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New Starts #3: Time to Chill

“Health is not only to be well but to use well all the powers that you have.” – Florence Nightingale

We all know January is the “time to chill.” But in this post, we’re going to discuss chilling as a means of reducing stress, tension, anxiety and negativity in your life. To that end, here are some key facts about stress:

  1. Your body can’t discriminate between major stressors and minor ones. Whether it’s a traffic jam or a computer virus, the stress reaction triggers a cascade of 1,400 biochemical events in your body, taking over a critical part of our brain.
  2. Stress can make smart people do stupid things: clouding our thinking, draining our energy, undercutting our productivity, and even aging us prematurely if left unchecked. We’ve all “lost it” in a stressful situation, likely surprising even ourselves. That’s because stress causes what researchers call “cortical inhibition,” bottle-necking our brain function. And the shallow breathing of stress raises heart rate and blood pressure, even changing blood chemistry in a way that makes your platelets stickier. Sadly, that increases the risk of heart disease and stroke. No wonder there’s an expression about taking “a chill pill”!
  3. We can grow numb to stress with enough exposure. Often the daily pressures and irritations of life begin to seem like “the new normal” and cease to faze us. But we may not realize how much they’re undermining our mental, emotional, and physical health until it manifests as a rash decision, an impulsive outburst, or even an unwanted medical diagnosis.
  4. We are fully in control of how we react to stress! We can rewire our stress response to override it with calm, cool and collected “coherence” — bringing the brain, heart and nervous system in harmony, and fostering peak performance.
  5. Handling stress in the moment is the best strategy. Millions of us use the “binge and purge” approach to stress: letting it build up all day, burying it inside, and waiting for an evening yoga class or the weekend. This doesn’t work — the stress response has already activated.

The good news: positive emotion is the antidote to stress in every way, and this mode of thought and reaction grows stronger with practice. And because it utilizes the same receptors as stress, it’s literally impossible to feel stress while you’re cultivating positive emotion and positive thinking. One strategy to do so is a combination of deep breathing and gratitude for the joyful things in our lives. Place your hand on your heart, visualize your breath moving in and out through your heart, and think of a person or place that brings you joy. You can use this practice before you fall asleep, when you wake up in the middle of the night, to prepare for an important communication (from a meeting to a mingle), and to recoup or recover from a stressful situation.  Studies show it leads to improved relationships, improved sleep, improved performance at work and at play, and a greater sense of balance and ease.


New Starts #2: Never Say Diet

Most of us approach the new year with a resolve to lose weight—but it gets difficult when popular diets undermine and contradict each other. We should go meatless but eat like a caveman? We should avoid sugar yet indulge on fruit? We shouldn’t eat between meals, but we should subsist on frequent snacks?

And so our weight loss gets stalled before it begins. How can we possibly decide whether to embrace or avoid fats, carbs, sugar, dairy, gluten, wheat, grazing, and snacks?

In a recent article, Greatist.com counsels to “think of dieting like dating.”

“You wouldn’t choose to be in a relationship with someone you despise from day one, so why would you do that with the foods you eat. Every. Single. Day. You will quit the plan, you will learn to hate healthy eating, and you’ll probably end up more frustrated and confused than when you started.”

So if you love bread and pasta, don’t attempt to restrict your carbs. If you love dessert, avoid restricted sugar eating plans. If you enjoy waking up to a hearty breakfast or ending the day with a late-night snack, don’t buy into diets that prescribe huge lunches.

At the end of the day, “diet” is the wrong approach. But enjoying your food, honoring your hunger, and observing portion size – day in and day out – will all help you lose weight without finding it again, without the drama and heartbreak of a toxic relationship. To that end, remember these general guidelines:

Drink water, eat fiber. Both water and fiber-rich foods can battle bloat and better sync your gut and your brain so you stop eating when you’ve had your fill. Try crunching on zucchini and cucumber (not chips), popping frozen grapes as a late-night snack, and warming up with peppermint tea instead of soda.

Beware the “health halo.” That’s the blinding light surrounding certain foods that beguile us into eating badly when we think we’re making a healthy choice.  For example: granola bars, protein shakes, veggie chips, fruit juice, and frozen yogurt. There’s nothing wrong with having these in moderation – just watch your portion size; otherwise sugar levels can approach that of a king-size candy bar.

Keep it real. Consoled with fat-free or sugar-free versions of your favorite food? The health halo strikes again. When food makers take out fat, they replace the lost flavor with sugar and salt.  When they take out sugar, they replace the lost flavor with fat. All experts say to eat the regular version of anything, from cheddar to chocolate, in moderation. You’ll be far more satisfied.

Savor and socialize. No need to shy away from dinner with family or friends! When you enjoy every bite, and every conversational bit, you will feel fuller much faster.

Don’t skip meals! It messes with your metabolism and sets you up for more overeating. If you over-indulged at lunch or dinner, it’s okay. Make the next meal “green and clean”: lean protein, fish, vegetables, fruits, to keep your energy up and your willpower strong.

Get enough sleep. Besides suppressing hormones that fuel hunger, eight hours of shut-eye means less incentive to nosh late at night, sharper focus in the morning, and more energy to jump into activities you enjoy.


New Starts #1: Tiny Habits, Big Impact

We’ve all heard it: New Year, New You. We’ve done everything we’re
“supposed” to do: joined a gym, cleared the fridge, sharpened our pencils, upgraded our software, and installed that zen-like Meditation app on our phone.

Here’s the problem: most habits don’t have the sticking power to see you through 2017. You might start to break them before you even make them—and throw in the towel before you’ve even brought it to the gym. Maybe that’s because you (secretly) don’t like the treadmill; or you start to fidget when you’re told to “relax”; or a salad with dressing on the side just doesn’t fill you up. Understandably, willpower erodes quickly.

A new approach to change called the Fogg Method reboots the self-inflicted “torture” – think of any diet regimen, abandoned painting project, or dust-gathering gym pass – that inevitably crumbles, backfires, and drains our resources. The psychologist behind the method, B.J. Fogg, lists three steps to focus on training your brain to succeed at small adjustments, celebrate small victories, and draw confidence from them to create momentum and rewrite the “scripts” from inevitable failure to resounding success.

  1. Identify your outcome. Do you want to feel more energetic, less stressed, more focused, less rushed? Do you want to lose 10 percent of your bodyweight, score that promotion, or pull yourself out of debt? And how will that change make you feel? Grounding resolve in our feelings clarifies our decisions, our goals, and our actions.
  2. Identify the “tiny habits” that will help us, incrementally, approach our goals. It’s not necessarily working out at the gym; maybe it’s walking with a friend. Instead of working longer hours, maybe it’s working smarter – requesting that faster computer or second monitor, for example. If meditation makes you antsy, lunch with a friend or cuddling your pet might relax you more. And that’s okay.
  3. Find a trigger – a pre-existing habit – and graft the new habit onto it, in a diluted version that requires little motivation. Examples: putting an apple on the counter when you make coffee, doing one push-up after using the bathroom, flossing one tooth after brushing them all, tossing one piece of garbage from your car each time you park, or lacing your sneakers after washing the dishes. You don’t have to actually eat the apple, crank out calisthenics, floss all your teeth, vacuum your vinyl seats, or head out to jog—yet. This will come in good time. In the meantime, as the Fogg online health coach phrases it, “You’re rewriting your identity as someone who succeeds.” Small victories aggregate into large changes. To join Tiny Habits, visit tinyhabits.com.

Finding Warmth in Winter #4: Hibernation at Home

These snowmen hot chocolate (see picture) from BuzzFeed remind us that home isn’t only where the heart is; it’s where the hearth is! Don’t get us wrong; we love outdoor adventures when the sun’s blazing and the flowers blooming. But in winter gloom, staying put has its perks.

Cranking up the heat will guarantee a warm house, but it gets expensive quickly. Foregoing heat is not an option, either. And it’s inefficient to lower the heat drastically when you’re out – you’ll just expend energy ratcheting it up when you return.
Here are ten ways to lower the thermostat and lower your bills:

  1. Look up — check your roof for missing shingles, cracked shingles, and leaks! The typical asphalt shingle roof lasts around 25 years. If you can see sunlight from your attic, then cold air and precipitation can find their way into your home.
  2. Seal all cracks in your window frame. The Good Housekeeping Institute recommends shinning a flashlight or candle on the frame – with a partner outside. If they can see light, it’s time to caulk and seal!
  3. Reverse your ceiling fan’s motor to clockwise. This will create an updraft that pushes the rising warm air back down to where it benefits you.
  4. Splurge on blankets. Layering multiple blankets is key to keeping warm, and down comforters with high thread counts are known for their toasty-toes factor.
  5. Throw open the shades when the sun comes out; draw them shut at night. This will harness solar energy for a mild warming effect.
  6. Invest in blackout shades with a thermal lining to help save energy.
  7. Stop the chill from sneaking under doors and around outlets with doorstoppers and outlet insulators.
  8. Throw rugs everywhere! Wool feels cozier than floorboards on the feet, and offers insulation to boot (sorry, couldn’t resist.).
  9. Don’t heat rooms that you don’t use! If no one plans to occupy the guest room for a while, close the vents and door.
  10. Get a “smart” thermostat (like the Nest Learning Thermostat) for your home. You can program these devices to lower the temperature slightly when you’re not there, then adjust when you return. Eventually, the thermostat will learn your schedule and program itself.

Finding Warmth in Winter #3: Sparking Resolve Before January First

Cheers! This week you’ve got Christmas leftovers, Hanukah latkes, family dinners, New Year’s toasts, lazy afternoons, and access to enough food to send you into hibernation. Next week you’ve got clean breaks, fresh starts, work obligations, time crunches, goals to meet, and resolutions to uphold.

Let’s get these two weeks working together, rather than locking horns. Here’s our guide to getting a “running start” toward successful resolutions, without skimping on fun this week.

Drink water, eat fiber. Both water and fiber-rich foods can battle holiday bloat. To accomplish both at once, try water-rich vegetables such as zucchini and cucumber. And to warm up with stomach-soothing hydration, try peppermint tea.

Linger over meals. You read that right! Take advantage of the more relaxed pace of holiday week by eating socially, and slowly. Help yourself to cookies — and enjoy each bite. When you savor each bite as much as you savor the people around you, you will feel fuller much faster…so much so, that three cookies (instead of seven) will do the trick.

Freeze some grapes. They’re the perfect (water-filled) snack to pop while you’re cuddling on the couch, watching TV. (Other ideas: plain popcorn, sliced strawberries, hummus and black-bean chips.)

Get enough sleep. Even when you’re out to dinner or a party, block off eight hours for shut-eye. You’ll have less incentive to nosh late at night and sharper focus in the morning. Which brings us to our fifth suggestion.

Get moving every day. Power through the food coma; you’ll feel better almost instantly. From a 15-minute walk after a big meal to a family hike outdoors, staying active helps body, mind, and soul feel satisfied—not sluggish.

Don’t skip meals! It messes with your metabolism and sets you up for more overeating. If you indulged to much at lunch or dinner, it’s okay. Make the next meal “green and clean”: lean protein, fish, vegetables, fruits, to keep your energy up and your willpower strong.

Eat with your non-dominant hand. Strange, but true! Check out this article from Dr. Oz: http://www.drozthegoodlife.com/healthy-lifestyle/body/tips/a1767/stop-overeating-wrong-hand-trick/


Finding Warmth in Winter #2: Ice, Ice, Baby!

“We don’t fight winter; we take advantage of it.” – The Book of Hygge

America winters are rough, but Nordic ones are even rougher. That may explain why countries such as Norway and Denmark invest in the concept of hygge (hoo-guh), which roughly translates to finding joy in your current situation – in this case, winter – by warming your body and soul and cultivating the comfort of home, whether you’re there or not. Think soup, mulled wine and hot cocoa with marshmallows; slippers, robes and scented candles; and lots of time with family and friends — plus blissful solitude, whether engrossed in a book, curled on the couch and/or submerged in a bubble bath.

We’re on board. But, with that said: how do we explain the surging popularity of ice hotels? These are temporary lodging places (rebuilt, post-thaw, each year) in which the walls, fixtures and fittings are made entirely of ice or compacted snow, cemented with an ice-coated packed snow called snice (that’s “snow” and “ice”).

You wouldn’t camp out in an igloo or mold drinking vessels out of snow; so why pay to sleep on a bed of snow and toast to your health (or lack thereof) with ice glasses at a solid-brick ice bar?

The Nordic countries have their share of ice hotels, some built from the frozen waters of local rivers. Here in North America, Quebec’s Hotel de Glace (Ice Hotel) first opened in January 2001. Its ice beds have wooden frames, deer skins and arctic sleeping bags; and before turning in for the night, guests can enjoy a shot of vodka at the Absolut Ice Bar.

In fact, how-to videos for sleeping on ice all recommend that guests warm up with a cocktail before bed. Guests report feeling so warm and cozy – safely ensconced in the snow – that many shed their thermal underwear by morning. The breakfasts include hot juice, of course.

Would you venture into an ice hotel during the camping hiatus? Tell us why!


Finding Warmth In Winter #1: Furry Friends

When campgrounds and other warm-weather sites close down, winter can turn dreary in more ways than one. Spring may lie around the corner; but this trek through the woods seems impossibly long. For this series of blogs, we’re exploring ways to bring joy, light and that warm, fuzzy feeling into the coldest months. We’re kicking it off with a fun one: owning (or borrowing) a pet! If you have one, you can attest to the list below. If you don’t, and certain family members are requesting one for Christmas, this list might tip the odds in their favor.

  1. Less stress. Researchers found that people conducting a stressful task reported less stress when their pets were with them – and pets took down stress levels better than spouses, relatives and friends. “You might lose your job, your house, your 401(k)—but you’ll never lose the unconditional love of your pet,” says Marty Becker, author of Your Dog: The Owner’s Manual.
  2. Lower blood pressure and cholesterol…and thus fewer heart attacks. You may love your dog more than anything; it loves your heart right back!
  3. Better mood. Within half an hour of playing with your dog, you feel more relaxed and calm. The interaction raises your brain’s levels of dopamine and serotonin, the natural “feel-good” chemicals.
  4. Built-in exercise. “This dog isn’t going to walk itself”…and that’s to your advantage! Between neighborhood strolls and playing fetch, dog walkers get plenty of movement, and ample chances to enjoy the winter sunshine…another mood booster. When the chill sends you and your pet sprinting outdoors, you can generate warmth and keep moving by giving your pet a rubdown with a warm towel. Hugs and wrestling may follow!
  5. Instant friend-maker. Dog parks, outdoor cafes and pet stores (and newer social networking websites like Dogster and Petpop) are a great way to meet and mingle. Animal Planet calls them “the common denominator that helps people connect.”
  6. Healthier, happier kids. Children who grow up with dogs in the family have fewer allergies, stronger immune systems, and less risk of both eczema and allergies.  They also have an outlet for excess energy, a natural way to calm down, and a perfect opportunity to learn to care for others, responsibly.
  7. Stronger values. Dogs teach us more than we teach them. Think patience, commitment, affection, empathy, and all the virtues and values attached to caring for a pet.

Remember: Taking on a pet, particularly in winter, requires responsibility. (Yet another value for the list above!) You’ll want to avoid lighted candles, tape extension cords to the wall, and sweep your rug free of pine needles, ribbon and tinsel.


21st Century Parenting

21st Century Parenting

As holiday time approaches, many parents begin to anxiously crunch the numbers in their budgets for gifts. Will they be able to spring for the latest gaming system, sneakers, jackets and boots?

Family vacations, such as camping trips, merit the investment of money and time – because research shows that shared experiences are remembered more vividly than even the most lavish gifts. In the mind, campfires and creek walks burn longer than couches and consoles.

But with camping season on hiatus, how can families channel their kids’ energy and appetite for “the latest”, the must-haves, the little luxuries that stuff stockings and lift spirits?

The solution might be simple, for the season and for a New Year’s resolution. Have kids work. In many cases, allow kids to work.

Kids have a natural industriousness and a craving for responsibility. In his book The Opposite of Spoiled,  Ron Lieber, money columnist for the New York Times, says he’s heard countless stories about kids redeeming cans and bottles for refunds. And yet many families refuse to entertain the thought of a child performing chores around the house, or a teenager holding a part-time job after school.

“No one wants to return to the days when children worked full-time on the farm or in factories at the age of 12,” he writes. “But many parents have swung to the opposite extreme in the past decade or two, shielding even their oldest children …from paid work altogether.” For the latter half of the 20th century, 45 percent of American kids ages 16-19 had jobs; by 2013, it’s at the all-time low of 20 percent. Part of this flows from the anxiety of the college admissions game. But the skills imparted by a job –including work ethic and “grit” to persevere, not to mention entrepreneurial muscle – can boost life skills as much as any drama club or soccer captainship.  A recent study shows that high “grit” scores are more predictive than IQ tests on academic performance, from spelling bees to retention at West Point.

In one of his book’s most fascinating chapters, Lieber visits a farm family in Utah where seven boys (ranging from 6 to 19 years old) raise 1,800 cows. The youngest started working at age 5, steering tractors through cowpens while his older brothers supervise the feedings or stack bales of straw and hay. They fit in workloads at dawn or after school, between Boy Scout meetings and wrestling practices; and each receive a paycheck for their efforts.

For kids who are too young to hold a job, at-home chores can lay the groundwork for “grit,” particularly meal preparation. Consider the nine-year-old girl who cooked Beef Wellington on the final rounds of MasterChef Junior, deftly handling knives and open flames.

While extreme, this talent points up a child’s ability to actively participate in some sort of meal preparation, from setting the table to serving the soup. We often have kids pitch in while we camp; why not bring teamwork into the kitchen, especially around holiday time?

You’ll be easing your task burden, carving out more time for relaxed eating around the table.  You’ll show kids how to build confidence, life skills and work ethic – not to mention an appreciation for food.

Combine industrious can-do attitude with generous holiday spirit, and you just might find the solution to stretching your budgets and your patience this year.


Roughing it Right: Car Camping


When many people hear the word “camping” they immediately think of a grudging journey through nature, walking miles through rugged terrain before setting up a campsite.  While this kind of gritty vacation is invigorating, many people seeking a break in the great outdoors prefer something a bit more tame, i.e. car camping.   But what really makes car camping any less “rough” that roughing it on the trail?  Read on to find out!

The Camp
Unlike traditional camping, car campers pitch their tents in designated campsites right next to their vehicles, and that means carrying your house on your back is no longer an issue.  Setting up or breaking camp is a quick and simple process because all of your gear and equipment is safely stored in the trunk, and bad weather can be ridden out inside the comfort of a warm car rather than a canvas tent.

The Gear
A traditional camper and hiker knows that he or she will be trekking through the wilderness, and thus packing for the trip becomes a delicate dance of decisions on everything from the weight of cookware to the amount of food.  With car camping however the family car is effectively transformed into a supply wagon, allowing campers to bring far more luxuries and items with them on their trip.  Cast-iron cookware and full-sized coolers of drinks and fresh food are a lot more practical when you have a vehicle handy.

The Hygiene
It’s usually the last thing on your mind when you set out for a camping trip, but keeping good personal hygiene is arguably the hardest part of a camper’s life.  Traditional camping means having limited water and fresh clothes, not to mention keeping a wary eye out for waste around the campsite (human or otherwise).  Car camping however is typically a lot less grungy; most campsites have restrooms and showers included as part of the package, and sometimes daily garbage collection.  Getting back to nature is one thing, but few people want to look like an animal at the end of their trip!


The Hiker’s Folly: Dangerous Mistakes


Exploring the wonders of the outdoors is all about empowerment and freedom, but it’s easy for even experienced hikers to let excitement and fatigue cloud their judgement and lead them to some costly mistakes.  We’re not trying to rain on any camper’s enthusiasm, but there are a few all-too-common issues that can lead to dangerous outcomes.

Failing to Stay on the Path
Whether it’s a brand-new hike or a patch of rugged country you’ve hiked a hundred times, it’s important to stay on the trails.  Not only does hiking off-trail contribute to erosion and damage the local ecosystem, hikers are more likely to risk dangerous encounters with wildlife and even become downright lost when venturing down the path less traveled.  Fallen trees, hidden holes or debris are everywhere off of the trails, and not only could these things injure even experienced hikers, but finding help in a hurry becomes that much more difficult when rescue works can’t get to you.

Hiking Alone
It’s true that nature can offer peace-filled solitude, but trekking into uncharted territory by yourself is a dangerous gambit.  Anything can happen out on the trail, and without a fellow hiker nearby to go for help it’s far too easy to get into trouble with no hope of rescue.  Traveling with a companion is just good safety, not to mention having someone to share the experience of hiking makes it all that much more fun!

Overestimating Yourself
While many hikers consider it a mark of personal pride to overcome every obstacle they encounter, it’s important to pay attention to the limitations of the hiking party overall.  Because not everyone will be at the same level of physical fitness or possess the same amount of experience, it’s important to know everyone’s real capabilities and to minimize risk.  It might seem like fun to push on to the campsite after dark or take a shortcut across a stream, remember the old saying: short cuts make long delays!