Monday, October 14, 2013

October – It’s About Understanding Health

Let's face it. Understanding the principles of good health can be difficult: confusing.  The info you need to improve your health is often unavailable, hard to find, or hard to understand. Every day, Americans face the challenge of making life-changing decisions about their health.  These major decisions are often made in doctor's offices, but just as often, we make medical and health decisions in real-world places: at grocery or drug stores, workplaces, or around the kitchen table.  To make the best possible decisions, we need information. Understandable and readily available information.

Making health more understandable is the core goal of Health Literacy Month.  This annual nationwide event, founded in 1999, encourages people and businesses to promote the importance of understandable health information.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) defines health literacy as the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services to make appropriate health decisions.  And the CDC is so concerned about the nationwide problem of health illiteracy that they created a website to raise awareness and offer ideas and solutions for improving health literacy.

The need for better health literacy

Research by the CDC and others shows that health information is too often presented in ways that are not usable by most adults. The CDC reports that nearly 90 percent of adults have difficulty using health information, even when it is readily available. As a result, many of us end up skipping needed medical tests, end up in emergency rooms more often, and have a greater difficulty managing chronic diseases. 

With risks like these, there is no question that we need raised awareness of the problem – that we need a Health Literacy Month to raise awareness and seek solutions.  The good news is, Health Literacy Month is making a difference. Since its founding, there have been thousands of events from coast-to-coast, and even around the world, raising awareness of the need for understandable health information.  Beyond awareness, the CDC adds that every organization involved in health information and services needs its own health literacy plan to improve its organizational practices.

How others have improved health literacy in their areas

For the October 2013 Health Literacy Month, the goal is to create health literacy heroes – individuals and organizations that actively work to improve how we communicate health information. And for many years, groups and individuals have worked to host health literacy events, such as patient health education programs, educational opportunities for the general public, and communication workshops for health professionals.

For example, North Carolina’s Wake Health Literacy Coalition is improving health literacy in its area by educating professionals and the public on how to clearly communicate about health.  Another inspiring example: Sinai Urban Health Institute Asthma Team has created a “Helping Children Breathe and Thrive” program, operating within Chicago Housing Authority developments, meeting underserved people in their homes, often teaching teaching them how to use medications or assessing homes for adverse asthma-related environmental problems, such as mold. 

What you can do to improve health literacy

If health literacy is a topic you’re passionate about, there are many methods you can apply to promote health literacy success.   Here are some examples:
  • GET TRAINING. Do you work in the health profession? Getting training in health literacy is essential for you and your business. There are many courses available to help, such as the self-directed training course A Physician's Practical Guide to Culturally Competent Care, or the free five-hour course Effective Communication Tools for Healthcare Professionals. 
  • READ TO GET UP TO SPEED. Check out the National Action Plan to Improve Health Literacy from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.  This downloadable guidebook seeks to engage organizations and individuals in an effort to improve health literacy. The plan includes seven broad goals with multiple high level strategies for various stakeholders and provides a focal point for the field.
  • SHARE AND INTERACT. To help you get the word out, and grow your own knowledge, check out the CDC's Health Literacy Blog, where you can join in on discussions and share your ideas about what you would like to see CDC and other public health agencies do to improve health literacy. Also, review these CDC suggestions and resources to help you communicate key points about health literacy to colleagues, staff, leadership, and the community.
At, you can find many resources specifically designed to help you develop and organize health literacy events. Check out their resources page, where you can purchase their Health Literacy Success Kit, Health Literacy Month Handbook, a podcasting guide, and the book Health Literacy from A to Z. 

To find an event near you, check out the CDC's Health Literacy Activities by State web page.

Ric Moxley
Contributing Writer

Friday, October 11, 2013

Promoting Philanthropy in Children

Philanthropy. The word usually conjures up images of wealthy individuals donating large sums of money to organizations. Yet, in reality, philanthropy actually encompasses not only charitable giving but service and support as well.  Studies show promoting philanthropy in children can be beneficial to their well-being.

Children and teen volunteers

Why should I encourage philanthropy in children?

According, children who engage in philanthropic activities reap the following benefits:

  • A boost in self-esteem linked to performing selfless acts
  • Learn the value of money
  • Engage in teamwork and experience the importance of working with others
  • Gain knowledge of empathy and a commitment to helping others
  • Develop and utilize skills such as organization, communication and problem solving

Developmental psychologist Marilyn Price Mitchell believes children who engage in philanthropic acts experience a greater sense of well-being, are successful academically and have better relationships with peers than those who do not.

How do I teach children about philanthropy?

  • Lead by example.  Children learn more by what they see you do than by what you say. Have children join you when you volunteer and you will be sending a valuable message about how to be a philanthropist.
  • Promote their passion.  Encourage children to get involved in a cause they care about and they’re more likely to continue with those philanthropic activities.
  • Have discussions. Explain the different ways of being philanthropic—charitable giving, volunteering time or energy to a cause or being of service to those in need.
  • Get involved as a family. Engaging in philanthropic activities together is a great way to spend quality time as a family while helping a worthwhile cause. Participating in a “Giving Circle,” term used for pooling money as a family, is a great way to teach children about charitable giving.

Visit Share Save Spend,, an organization that teaches children how to allot a portion of their earnings or gifts to spending, sharing and saving, for additional ideas.

Sign for lemonade for hurricane relief

When do I start teaching children about philanthropy?

  • Early education is key. Children can become involved in charitable giving at any age. Choose activities and involvement that is age appropriate and related to their interests.
  • Studies show the earlier philanthropic activities are discussed and introduced in a child’s life, the more likely it becomes a lifelong habit.

Philanthropic activities for children:

  • Volunteer at an animal rescue by walking dogs or cleaning cat cages.
  • Assist at a food bank by stocking shelves with donated food or bagging food to go to needy families.
  • Visit an elderly resident in a nursing home or a war veteran.
  • Help children undergoing cancer treatment by supporting an event. Visit for more details.
  • Encourage children to develop their own ideas for a philanthropic activity.

For more ideas on philanthropy and charity for children, visit

Kathy Rembisz 
Contributing Writer

Thursday, October 10, 2013

World Mental Health Day 2013

World Mental Healthy Day is October 10.  The goal of this designated day is to raise awareness of mental health, also known as behavioral health. While the specific focus for 2013 is older adults, mental illness can affect anyone, at any age.

World Mental Health Day

What is mental health?

Also known as behavioral health, mental health is a complex component of health that encompasses your mood, thinking and behavior.  Mental health has an impact on your day-to-day functioning, as well as work, activities and relationships.

Mental illness statistics:

According to the National Institute of Mental Health,

  • Mental illness is more common than cancer, diabetes or heart disease
  • 25% of American adults (18+) and 13% of American children (8-15) are diagnosed with mental illness during a given year
  • Major depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia are among the U.S.’s top 10 leading causes of disability
  • 8 out of 10 individuals suffering from mental illness return to normal activities after receiving proper treatment

Types of mental illness:

  • Depression
  • Anxiety disorders
  • Eating disorders
  • Schizophrenia
  • Addictive behaviors

Experts agree that even more important than knowing the different types of mental illnesses is recognizing warning signs, which are crucial to early diagnosis and proper treatment.

Warning signs of mental illness or episode:

  • Social withdrawal or loss of interest in others
  • Noticeable decline in performance at work or school
  • Concentration or memory problems
  • Changes in sleep patterns or personal hygiene
  • Heightened sensitivity to the senses--sight, sound, smell or touch
  • Unusual sense of power or abilities
  • Mood swings
  • Suspicious feelings

According to the professionals at, a combination of these symptoms and their negative impact on daily activity might indicate an underlying mental illness.

Is a nervous breakdown a sign of mental illness?

An episode usually caused by extreme stress, a nervous breakdown creates a psychiatric response in an individual. It may indicate underlying mental illness.

What should you do if someone threatens suicide?

  • Take the threat seriously
  • Get help
  • Act quickly
  • Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)

Visit for suicide prevention information.

Can mental illness be prevented?

Because behavioral health is contributed to a variety of factors, including social, demographic, psychological and biological, experts believe it can’t be prevented. However, awareness and early detection can be key in preventing major episodes and hospitalization.

What factors may be helpful in maintaining good mental health?

  • Stress management
  • An overall healthy lifestyle, including exercise and a healthy diet
  • Socialization
  • Engaging in hobbies, sports or activities you enjoy
  • Maintaining medication schedule, if applicable

According to a study in Britain, findings support the idea that those eating a healthy diet filled with fresh fruits and vegetables are less likely to suffer from depression, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Why don’t individuals suffering from mental illness get help?

  • May not be aware help is needed
  • Might be concerned about stigma attached to mental illness
  • Concern about taking medications
  • View their condition as a sign of weakness

Behavioral health is a vital aspect of enjoying overall good health. World Mental Health Day provides the perfect opportunity to discuss the importance of mental health with your family.

Kathy Rembisz 
Contributing Writer

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Ready, Set, Walk to School!

Wednesday is Walk to School Day – an annual International event, held every October.  But don’t think of Walk to School Day as a one-day blip in your community; since its founding in 1997, this national level event has proven to make positive changes in communities beyond the event day. Local Walk to School Day coordinators from previous years’ events report that this one-day event has engendered remarkable local changes, such as long-term walking and bicycling programs, the development of new sidewalks and pathways to encourage walking, better enforcement of laws against unsafe driving behaviors that could put pedestrians at risk, and the creation of supportive school and community policy changes.

If you or your kids have not participated in the national Walk to School Day event, consider making this week your launch pad. Read on for ideas on how to make Walk to School Day fun for your kids, how to get involved yourself, and how to use Walk to School Day to promote lasting improvement in your family and community.

Two girls walking to school

Why walk to school

In case you or your family members need a little motivation, consider these three compelling reasons to participate in your neighborhood’s Walk to School Day event.
1.  Fat ain’t phat
In the U.S., children struggle with obesity, setting them up for a lifetime of health problems and, according to this new research, even educational deficiencies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that childhood obesity has more than doubled in children and tripled in adolescents in the past 30 years. 

Walking regularly can counteract this. Walking briskly to and from school a half mile each way can burn between 73 and 150 extra calories daily, depending on your child’s weight (use this chart to estimate).  That’s as much as 29 thousand calories over the course of a school year when walking to school daily! Starting this habit now can help your child to manage weight and increase cardiovascular fitness.
2.  Walking to school is good clean fun.
The fun part: Walking and bicycling bring a sense of joy and independence to your children. When walking, your children get to appreciate things they don’t notice in the car, like the sounds of the neighborhood, seeing friends and neighbors, and feeling connected with their community. 

The good part:  It’s hard in our busy days to carve out focused talk time with our children. Walking to and from school with your child can make for wonderful communication time.

The clean part: Replacing car trips to school with walking or bicycling can reduce congestion and air-polluting emissions.
3.  Participating in National Walk to School Day promotes safety too!
As a result of participation in Walk to School programs, communities have built sidewalks and added traffic calming measures to improve pedestrian safety. Encouraging walking and bicycling to school can help build support for infrastructure improvements in the broader community.

Kids walking to school

Plan your Walk to School Day

Feel free to keep it simple if it helps you get it done; simply encourage your kids to walk on Wednesday this week.  But if you want to make the day more impacting on your family or community, here are some tips to help:
  • Make it a walking block party.  Talk with the other parents on your block and encourage them to make Walk to School Day a group event, which will grow participation, build community rapport, and add an extra measure of supervised fun for the kids.
  • Get local officials active in your walk-to-school event.  Previous neighborhood volunteers report that lasting improvements are more likely to happen, and happen more quickly, when city officials walk or bicycle to school with students.  Doing so let’s them experience firsthand what needs to be done to make safe walking and biking to school a reality. Contact your local officials and invite them to walk with the kids on your block.
  • Employ event-making techniques. The organization behind Walk to School Day has assembled over 50 event ideas that can make your community’s day a big and lasting success.  Check ‘em out here.
  • Build excitement!  Let people know about the big day.  If you’re a teacher, consider making simple handouts for children to take home, or putting up signs and banners in school hallways.  Parents can spread the word on their favorite social media sites too.  Get helpful event resources here.

And then one more day, and then another…

Now that you’ve started a good thing, there’s no reason to stop.  The walk to school event seeks to change community culture, working to build an environment that's more inviting for every walker and bicyclist, young or old. 

Check out these activities and ideas designed to build on the momentum in ways that can make a lasting change in your community.

Ric Moxley
Contributing Writer

Monday, October 7, 2013

Getting Financially App-y

In a recent post, we talked about how financial health can affect your over health. (If you’re not sure where you stand financially, here’s a quick quiz to help you figure it out.) While facing the reality of your financial health can be a little overwhelming, there are effective tools courtesy of the worldwide web and smart phone apps to make it a bit less daunting. Between helpful financial budget calculators and consumer credit report tracking, there are plenty of options to help you get on the right track and get financially happy.

Saving money in a piggybank

If you are just starting out with creating a budget, check out Mvelopes. It’s an in-depth budget creator that works on the basis of envelopes. You fill each virtual envelope after your payday with what you can/need to spend. As you buy your groceries and pay your bills, the money is automatically subtracted from your envelopes, regardless of whether you use your credit cards or bank accounts. They also offer a free version if you don’t have many financial obligations, or if you do, they have a reasonably priced paid version as well. They offer online access and smartphone apps.

Smartypig is a fun way to save for an upcoming vacation or purchase. Set up an account, select your goal, and Smartypig will automatically transfer funds from your bank account into an FDIC-insured, interest-bearing account. You can receive gift deposits from friends and family via Facebook, earn rewards via “cash boosts” and cash rewards, and when you’ve reached your goal, you can withdraw your funds plus interest. You can also withdraw your funds at any time without penalty. Smartypig offers both online and smartphone app access.

For an all-in-one money tracker, check out Mint. They offer a free money and spending tracking service that can show you your trends over time. Color-coded spreadsheets, easy to understand charts, and simple language allow you to grasp where you can allocate more funds, and where you can tighten up a bit more. Not sure where to go to save more money? Mint offers suggestions from their affiliates to help you save money, but never in an intrusive, obnoxious way. Mint offers a robust smartphone app and website for your financial needs.

Saving money

Credit Karma houses all your consumer credit report information in an easy-to-understand format. Not sure about your credit score? Credit Karma tracks that as well, for free, via soft pulls on your credit report (the kind that won’t drag your score down). They also offer credit report tracking. While they have monthly monitoring for a price, you can utilize their free services to find any flags on your credit report and find better choices for your credit and financial services, from credit cards to utility companies. They have apps for both smartphone platforms (Android and iPhone) and a website.

Becoming a financially-savvy spender doesn’t happen overnight, but using tools that help organize your money and debt help. Studies show that while financial stress has intense negative effects on our health, lessening the guilt and improving your financial health (even if it’s only opening a savings account) can turn that around. So why not give it a try? Let us know how you make out, and what tools work best for you!

Contributing Writer

Friday, October 4, 2013

Workout Woes

The first two weeks or so of a new workout routine are amazing. You discover things you didn’t know you could do, adapt to a new pattern, and start to feel healthier. You may even adjust your diet and start eyeballing clothing fashions that a month ago would have caused you to shudder.

Soon, however, novelty turns to habit, and habits get boring. How do you keep going? How can you keep up a routine in the face of all the pressures in life that pull you in different directions? Or worse, what happens when your schedule changes at work, you get a new job, or *insert other life changing event here* and your workout time gets railroaded into a different time slot…how do you keep up the momentum?

People working out at the gym

There are all sorts of ways to create positive reinforcements around your new, healthier habits. The first thing: adjust your mindset. If you’ve seen previous attempts at working out as an exercise in failure, that is not going to help your forward momentum. Each step in the right direction counts, so if you have to drop your workout days from four days to two, then do so. Remember that two days doing some form of movement is better than none. If you’ve had an injury that is forcing you to slow down, embrace the time of rest, get in what movement you can, and keep the mindset that you’ll be returning to your habit as soon as you are able.

Create exciting incentives based on working out. Things like Gympact (which I previously discussed here), which pays you to work out, and Fitbit, which offers consistent praise and affirmation when you exercise, can act as anchors to your new schedule. One of my favorite tricks has been to create a favorite playlist on Rhapsody or iTunes that I only listen to when I’m working out. If you have an iPhone or Android, apps like Pandora, Spotify or Songza offer specialized stations based on your preferences. If you like to read, how about listening to a book while you sweat? Audible offers some sweet deals on audio books that you can download to your smartphone or mp3 player and take with you. Nothing will keep you committed like a good cliffhanger! You can also check out your local library, where many offer a digital subscription service for audio books.

Give it a team effort. For some of us, exercise is more fun when it’s social. So check out sites like Meetup and discover other locals who would be glad to join you on your hike into the woods. Organizations like the Road Runners Club of America offer group runs where anyone at any level can join. There are plenty of virtual groups like Wello that offer workouts and group support. And of course, don’t forget to check out gyms like Curves or Crossfit, where the group environment is nurtured and encouraged.

Go for some accountability. If you feel as though you need a bit more on the line to keep your commitment, consider investing in the services of a health coach or personal trainer. Professionals can help you keep your head in the game and encourage you when you feel like giving up.

Do it for a cause. Many non-profit organizations focus on feats of athleticism in the name of donations. Consider the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society or any of the many other options out there that will encourage you to get your groove on and help others at the same time.

Man playing basketball

Keep it interesting. If you are tired of doing the same movements over and over again, try spicing it up with websites that offer a new workout for you every week – you can have a new one everyday! Zuska Light,, and iFit are great places to grab a fresh workout and keep your muscles guessing.

Most of all, do things you love. Whether it’s taking a pole-dancing class at the local Y, joining a Yoga group that meets virtually, or adopting a dog as a running partner, discover what movements you enjoy the most. Let us know what you decided on, and what gets you excited to move!

Ally Bishop
Contributing Writer

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

What’s the Big Deal About Organic Foods?

These days, most grocery stores offer both conventionally grown foods as well as organically grown foods. Do you know the difference? Clearly, there is a price difference, with organic foods usually costing more – sometimes up to twice the price. In this introduction to organic farming, we'll take a glimpse at organic processes and how they affect the food you eat.  It may help you decide if organic meat and produce is worth the extra cost.

Organic strawberries

What is “organic” produce?

Organic foods are the product of organic agriculture.  Organic agriculture or organic farming is defined somewhat differently depending on the source and the country.  A summary definition: Organic products are those that are made entirely with certified organic ingredients and methods.

The International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements (FOAM) defines organic agriculture more holistically, describing it as a production system that:
  • Sustains the health of soils, ecosystems, and people.
  • Relies on ecological processes, biodiversity, and cycles adapted to local conditions, rather than the use of inputs with adverse effects.
  • Combines tradition, innovation, and science to benefit the shared environment and promote their relationships and a good quality of life for all involved.
In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines "organically grown" food as that which is grown and processed using no synthetic fertilizers or pesticides. The EPA definition does allow for the use of organic pesticides when producing organically grown food.

Organically grown vs. conventionally grown

Perhaps the easiest way to understand what makes organically grown foods unique is to look at how it differs from conventionally grown foods.

While all farmers enrich the soil to produce a more substantial crop, a conventional farmer uses such techniques as adding synthetic, chemical fertilizers to the soil. By comparison, an organic farmer would likely use natural fertilizers and composting to enrich the soil.

To control pests and weeds, conventional farmers use chemical pesticides, herbicides, and fungicides.  On the other hand, an organic farmer is more likely to control weeds by thorough and consistent tilling of the soil, by using crop rotation techniques that discourage weed growth, or by laying mulch or tarps over the ground to create heat that will kill the weeds. For pest control, organic farmers are more likely to use insects that prey on the crop-damaging pests, or by planting two different crops together – the crop that needs protection from pests and another crop that repels those same pests.

Organic peaches

Organic gardening for sustainability

The above FOAM definition of organic agriculture may surprise you, going far beyond what is or isn't in that apple or spinach on your plate.  The definition also speaks to the many other benefits inherent in the process and outcome of organic farming.

The problem with conventional farming techniques used on most farms today is that, while they are often very effective methods of boosting output of the current crop, the techniques rarely consider sustainability.  The chemicals used, for instance, can damage the soil, infiltrating it with an annually increasing amount of toxins. These toxins not only find their way into the future crops, but also damages watersheds. Every inch of soil in the United States is part of a watershed; all water travels where gravity tells it to go. Thus, anything that we spray or dispose of on the ground around us will ultimately influence water sources downstream to some degree.

Conventional farming uses enormous amounts of herbicides, pesticides, and chemical fertilizers* that are harmful to these watersheds – harmful to the animals, plants, and human life forms that rely on the water for their health and survival.  Organic farming techniques not only produce more pure, chemical-free products for us to consume but also protect the environment of the farm and its watershed.  For this reason, many city and county governments have specifically encouraged organic farmers to "take root" alongside waterways as a means of protecting the watershed.

Those herbicides and pesticides that do not get washed away but rather remain in the conventional, non-organic farm's soil create serious sustainability problems.  By definition, herbicides and pesticides are designed to kill living organisms. As a result, the farmland soil eventually become stripped of its small and microscopic life forms, resulting in weakened soil and ever weakening crops. 
Two other sustainability problems with conventional farming techniques:
  • A 2013 study identifies the alarming bee colony decline in recent years to the toxic soup of pesticides and fungicides used in farming. 
  • As reported by Fox News, many non-organic farmers use antibiotics to fatten up their livestock. While it means that the farmer will get more income from each chicken, pig, or cow, public health advocates have identified this conventional farming technique as a significant source of our growing nationwide problem of antibiotic-resistant germs.  It's a case of robbing Peter Public to pay Farmer Paul.

The direct health benefits of organic foods

While there is some debate regarding whether or not organic foods have more vitamin content, there are a number of statistics and scientific studies that have identified many health benefits in organic foods:
  • If you're not a fan of fruits and vegetables, this may be very good news for you; A 2011 British study reported that organic fruits and vegetables have roughly 12 percent more nutrients than their non-organic equivalents – that, from a disease-fighting perspective, you would need to eat 12 percent more conventional produce to get the same same health benefit.  More bang for the bite!
  • One study found that germs in non-organic meats have a 33 percent higher risk of being antibiotic-resistant than those found in organic meats.  
  • The same study also determined that pesticides were 60 percent more likely to found in non-organic produce than in organic.
  • What you are not getting in organic foods is also beneficial:  EPA statistics estimate 20,000 doctor-diagnosed cases of farmworker poisoning from the pesticides used in crops. And many of the synthetic herbicides or pesticides used in conventional farming infiltrates the produce, making it impossible to simply wash them away.
Organic kale

Buying organic food on a budget

Whether all this adds up to justifying the extra cost of putting organic foods on your table is up to you.  Organic farming methods are, by nature, much more sustainable, but also more labor-intensive – one of the main reasons that organic produce is more expensive to buy.

Suggestion: If financial means requires you to "draw a line," in your shopping cart, then use the "dirty dozen" chart to help you choose which conventionally-farmed foods are most toxic, and start there.

Ric Moxley
Contributing Writer

* EPA estimates over 2 billion pounds of pesticides being used in U.S. soil annually – roughly eight pounds for every U.S. citizen.