongly encouraging their employees to complete their biometric screening, typically as part of an employee wellness incentive program. According to the CDC, a biometric health screening is defined as “the measurement of physical characteristics such as height, weight, body mass index, blood pressure, blood cholesterol, [and] blood glucose…that can be taken at the work site and used as part of a workplace health assessment to benchmark and evaluate changes in employee health status over time.” Many organizations use this screening as a way to increase benefit offerings, improve employee health, and decrease health plan costs at the same time. Given the amount and variety of measurements involved in such screenings, making sense of the numbers can be challenging for many people.

I recently came across an article in the Washington Post written by a registered dietitian, who surveyed 20 experts in her field for their suggestions of which numbers are the most important when it comes to monitoring health. Interestingly, many of the numbers they believed to be most important are not even part of the usual biometric screening. For example, the first two recommendations focused on daily fruit, vegetable and fiber intake:

  • When it comes to a healthy diet, a simple method to use is the plate model, with appropriate proportions of fruits, vegetables, proteins, and grains. The rule of thumb is to fill half your plate with mostly vegetables and some fruit, which may be easier than trying to track how many servings of each you’ve eaten. Using this plate method can also help you get the recommended daily amount of fiber, which is 25-35 grams. Fiber is important for regularity, managing cholesterol and blood sugar levels, and prevention of certain cancers including colorectal cancer. It is also helpful in weight management as it keeps you feeling full for longer. Fiber-rich foods include most vegetables (the darker the color, the better), fruits, beans, nuts/seeds and whole grains.

The article did reference two of the typical biometric tests as being important for health management: fasting blood glucose (sugar) level and blood pressure:

  • The fasting blood glucose test is used to check for Type 2 diabetes and the goal is for it to be less than 100 mg/dL. These days, it seems more and more people are diagnosed with “pre-diabetes,” which corresponds to a blood sugar level of 100-125 mg/dL. The good news is that you can often reverse the effects of Type 2 diabetes (and pre-diabetes) through eating a healthy diet and exercising regularly. Therefore, it’s important to conduct this test at least annually to monitor your blood sugar level so you’ll be able to make necessary lifestyle changes to prevent or reverse a diagnosis of diabetes.

 

  • High blood pressure is commonly referred to as the silent killer because it often has no clear symptoms. However, if untreated, high blood pressure can lead to a heart attack or stroke. Therefore, it’s important to monitor your blood pressure regularly so you can seek treatment if necessary. This measurement is more important than ever as new guidelines from the American Heart Association lower the definition of high blood pressure to account for complications that can occur at lower numbers and to allow for earlier intervention. Previously, a measurement of 140/90 or greater was considered high. Now, the threshold has been lowered to 130-139/80-89 and even 121-129/<80 is considered “elevated” and an early warning that blood pressure should be lowered through non-medication approaches (primarily diet modification and exercise).

 

The author also addressed some measurements that she and her colleagues believe don’t matter as much when it comes to monitoring health. I agreed with all of them, but the one I want to address is body mass index or BMI, as there has been lively debate for some time now as to whether it is an accurate measure of health, particularly of obesity. As the author notes, BMI is a tool used to classify people into categories of normal weight, overweight or obese depending on height and weight. Individuals with BMI results in the latter two categories are often encouraged to lose weight by their healthcare provider and many are incentivized to do so through workplace wellness programs. However, BMI does not consider factors such as age, gender and bone structure, nor can it distinguish between muscle and fat. Thus, you can have a healthy, athletic person who exercises regularly but has a high BMI due to muscle mass. Or conversely, you can have a person with a normal BMI who does not eat well or exercise at all and is generally unhealthy. Going by BMI only, the athlete would be considered the obese or unhealthy one.

Scientists have recognized that what really matters is not body weight but body fat, and thus given the limitations of BMI, they now recommend a different measure for body fat/obesity: waist circumference. Measuring your waist to learn if you have abdominal obesity and excess visceral fat (fat surrounding your internal organs) is important as excessive fat inside the abdomen is a major contributor to cardiovascular disease. You have a higher risk of developing obesity-related conditions if you are:

  • A man whose waist circumference is more than 40 inches
  • A non-pregnant woman whose waist circumference is more than 35 inches

The one drawback to waist measurement is that it is more prone to errors than measuring height and weight. Click here to learn the proper way to measure waist circumference. It may also help to have a family member or a healthcare professional measure it for you, to be as accurate as possible.

There are numerous ways to measure and monitor your health and wellbeing. It’s important to look at a variety of screening test results to understand the complete picture of your health, but it’s also important not to get hung up on measurements that may not be all that accurate. I encourage you to discuss the options with your healthcare provider at your next physical or checkup so that together you can determine the best measures of your health.

On the Fourth, Put Safety First

Many of us are looking forward to July 4th, a day off to celebrate our nation’s independence and frolic in the summer sun. Whatever activities you have planned, please consider the following safety tips (courtesy of the American Red Cross) so you and your family can enjoy the holiday and remain safe while doing so.

Highway safety

Millions of people will travel by vehicle over the Fourth of July holiday. Follow these four rules to stay safe while driving:

  • Adults should wear seat belts and children should be in appropriate car seats at all times.
  • Observe speed limits and use extra caution in work zones or congested areas.
  • Do not drink and drive or operate a vehicle under the influence of other drugs.
  • Pay full attention to the road – pull over if you need to make a call or send a text.

Water safety

Many of you may be planning to swim and/or engage in other water-related activities. Here are a few ways to make water safety a priority whether at the pool, the beach, or your favorite watering hole:

  • Always swim with a buddy; do not allow anyone to swim alone.
  • Have young children and inexperienced swimmers wear a life jacket.
  • Obey all instructions and orders from lifeguards.
  • Always check weather conditions before going in the water, especially at the beach.
  • Be aware of the danger of rip currents. If caught in one, swim parallel to the shore until out of the current. When free, turn and swim toward shore. If unable to swim to the shore, call out for help, float or tread water until free of the rip current and then head toward shore.

Grilling safety

One of the best parts of the holiday is the yummy eats that are served up at backyard parties. Stick with these steps to safely cook up treats on a charcoal or gas grill:

  • Always supervise a grill when in use.
  • Never grill indoors – not in the house, camper, tent, or any enclosed area.
  • Make sure young children and pets stay away from the grill.
  • Keep the grill out in the open, away from the house, the deck, tree branches, or anything that could catch fire.

Fireworks safety

Perhaps the most exciting tradition on the Fourth: the bright, loud colorful displays that light up the night sky. The safest way to enjoy fireworks is to attend a public show put on by professionals. If fireworks are set off at home, please adhere to these safety steps to avoid serious injury:

  • Always follow the instructions on the packaging.
  • Keep a supply of water close by as a precaution.
  • Make sure the person lighting fireworks wears eye protection.
  • Never throw or point fireworks toward people, animals, vehicles, structures or flammable materials.

Don’t forget about sun protection

If we’re lucky, Mother Nature will cooperate and provide lots of sunshine this week, so we can enjoy the beautiful outdoors. However, the hot sun and high temperatures can also bring potential health hazards such as heat stroke. Watch for warning signs including hot, red skin; changes in consciousness; rapid, weak pulse; and rapid, shallow breathing. If you suspect someone is suffering from heat stroke, do the follow:

  • Call 9-1-1 and move the person to a cooler place.
  • Quickly cool the body by applying cool, wet cloths or towels to the skin (or misting it with water) and fanning the person.
  • Watch for signs of breathing problems and make sure the airway is clear. Keep the person lying down.

Check out my earlier post for additional tips on staying safe in the summer sun. After all, no one wants to have the fun cut short due to a nasty, painful sunburn, right?

I wish you all a safe, happy and relaxing Fourth of July!

fourth-of-july-th-of-july-party

 

45: Celebrating the little things

Relax. This isn’t a post about the President. Having just celebrated my 45th birthday last Friday, I thought I would take a moment to share a key lesson I’ve learned over the years, one that I am most grateful for at this juncture in my life.

It’s the little things

It has taken me some time to really understand this lesson, but I have found that it truly is the little things in life that matter. I am sure I had older, wiser adults tell me this in my youth, but I think it takes living life and learning from your own journey to appreciate the message. I had a few “small moments” on my birthday and over the course of the weekend that created some special memories that I will not soon forget:

  • I had a few short trips in my car on my birthday, zipping around town from place to place. Every time I turned on the radio, some of my favorite songs happened to be playing. I couldn’t help but smile and sing along at the top of my lungs. Thanks to the universe’s DJ for spinning my favorite tunes!

 

  • During one of my car trips, I was approaching a red light at the bottom of a hill. To my left, there was a maintenance worker driving one of those industrial lawn mowers, trimming the tall grass at the corner of the road. As my car came to a stop, I instinctively looked up at the older gentleman driving the mower and we both broke out into huge grins and waved at one another. The next second, the light turned green and I was off. I have no idea who that man was, and I may never see him again in my life, but we shared a moment. A moment that set the tone for the rest of my day: it warmed my heart and made me more aware of the importance of human connection…whether with your loved ones or a perfect stranger at an intersection.

 

  • I spent most of my birthday with three other health coaches that are part of a Mastermind group. We had decided to engage in a visioning retreat, as we all desired to refocus our business efforts. After a brief check-in, we paired off for some dyad work. My colleague and I chose to answer the question “What’s inside of me that needs to get out?” For me, two themes kept coming up: the need to scratch my creative itch and the desire to inspire others. When we reconvened as a group, we all chose to make a “concrete” version (such as a vision board) of our respective visions. The coach who hosted us had brought along a plethora of arts and crafts materials, including river rocks. I knew immediately what I wanted – a simple visual reminder of my two themes: create and inspire. No need for a fancy vision board that will just gather dust in the corner. Just two simple rocks that now sit on my desk, keeping my vision in plain sight.

vision rocks

  • Perhaps the sweetest moment of the weekend unfolded on Sunday morning. I was on my way to the grocery store, when I approached the same intersection where I shared a moment with the maintenance worker. I noticed that a couple of cars in front of me seemed to be slowing down to avoid something in the road. I looked closer and saw this tiny white creature moving slowly across the road: it was a kitten, probably less than 2 months old. It was hesitating, given the large SUV and other car in its path. As a cat owner/lover, I had to do something. I pulled my car over to the shoulder and jumped out to go get it. Fortunately, there was very little traffic this early in the morning. I headed toward the kitten and when it saw me, it started to come toward me. I scooped it up and ran back to my car, gently placing it on the passenger side floor. With two other cats at home already, I knew that we couldn’t keep it, so I brought it to the emergency vet clinic in town. They said they were pretty sure they could place her (turns out “it” was a she) with a rescue group that would help find her a loving home. The whole adventure only lasted about an hour, but it was a highlight of my weekend and a birthday memory that will stay with me for years.

kitten 1

 

One of my favorite songs that I heard on the radio over the weekend is “Little Wonders,” a song from the movie Meet the Robinsons and written by Rob Thomas (who also happens to be one of my favorite singer/songwriters.) The lyrics below really capture the message in a beautiful way:

 

Our lives are made

In these small hours

These little wonders

These twists and turns of fate

Time falls away

But these small hours

These small hours still remain

 

In the future, when I look back on my 45th birthday, it is the events referenced above – those small hours and little wonders – that I will remember most.

Health at every size?

I had two experiences last weekend that I didn’t realize were related until I started thinking about the theme for this blog post. Saturday night, I had the opportunity to attend a screening of the documentary Fattitude followed by a panel discussion with community members and health professionals. Sunday morning, I attended service at my spiritual home, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Raleigh, where Reverend Osterman spoke about the “Burden of Perfectionism.” It is only in the last day or so that the connection between these two topics hit me and have inspired me to reexamine my long-held beliefs about weight and health.

Rethinking the connection between weight and health

 As I’ve shared before, I was overweight as a kid, so I have firsthand experience with the shame and frustration that comes with not fitting into the preferred norm when it comes to body image in this country. I have spent years on the yo-yo dieting cycle, losing weight only to regain it and start the weight loss cycle over again. It is only in the past few years that I have finally seen the light and realized that my struggle with maintaining a healthy weight has almost nothing to do with health, and everything to do with body image – and striving for the unattainable: a “perfect” body, like the images we are bombarded with daily on TV, the internet and print media alike.

It occurred to me that even when I have been overweight, I did not have any health issues. Blood pressure? Normal. Blood sugar? Normal. Cholesterol? Normal. However, given my family history of diabetes, heart disease, stroke and cancer, I have always been concerned about preventing such problems down the road. As a public health professional, this message was hammered into my brain: educate individuals about the health risks of being overweight/obese and help them modify their lifestyle to achieve a healthy weight. But as I learned the other night at the movie and discussion, the research upon which this message is based is not black and white. Most studies have demonstrated a correlation between excess weight and chronic diseases, not a direct causation. This is an important distinction to make. Being overweight or obese may increase your risk of developing diabetes or heart disease, but it is not necessarily a given. There are plenty of thin people who develop these conditions, just as there are fat people who do not.

Fattitude

The documentary Fattitude was eye-opening for me. As much as I knew that our culture is biased toward thin people, I was not aware of the breadth and depth of discrimination around weight. The movie pointed out that in children’s books, cartoons and movies, the villains and bad guys are almost always fat. In most of our entertainment, the fat person is the butt of the joke. But even beyond the entertainment world, I learned that fat people are often paid less than their thin counterparts and that they face bias in the healthcare environment. Self-report studies show that doctors view obese patients as lazy, lacking in self-control, non-compliant, unintelligent, weak-willed, and dishonest. Wow.

During the discussion after the movie, a teen-aged African-American girl in the audience posed a question to the physician on the panel. She said her pediatrician told her that because she is fat, she will develop diabetes and die. She wanted to know if that was true. The physician assured her that was not true, and the young girl ran out of the room crying – I’m assuming from a sense of relief that she was not doomed to this fate. (As a side note, I would say that this girl appeared to be a little overweight but by no means obese. I’m also happy to report that after being consoled by a few of the event organizers, she eventually returned to the discussion and was smiling and laughing by the end of the night.) I want to assume that this girl’s pediatrician meant well and had her best interest at heart, but we know using fear tactics is not the best approach to motivating people to change.

Perfection is overrated

I was still reflecting on the lessons learned Saturday night when I attended service Sunday morning. As a “recovering perfectionist” (I’m still a work in progress), I was eager to hear what my minister had to say about it. He shared insights about the three most common types of perfectionism:

  • Self-oriented perfectionism: Self-oriented perfectionists have high personal standards, expect to be perfect, and are very self-critical if they fail to meet these high expectations.

 

  • Other-oriented perfectionism: Other-oriented perfectionists expect other people to be perfect and are highly critical of those who fail to meet their impossibly high expectations.

 

  • Socially prescribed perfectionism: Socially prescribed perfectionists believe that other people expect them to be perfect and that these other people will be highly critical of them if they fail to meet expectations.

 

In thinking about it, I’m pretty sure I have a little bit of each type in me (yikes), but when it comes to my weight, I definitely link it to that last one. Although I have technically been at a healthy weight since high school, I have never felt “thin” – mostly because I have not had a flat stomach since I was about five years old (and probably never will unless I opt for surgical enhancement).  And in our culture, thin is beautiful and beautiful equals perfect. It is this external beauty standard that has kept me on the metaphorical treadmill year after year, trying to get that beach-ready body…and failing spectacularly with each passing summer. Why? I’ve come to realize that it is just not worth it to me. I’m not willing to put in the time and effort to achieve – and maintain – that ideal. There are too many other things I’d rather be doing than spending hours at the gym and obsessing over every piece of food I put in my mouth.

So now what?

As I said at the beginning, the events of this past weekend have given me pause and the desire to rethink my own beliefs about weight and health, as well as what this means for me as a health and wellness coach who works with others around weight management. I am inspired to re-read Health at Every Size, a book that challenges all of us to take a second look at the research around weight and health and consider adopting a different approach. I hope to learn more about the body positivity movement and speakers who were featured in the movie. Mostly though, I will be satisfied knowing that I am doing my best to eat a healthy diet and move my body in ways that bring joy and pleasure so that I will remain in good health and be able to enjoy life. Am I perfect? Nope, and that’s absolutely fine with me.

A Different Kind of Checkup

When it comes to the various dimensions of wellness, there is one area that is often overlooked: financial wellness. However, your financial health can impact many other areas of your life, including your physical health. The stress from worrying about money can definitely take its toll on the body. Therefore, it’s important to do at least an annual checkup of your finances to see where things stand.

Financial wellness is understanding your financial situation and taking care of it in such a way that you are prepared for financial changes. It includes being comfortable with where your money comes from and where it is going, but it is about more than just cash flow. A solid financial plan includes strategies such as budgeting, saving for emergencies, reducing or eliminating debt, and planning for retirement (and possibly paying for college, if you have children).

What is your financial IQ?

If the term financial wellness seems foreign to you, it may help to start with a simple assessment to measure your financial well-being. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) offers a short questionnaire on their website, which provides your score, the US average score for comparison, and suggestions for improving your financial situation if needed. There are also several free consumer tools available if you need help in specific areas such as buying a house, paying for college or planning for retirement.

Budgeting basics

One of the most important steps you can take to help manage your finances is to create a budget. A budget is a financial plan that helps you balance income (money you earn) and expenses (money you spend) from month to month.  Creating a budget – and sticking to it – can help you save money and reach your short- and long-term financial goals. You can use something as simple as an Excel spreadsheet or a financial app such as Mint.

Budgeting does take time, effort and discipline, but it can be a very valuable financial tool. If you find you are not able to stick to your budget, it may mean you are spending beyond your means or that your budget is not flexible enough. Take the time to review and readjust your budget monthly until you find a plan that works for you.

Emergency savings fund

Maintaining an emergency savings fund is one of the pillars of financial wellness. This is the money you set aside for those unexpected events such as major car repairs, damage to your home, or worse, losing your job. How much money to keep in your emergency fund really depends on your circumstances. At the very minimum, you should aim for at least one month’s salary (i.e., your after-tax, take-home pay). A safer rule of thumb is the 3-6-9-month guideline:

  • 3 months’ salary may be enough if you are single, renting, have a steady paycheck and a “safety net” to fall back on (i.e., family or close friends who would gladly help you out if you were really in dire straits.)

 

  • 6 months’ salary is the most common recommendation particularly if you are married (with or without kids), own your home and have two steady paychecks coming in. Even so, you will likely want to base that amount on the take-home pay of the highest earner in your household.

 

  • 9 months’ salary may be warranted if you (and/or your spouse) are self-employed or full-time freelancers and your income is less predictable. Having an emergency fund padded with nine months of the highest earner’s net income may help you sleep a little better at night and not worry as much about weathering a financial storm.

One of the easiest ways to help you save is to set up an automatic deposit from your paycheck to your savings account. Many employers offer the option to split your paycheck between a checking and savings account, so a part of your pay gets automatically saved each pay period. Putting the money aside before you can spend it will help build up that rainy-day fund.

Dealing with debt

One of the first things to understand about debt is the difference between “good” debt and “bad” debt. There are certain types of debt that may provide opportunities to improve your financial future.

Good debt includes things like home mortgages and student loans, which typically are low cost and have potential tax advantages. With mortgages, you’re borrowing money to own a potentially appreciating asset, and the mortgage interest may be tax-deductible. With student loans, interest rates tend to be on the low side, and the interest is often tax-deductible. Plus, furthering your education can lead to enhanced career opportunities, which will hopefully increase your earning potential in the long run.

On the other hand, you want to avoid “bad” debt, which is generally high cost and not tax-deductible. The most common source of this debt is credit cards. The high interest rates associated with this debt will cost you over time. Credit cards are a necessity for most of us and can be helpful if you can pay them off every month and not accrue interest. It all goes back to budgeting and spending within your means.

If you are already in a situation where you are struggling to deal with paying down your debt, the worst thing you can do is ignore it. Consider working with a credit counseling organization that can advise you on managing your money and debts. They usually offer free educational materials and workshops. The National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) is one source for finding a reputable organization.

Planning for retirement

If you are planning on living off your Social Security benefits when you retire, you may want to reassess that decision. Although Social Security should be around for some time, for most of us, the amount we’ll receive won’t be sufficient to cover expenses, even with some “downsizing” of our lifestyle. Thus, it’s important to have some additional investments to ensure a happy retirement. Experts suggest the following guidelines based on the assumption that you’ll retire at 65, need about 75% of your pre-retirement income and that Social Security benefits will cover about a third of your expenses:

 

At Age Savings should be
40 7x your income
45 8x your income
50 9x your income
55 10x your income
60 11x your income
65 12x your income

 There are several options when it comes to saving for retirement. You may have access to a 401(k) or 403(b) plan through your employer, and if you’re lucky, your employer may contribute to it as well. However, if you are self-employed or your employer does not offer a retirement plan, you can open an account and make contributions on your own. The most important thing about saving for retirement is to start early.  Even if you can only contribute a small amount each month, your contributions will earn interest over time and you’ll have peace of mind watching your nest egg grow.

For those of you who are parents, a quick note about saving for college: if money is tight and there is a choice between funding your retirement account or your child’s college fund (such as a 529 plan), it is always best to fund your retirement first. You can use retirement funds to pay for college, but you can’t use a college fund to pay for retirement. There are also other options to help pay for college, like student loans, but no one is going to loan you money to retire.

Using a financial planner

Whether you are just starting out on your own or counting down the last few years until you can retire, it may be worth your while to secure the services of a financial planner. The Wall Street Journal has some helpful tips for choosing a financial planner. Experts recommend choosing a Certified Financial Planner (CFP), as these individuals have passed a rigorous test administered by the Certified Financial Planner Board of Standards and they must complete relevant continuing education to maintain their designation. A financial planner should offer to meet at least annually to review your financial holdings and ensure that you are on track to meet your financial goals.

As you can see, there are several reasons why it’s important to monitor your financial well-being. A little time and effort on the front end will ensure peace of mind during your golden years.  I can guarantee that your future self will thank you for it.

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Sun Safety

It’s May and we all know what that means: neighborhood pools will be opening soon, and many people will be heading outdoors or to the beach for Memorial Day weekend. That means it’s time for a quick refresher on how to stay safe in the summer sun.

Learning from past mistakes

I recently participated in a Mindful Triathlon (it was awesome – look for one in your area here). It was an outdoor event at a local park from early morning to mid-afternoon. Before I left the house, I applied sunscreen to my face, but since it was still a little chilly, I dressed in layers with most of my body covered and protected from the sun. I knew that I might shed layers as the day warmed up though, so I threw the bottle of sunscreen in my backpack. Around mid-morning when we moved into the yoga portion of the event, I removed my outer layer, but I failed to apply any sunscreen on my chest, back and other exposed areas. I thought about it briefly, but I rationalized that it was still early, and the sun’s rays weren’t that intense.

Wrong. The reddish hint of a minor sunburn later that day reminded me just how powerful the sun is…and why it’s so important to protect our skin. I have had my fair share of sunburns. One of the worst was just after I graduated college and spent the day at a beach volleyball tournament under a blazing hot sun. I applied sunscreen that morning but failed to reapply throughout the day. The result was a nasty sunburn that to this day, I believe has increased my sensitivity to being in the sun. I have also had a few “atypical moles” removed, which had the potential to turn into skin cancer. I know several people who have died from melanoma, so I am recommitting myself to follow these basic recommendations to help protect myself and my family.

Keys to protection

According to the CDC, the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays can damage your skin in as little as 15 minutes. One of the best things you can do is avoid being in the sun altogether, but none of us want to hide inside all summer. Instead, follow these recommendations to limit your exposure and reduce your risk when you do spend time in the sun.

  • Seek shade, especially late morning through mid-afternoon. This includes 10 am to 4 pm, during peak spring and summer days. Umbrellas, trees, or other shelters can provide relief from the sun.

 

  • Wear a hat, sunglasses and other clothes to protect skin. Protective clothing can reduce your burn risk by 27%. Sunglasses are essential to protect your eyes from UV radiation. They are also important to wear around surfaces that reflect the sun’s rays, like snow, sand, water, and concrete.

 

  • Use broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher to protect any exposed skin. Apply a thick layer at least 15 minutes before going outside, and reapply every two hours and after swimming, sweating, and/or toweling off. For help in choosing safe and effective sunscreens, check out the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Sunscreens. A quick note about high SPF labels: anything higher than SPF 50 can tempt you to stay in the sun too long. Even if you don’t burn, your skin may be damaged. It is best to stick to an SPF between 15 and 50.

 

  • Remember that sunburns and skin damage can occur even on cloudy or overcast days. Thus, the above recommendations are still relevant even if the sun is not completely visible in the sky.

 

Skin cancer screening

Finally, as hard as we may try to protect ourselves from skin damage, we are human and likely to forget the protective clothing and/or sunscreen now and then. Therefore, being evaluated by a dermatologist once a year and checking your skin regularly are two excellent steps you can take to catch melanoma and other types of skin cancer early. The sooner skin cancer is found, the better the chances are of curing it.

It’s important to be familiar with your skin and report any changes to your dermatologist right away. Get into the habit of checking your skin once a month. Look for new moles appearing that haven’t been there before. You can also use the simple ABC guidelines to monitor for changes that may be of concern:

A is for asymmetry: one half of a mole looks different from the other half.

B is for border: the borders of a mole are uneven, jagged or scalloped.

C is for color: the color of a mole is different from one area to another.

It’s also important to note a mole’s size. If you have a mole larger than about a quarter of an inch across (about the size of a pencil eraser), have it checked. If there is a change in the size, shape, color or height of a mole, or if you develop symptoms such as bleeding, itching or tenderness, that should be evaluated, as well.

Being proactive and following the recommendations to reduce your exposure to the sun will still allow you to enjoy the great outdoors this summer and throughout the year. Be safe, be smart and have fun!

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Keeping Your Eye on the Prize

For most of my adult life, walking has been my “go to” exercise – whether it be walking with family and friends outside or taking advantage of my treadmill and/or various walk at home DVDs when the weather isn’t conducive to exercising outdoors. Like many walking enthusiasts, I jumped on the pedometer bandwagon in the early 2000s. After all, I needed to know if I was achieving the recommended 10,000 steps a day to help maintain good health. As an added incentive, the company I worked for offered a walking challenge as part of the employee wellness program and I could earn prizes based on my steps.

I recall becoming frustrated with the pedometer over time. I had the simple kind that just hooked on to your pants, but this posed a problem if I wore a dress or some other outfit without a place to attach the pedometer. Even if I wore pants, the pedometer often slipped off. And there was always the question of what to do with it when needing to use the rest room so as not to lose said pedometer down the toilet. Eventually, I gave up and stopped wearing one altogether.

Wearable fitness trackers: friend or foe?

Fast forward about a decade to the introduction of wearable fitness trackers. I recall a friend owning one of the earliest products, which was technically still a clip-on device, but it did more than just measure steps. These new products could also track and monitor calories burned, sleep activity, and floors climbed. I’ve never really been an early adopter when it comes to technology, so I took a wait and see approach. As the technology and design improved, I finally jumped in a few years ago and purchased one of the more popular band-style fitness trackers. (Note: I am not going to name which brand I use as I am not endorsing or criticizing any particular device or company.)

At first, I was enamored by the wealth of data this device could supply. The accompanying app was user-friendly and the dashboard was customizable, so I could set it up to include as much or as little information as I wanted. My primary interest was in steps taken, minutes of exercise, calories burned and sleep. I have to admit it was fun at first, monitoring my progress and hoping to see green icons at the end of the day, meaning I had met my goals. I invited friends to participate in step challenges, so that we could hold each other accountable with a little friendly competition.

Wearing the device has definitely made me more aware of my level of activity and it has helped me achieve some health goals. But recently, I have started to question whether the fitness tracker is as beneficial as I first believed it to be. For example, I aim to get 10,000 steps per day. On average, my normal daily activity typically adds up to about 5,000 steps and then with at least 30 minutes of exercise, I can usually make it to my goal. However, I sometimes find myself “gaming the system,” if you will. I use the feature that reminds me to get up and move each hour if I have been inactive…except more and more lately, I find myself ignoring the notification and staying put in my seat. Then, later in the day when I realize I am behind on steps, I may find myself pacing the halls to get to 10,000 steps before bed. This is not helping me sit less during the day, and it often drives my husband crazy when I pace the bedroom trying to get in those last 500 steps or so.

The other feature that I have started to second guess is the sleep tracker. At first, I was excited to have this information at hand to get a better sense of the quality and quantity of my sleep. I typically aim to get about seven and a half hours of sleep per night during the week and maybe a little more on weekends. I have never really had a problem with sleep. I usually fall asleep quickly and often wake up before my alarm even goes off. I am an early riser as I meditate and exercise in the morning before going to work. Because of my schedule, it’s important for me to get to bed at a decent hour. So, I aim to have lights out no later than 10pm and wake up around 5:15am, giving me between seven and seven and a half hours of sleep.

When I started looking at the sleep data, I was surprised to find that I was often getting less than that according to the tracker. Most days I was lucky to be getting six to six and half hours per night, and sometimes it was even less. In looking at the breakdown of sleep stages, it indicated that I was often awake for an hour or more overnight. I realized over time that seeing these numbers was actually stressing me out about not getting enough sleep…when in reality, nothing had changed about my sleep patterns. For the most part, I was not waking up for significant amounts of time during the night and I usually felt refreshed and alert when I woke up. It took me a while to come to the conclusion that having this sleep data was doing more harm than good, so I recently made the decision to stop wearing the device at night (it was never really comfortable to me anyway) and I removed the sleep data from my dashboard. It is the best decision I have made in a while.

A ha moment

I have been having mixed feelings about my fitness tracker for some time now, but the “a ha” moment happened last weekend when I was in the middle of Nia class. I glanced at the tracker to see how many steps I had and found myself disappointed that it was less than I expected. Then it hit me – I had totally lost sight of my true goal. The bottom line is I exercise to maintain good health so I can enjoy life. The most important thing is that I am active and that I enjoy the activities I engage in. Whether or not I get 10,000 steps a day is really irrelevant. I had taken my eyes off the prize: being active because it feels good and is good for me.

So, does this mean I am tossing out my fitness tracker? No, at least not yet. I do believe there are benefits to wearing it and monitoring the data, but I won’t allow the data to stress me out or dictate how I spend my time. I am also going to take breaks from it now and then so I don’t feel so tethered to this little device on my wrist. Unfortunately, it seems that fitness trackers have become one more piece of technology that we can become addicted to, so it’s good to unplug from them every now and then. Take it off, then go walk, run, swim or play…just for the fun of it.