Tackling The Stress of The Busy Holiday Season

by Dr. Joan Vernikos
 "A good conscience is a continual Christmas." ~ Benjamin Franklin

The Holiday Season at the end of each year is a wonderful time to count one’s blessings and to connect more deeply with family, co-workers and friends. And perhaps to even feel a kinship and concern for the many.

It’s also a time that challenges many of us to truly be able to enjoy the moments of the season. Often there is a sense of obligation, an unmanageable busyness and financial overwhelm. The ‘Ho, Ho, Ho!’ cultural expectation to remain happy and upbeat can be trying. Messaging on TV, radio and the internet constantly tells us we should have a well-decorated and tidy home, acquire and distribute gifts to the multitudes, and cheerfully attend social event after social event (beginning with Thanksgiving and running without break until early January). There never is enough time to get it all done – on top of daily commitments, there is little Emma’s Xmas play, decorating, and engaging the neighbors you rarely speak to. Rain, snow, traffic, and crowded shops conspire against you. Everyone seems to be on edge!

It’s easy to feel exhausted just thinking about it all, even before it’s begun. And while it may be a time of re-connecting to what matters, it is often challenging, and for many of us it is sadly the low point of the year.

I want you to know that while there well may be things you “must” do, and it is surely a time of year when a lot is happening, you have a lot more control over your holiday season than you might believe. Much depends on your preparation and decision-making around the season – you ultimately must take responsibility for how you approach this time of the year both outwardly and inwardly. Will you be a bundle of anxiety, facing impossible challenges, rushing around in a daze in rain or snow to the last minute trying to get it all perfect? Or will you have effectively planned and acted, ready to join in the celebration? Will you see time with your family as a gift, or will it make you cringe before you even get together?

Though factors that contribute to your feeling stressed are somewhat under your control, they come anyway. It is easy to fret and sleep poorly. And especially to eat in a way that makes you feel terrible about yourself and this whole holiday celebrating. Pressure to enjoy the time can make one sink into gloom.

So, what can you do to have a more enjoyable holiday season? Here are a few things I have learned during my blessedly long lifetime that I think are worthy of your consideration.

Manage Your Time

Good time management is one of the best ways to reduce stress. Get a clear idea of what you will or will not commit to as early as possible and you will be much more likely to stay grounded during the holiday season.
Start early. Begin with a list of your key people, shop for the holidays all year, and have a central place you store these gifts.
  • Hold a family meeting about gift wish-lists after Halloween if it hasn’t already been discussed.Talk about what you really enjoy about the holidays, and how you might change your approach to better enjoy them.
  • Budget sanely. Determine what you can realistically afford to spend. Set an upper limit for gifts for everyone. Many people are in difficult financial situations today. If you find yourself stretched, either send only a card, or consider making something instead of purchasing gifts. Framed photos, fruit/health baskets and more are wonderful ways to connect with friends and family. And when people tell you that they really don’t need anything, listen! Consider making a donation in their name to a cause that matters to them.
  • Plan and publish a household social calendar for the holidays and put it on the fridge or bulletin board. Make sure that everyone knows there is a procedure in place to handle changes because there will be a lot of those!
  • Delegate. Ask for help from loved ones or friends.
  • Keep a list of what you need to accomplish in the coming days, starting with Thanksgiving. Review and update this before bed each evening, acknowledging your ability to get only so much done.
  • Well before the end of year work on one or two meaningful resolutions for the New Year. Consider them as you go through the month of December. You will feel more upbeat when January comes around.
  • Keep things as simple as possible. Remember: you do not need to “keep up with the Joneses”. The Joneses are probably stressing out about now!

Take Care of Yourself
By planning effectively, things will unfold more manageably and the inevitable curve-balls will be easier to cope with. But you still need to look at yourself and what keeps you going. Here are a few suggestions.
  • Seeking the cooperation of friends and family in planning the holiday season, with an emphasis on real enjoyment, will direct everyone towards shared, more positive results.
  • Keep plenty of healthy snacks around the house and at work. If it’s green or an easily eaten fruit, stock it.
  • Eat some of those healthy snacks before you go to social events. It’s harder to eat 2 cookies, 4 deviled eggs and drink a glass of eggnog before dinner, if you had a banana and some almonds just before the party.
  • Factor in time to do the things that matter to you and those close to you. Read, have a quiet movie night at home (or watch holiday classics together) or play games. Or get a massage! These can all take the bite out of a seemingly never-ending schedule of obligatory activities over the holidays. My son’s favorite is going for a quick, hot soak wherever he can find one, including the bath tub.
  • Buck tradition. While you may still enjoy the cookies everywhere else, plan a sugar-lite holiday season at home.
  • Moderate your alcohol consumption (and value your sleep). Or don’t drink at all. You’ll rest and look better, connect more meaningfully with others, and be able to handle challenges as they arise. Either way, make your rest a priority as best you can. Watching "Leno" after a busy day may or may not be what you most need.
  • Commit to making the time to do some regular physical activity daily, even if you do less of it than normal. For instance, make a family walk part of your holiday events. Your dog will appreciate it too.
  • Pause regularly to reflect on what is going on at any given time, and how you are reacting to it. Take small regular time-outs, breathing deeply.
  • If you are a regular meditator or have a physical, eastern practice (like Tai Chi, Yoga or Qigong) keep it in your schedule as best you can. (Perhaps consider starting one as a resolution for the New Year).

Let It Go
Accept that it is just fine to feel sentimental at this time of year.

This is when we tend to contemplate our lives most deeply. Indeed, it is often the time of year when people may feel most grateful and peaceful, yet conversely may also feel despondent. If you have felt down or depressed in the past during the holidays, I recommend cultivating the intention to be more aware of how you feel during this coming season. It is quite common to dread the holiday season, finding it easier to withdraw. Even if you feel generally positive this time of year, there may be activities or people with whom you still have difficulty engaging. Making a sincere effort to be genuinely open to others’ feelings and situations can have a profound impact on our own state of mind and perhaps more importantly will let those close to us know that we care about them.  This is what the holiday spirit is about – to extend the warmth we feel for those closest to us to include many others.

Each one of us would like to celebrate a joyous holiday season. Finding ways to minimize stress is key to experiencing times we all wish for, ones filled with love, sharing, gratitude and compassion, and ones we will recall fondly for years to come.

Improving your Wellbeing Through Health Coaching

   "I absolutely believe that people, unless coached, never reach their maximum potential."
Bob Nardelli, CEO, Home Depo

As a teenager in Egypt I had a swim coach who encouraged me to train when I wanted to play, to exercise when I would rather have played backgammon with the old men at the club, and managed to build my confidence and win races. All sports have coaches so that athletes put on their top performances.

Today coaching is not just for athletes. There are coaches for every imaginable issue; from personal relationships to nutrition, weight management to how to find your mate. Even some surgeons now have coaches. And in the short time since its inception life coaching no longer seems so flaky. There are TV shows featuring coaching ('Starting Over', and 'Get The Guy’), and even spoofs about coaching on the John Stewart show. Coaching is now mainstream.

Why Coaching?
Well, it’s pretty simple. We go to the doctor for a prescription or a priest for confession, a dietitian, a shrink or a counselor or even a self-help book for the answers to our problems. But no matter how good the advice, all of these tools suffer from a common weakness - they rely on the individual to take action on their own and make the commitment to act on the advice. And consider that little of the information received is customized to one’s unique situation. This is where coaching differs. The main reason - it is emerging as the way to get results.  People who are serious about change know that they are responsible to make it happen themselves. They also know that they may not be able to do it on their own.

People who do turn to coaching most often benefit from improved clarity and focus around their goals, discipline, direction, guidance and understanding, and ultimately achieve things they want but couldn't on their own. Some of us might have the skill set and support to eventually get there without assistance but it can be so much more effective to let a coach help us, and often cheaper in the long run and with lasting effects because we (with the guidance of the coach) arrived at the solution. With a coach, results almost always improve – often dramatically.

Why Health Coaching?
Happiness, the enjoying of our lives, is what we all seek. Everything we do, whether wise or not, is in support of this overarching desire. Often happiness is used synonymously with “well-being” and this begins with good health and healthy habits. But there are few among us who truly prioritize our well-being, both physical and mental.

Health coaching has become more popular in the last several years in the US, especially for the treatment of particular conditions and in corporate settings where the efficacy of health coaching has been shown to be cost and productivity-effective. It generally includes a personalized program designed to improve your health and sense of wellness, while developing your ability to manage life’s curveballs as they arise. A health coach can generally help you with:

  • Stress management
  • Diet, nutrition and eating habits
  • Weight management
  • Sleep problems
  • Physical Fitness
  • Family and social relationships
  • Work/Life balance
  • Maintaining independence with age

Where traditionally education and advice directs information at you, coaching by contrast guides you to discuss what is most troubling about your health, what you most want to change, what support you have to foster change and what obstacles or difficulties must be minimized or removed to advance healthy behaviors. It does this by providing:
  • Support
  • Structure
  • Accountability
  • A sense of accomplishment
Over time other benefits will arise that are not anticipated, not least, the cost of your medical care.
Did you know that 70% of our medical costs are due to four factors that we can control:
poor stress management, physical inactivity, tobacco and alcohol use, and food choices.

In the coming weeks I’ll share more about why I have become a proponent for health coaching, and how it’s influencing my activities today.

We each have the power to be well and age well, whatever our genetic make-up or specific problems. In this approach you become the nexus.

Healing yourself, rewiring your brain, adopting new health habits, feeling good about yourself and your relationships – no one else can do it for you. But a qualified health coach can support you through the process.

What Happens During Sleep?

Sleep is just as active as waking. Both form part of the same pendulum of consciousness that works best when synchronized with your biological clock and the cues of day and night.

I think of it as a factory that operates during the day at full pace with hundreds of people crisscrossing the floors, stairs and elevators at incredible pace, going up and down stairs and elevators, meeting and making decisions until the end of the day when the factory shuts down and all the people go home. No sooner are they gone, than a small crew move in to aerate the place, run vacuum cleaners and mop up, dust, empty trash cans, clean out restrooms and stair wells, then begin to restore order, tidy up, water the plants, replace dead light bulbs, replenish water bottles, check out the offices, power-up machines and safety measures, until all is ready to go for the new business day.

For those interested in more detail here is a summary of what happens during sleep.

As night approaches body rhythms are decreasing.
- Lights-out increase the hormone melatonin to put you to sleep.
- You shut your eyelids to rest your eyes and take a pause from external stimuli.
- Body temperature is lowest.
-You lie down. Your body is spared the need to bear its weight.
- Blood pressure and heart rate are reduced; blood gets to your brain effortlessly.
- You breathe more slowly, regularly, getting oxygen and glucose to your brain.
- You relax muscles, joints and bones.
- Your kidney shuts down so you do not need to get up to urinate,
- Inflammation is reduced; your skin looks better in the morning.
- The stress hormone cortisol is low because there is no need to generate energy.
- Testosterone is at its lowest too.
- Appetite hormones are reduced — no need to eat; energy metabolism is at its lowest.
Midway through the night your body begins to replenish, rebuild and power up.
- Growth hormone and other body building anabolic hormones increase dramatically.
- Testosterone and cortisol increase to generate energy.
- Your body is waking up even if you are not moving yet.
On the other hand, your brain becomes hyperactive.
- Your brain’s electrical activity is greater during sleep than when you are awake?
- Skills learned during the day are retained if you sleep right afterwards.
- Memories are consolidated and reorganized
- The day’s events are reviewed, restructured and sent and stored in the right place.
Next day
- Your athletic performance is improved.
- You focus better and avoid accidents.
- You are better able to handle stress.
- You are calmer and happier

We take sleep for granted as the time to rest from a busy day – like parking your body for the night. But it is much more than that.

It is one third of your life. Make the most of it!

Why 'What You Eat' Matters

It’s no secret that what you eat matters greatly because eating or drinking directly introduces something into your body. This can be truly nourishing or conversely has the potential of harming your well-being.  And in a world of unlimited food options, it’s your choice as to what these substances are.
It’s important to note here that every body is different and that as such putting better stuff in, requires your truly personal care. You can consistently consume better, and to do that I encourage you to be more aware of what you buy, choose to eat, and how you flavor and prepare it.  Eating is the next best thing to sex, so enjoy it.

If it makes you feel bad, don’t eat it

Our ancestors, animals and birds chose to eat the fruit of one tree from another by trial and error. Then cultures also developed customs of what to avoid eating handed down through generations. Equally, people living around the Mediterranean who were generally poor, worked hard and enjoyed long, healthy lives through family traditions of eating local fresh fruits, vegetables, fish and olive oil.  And here in the states, sitting down to a well-cooked meal was a core part of our daily activity until only a few decades ago. Then TV and other media bombarded us with messages for which cereal, soda, hot dogs, potato chips or cookies we should eat. Eating more meat became a status symbol. Fast food became a part of everyday life. And in the Mediterranean and other places, they try to imitate the U.S. and life changed there, and with it health has taken a nosedive.

If you feel bad after eating the chips or pork chile, uh, why are you eating it?

What you eat affects your body and your brain

You know that good nutrition makes you feel your physical best. But did you know that as part of your body, feeding your brain with the right foods can help you think more clearly, stay alert, improve your concentration, reactions, decision-making and your attention span?
-Simple carbohydrates provide a source of energy but do not make your body work for it. Trade sugar, soft drinks and candy for whole grains, beans, starchy vegetables and fruit and notice the difference.
 -Amino acids and protein in fish, nuts, beans, eggs are the building blocks of organs and stimulate the brain.
-Fatty acids found in fats in fish, walnuts, corn oil are essential for the brain and nervous system.
-Vitamins and minerals like magnesium, zinc, calcium, iron in beans, fruits and vegetables improve memory, concentration and mood.

But there is much to avoid as well.

How to think about what you eat.

I can give you a whole list of foods to eat or not but that’s not enough. When you reach to buy something or take a bite do you think about what is in it, where it came from or how it was prepared? When we had our chocolate shop in London we classified customers into ‘tasters’ or ‘poppers’, those who savored or those who simply ate.
To help you think about what you eat, being aware helps you make better food choices.

Here are a few suggestions for how to size-up different food choices:
- The less processed, the better. Avoid anything refined, processed or fortified; that goes for pretty much everything, including sugars, flours, cereal, vegetables or dairy products.
-The less salt and sugar the better – they are added to kill bacteria and hook your taste buds.
- Avoid products that have several ingredients that remind you of chemistry class. Get good at reading the labels.
- Grass-fed beef in moderate amounts can be good for some, although a diet higher in plants is better.  Learn about drugs in meat and chicken, and what they are fed.
- Organic is good but home-grown is better.  Support healthier practices of your local farmers.  

Healthy eating begins with preparation

Beautiful green veggies cooked in a pool of lard becomes green-flavored lard. Consider some of the following when choosing recipes and preparation:
-Choose your meals for variety and satisfaction. Avoid monotony.
-Spice up your plate. We tend to stick with what we know – try some different spices (especially fresh ones) and you will love what it does for your eating experience.
-Put away the fryer.
- Bring out the juicer.
-Go for color.
-Bake your own.
-Count the fiber not the calories.

A little attention goes a long way in getting true nourishment. Make sexy choices. Turn your meal to food for the soul. What you eat matters a lot! Here’s to your good health and happy eating!

Why 'How You Eat' Matters

 “One of the very nicest things about life is the way we must regularly stop whatever it is we are doing and devote our attention to eating.”  ~Luciano Pavarotti
In my NASA days, at the start of the manned space program we got lots of scientific advice about feeding the astronauts quick energy foods that came in tidy, compact containers. So we ended up with advancements like Tang, Tootsie Rolls and high sugar fruit pastes, which worked well enough for short missions in tight living quarters, and the need to eat whenever possible. The Russians, in their larger spacecraft and with longer stays in space, had established mealtimes when they ate together as a group. We took the Russians’ lead and soon made sure our astronauts took a break to eat prepared, more nourishing food.  It was important for them to feel they were taken care of. And who wants food that looks (tastes and smells) like it came off a Star Trek set!

If Napoleon was correct about “armies marching on their stomachs,” should not space ex-plorers float on theirs?

In the news media today when it comes to food and eating, what you eat gets all the attention. How you eat is rarely addressed despite its significant impact on what you end up consuming and how well nourished you feel.  While I’ll cover the important subject of 'what you eat' in my next post, let’s attend here to the “how” of eating.

Consider this: after that first gasp for air, finding a source of food is the next reflex action for newborns. Your mother is your first call.  Breast or bottle-fed, you start off by associating food with nurturing – warmth, physical contact, love, comfort, smell, taste, the sense of fulfillment. After weaning, and once a toddler, these psychological elements associated with eating often diminish. The relationship between family, food and nurturing may fall apart.

That being said, I offer a few key suggestions below for how you can get a lot more from your eating experiences. As a nation, our eating habits are doing us few favors. The good news is that adopting or further developing some of these practices will likely moderate the amount of food you eat, as well as increase the enjoyment of every bite on the way to a happier, healthier you.

Rediscover the Joys of Eating

• Set aside the time for eating. Yes, just like the astronauts. By pausing for meals you can again begin to touch into the enjoyment of the eating experience. If we read, text, watch TV, or drive while eating, it is impossible to fully attend to the meal.
• Sit down for meals at the dining table joined by your family, and even your friends whenever possible. “Breaking bread” is a wonderful way to connect with the people that matter to you. Share the duties of setting the table with plates and cutlery, as well as clearing and washing up. Suddenly, it’s an occasion rather than another expedited activity.
• Practice giving thanks for whatever moves you. Gratitude is a feel-good mechanism to bring back awareness to forgotten positives in one’s life.
• Pay attention to what feels right for you when eating. Being active or sedentary prior to meals, or even over a period of time, will influence your real hunger. The time of day, previous consumption, and even seasonality may all affect what and how much you may truly need to eat. And appreciate that you may not know better than someone else what they need, and vice versa.
• Choose reasonably-sized plates.  Dinner plates are 30% larger today than they were 100 years ago. You can do the math. Pay special attention to plate size (and what’s on the plate) when you go out for a meal.
• Eat slowly, with a mindful attention. Take a few breaths between bites or sips. Be aware of the colors, smells, tastes and textures of food. When you slow down, flavors burst forth.  And remember that it takes the brain 20 minutes before it senses that you have eaten enough.
 Notice when you are tired at mealtimes. Sleep deprivation is common in this busy age, and leads to over-eating, especially of fat and sugary foods. When you are particularly fatigued, practice bringing special attention to what you are eating. It may well save you from one of those chow-downs you soon regret.
• Beware of eating to soothe your anxiety. When you grab that bag of potato chips or left-overs from the fridge, consider if it’s because your body really needs the food, or if you’re doing it just to ‘calm down.’ Eating is a common coping mechanism.

Here’s how confident I am that implementing these tips can have a significant impact on your well-being: I guarantee that if you follow most of these suggestions you’ll moderate your caloric consumption, and improve the quality of what you eat too. Let me know how it goes.

Stand Up for Healthy Aging!

Sitting kills. You only have to look around to see the consequences – bigger waist circumference, higher body mass index, obesity, Type II diabetes, high blood triglycerides and cholesterol and low levels of the good cholesterol HDL. High blood pressure, risk of stroke, higher overall death rates increase as we sit longer. Not a pretty picture.

Once thought that hitting the gym was the answer, studies are now finding that sitting for many hours each day whether you exercise or not is not good for your health. Leader of the pack is Dr. James Levine, a researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., who back in 1999 coined the term Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis (NEAT) when he observed that people who ate more and did not gain weight were moving more than they realized. What seemed important were “the thousands of minor movements each day” that they spontaneously made. Levine’s group found that even with intense exercise once a day health markers such as blood cholesterol, sugar and triglyceride levels remained high. Marc Hamilton, another NEAT disciple, found that standing up is the most effective NEAT activity and stimulates the enzymes that break down fat and triglycerides. The NEAT theory and these findings ran contrary to traditional exercise physiology recommendations of intense exercise once a day 3 to 5 times a week. His meticulous work is a wake-up call to the fact that once a day exercise does not replace being active all day. The importance of NEAT finally is receiving the recognition it deserves.

Levine’s work helped me interpret research I was doing at NASA. In 1992 I wondered why, despite hours of intense aerobic and resistive exercise in space, astronaut health was not fully protected. In ground studies with volunteers lying continuously in bed to induce space-like changes, I asked if the gravity vector, absent in space, was the missing link needed to make exercise effective. I  had subjects  stand by their bed for 15 minutes every hour throughout the day or stand and walk on a treadmill for an equal time. To my surprise, standing was at least and sometimes more effective than walking on the treadmill.  It was also not how long they remained standing but how many times they changed posture.

Merely standing 16 times a day was enough in my studies to prevent the consequences of lying in bed 24 hours a day. The smaller postural change from sitting to standing would be expected to require more than that – at least twice that, 32 times a day or standing up roughly every 30 minutes.

By lying in bed or sitting for long stretches you are removing the important physiological signal that standing up provides. Standing is more than just another small movement. In an earlier blog I talked about the importance to Third Age Health of using gravity http://thirdagehealth.blogspot.com/2011/03/aging-well-with-generous-daily-dose-of.html.

At one of my talks someone complained that he would be fired if he got up so many times at work. Asked if he drank water, he said he always had a bottle on his desk. In the old days you would need a trip to the water-fountain. I suggested he move the bottle away from reach.

Being able to stand up helps you remain independent. Structure your life until standing up becomes a habit again.

Does Getting Older in Years Mean Getting Old?

We all want to be healthy and independent.Whatever our condition, accepting it and doing whatever we can, brings us closer to being and feeling better. No setback is permanent. Anything can be changed.  Hoping for things to be the way they were is unrealistic but resigning oneself to steady decline is just as wasteful. As people live longer it is a time to enjoy life. Feeling good helps but it does not just happen. It takes awareness and a personal commitment to work at staying healthy and aging well especially in these modern times.

Healthy Aging is about keeping up your health in good condition as the years go by. But, on its own, it is not all that goes into making us fit to enjoy daily life. Mental attitude, our interaction with ourselves, others and the world around us can express itself in emotions, our behavior and can impact our health both postively and negatively as we go through the journey of life.

Healthy Aging
Good health at any age is the result of applying healthy habits. These include:
  • Keeping your response to stress in check.
  • Recovery and resilience. Managing your time to bounce back from stress, activities, commitments or sickness.
  • Being active all day every day such as a good walk with friends, swimming, gardening.
  • Drinking plenty of water and eating good, nourishing food in proportion to your level of activity.
  • A good night's sleep.
  • Keeping good personal hygiene habits to curb sources of infection and inflammation 
Aging Well
Unlike Healthy Aging, being well is not about what you do but how you perceive and evaluate the world around you as well as your own feelings towards yourself and others. If you anticipate aging with apprehension or fear, like the loss of independence, memory, loved ones, your reaction will be stressful. It will emotionally drag you down, depress you, age you, and keep you awake nights. It will affect your eating habits, your desire to socialize, your sex life, health and happiness.

Studies show that those that live to 100 have learned to bounce back from stress.To age well and be healthy learn to sway with the punches. Shed bad habits, -- smoking, drinking too much alcohol, taking too many drugs, even if prescribed. Ask your doctor if you really need all of them. Feeling pain? Try alternative methods first before popping pain pills; try meditation to relax or a massage. Adapt your attitude and outlook, let go of old grudges, perceptions and fears over which you have no control. Allow yourself to accept, receive and uncritically enjoy each moment in the world around you.

Life is a game of snakes and ladders.Wherever you are, enjoy your daily awareness; be willing to improve; make a small change in habits; adopt non-medicinal, low-cost solutions. Decide to live better every day. In the process you will reduce stress and live a longer happier life.

How to Take Charge of Your Health

John Glenn at age 77 wanted to fly again in space and he did. Former President George H. Bush celebrated his 80th birthday in June 2004 by parachuting twice 13,000ft out of a plane. Bush's message "Get out and do something. Don't just sit around watching TV!" So what is it you always wanted to do? Now is your chance if you take charge of your health.

Many of us worry about having the resources to live out our years. We save and seek advice from financial brokers about how to invest the money we earn. But few of us spend as much effort to similarly assess our health, to take precautions to remain healthy, active and independent for as long as we live.

I have seen friends and relatives thrown in the depths of depression at the sight of their first grey hair or the thought of approaching a 40th or 50th birthday. For most any thoughts of health are shelved after the party is over. But whether you turn 25 or 85 is there a better time than now to begin checking out your health assets, just as you do your financial assets?

The significance of people taking age milestones seriously only hit me after I retired from NASA. I now had the time to think through the broad impact of what I had learned from space research. I knew that I held little recognized knowledge about how to hold onto vibrant good health. My mission and responsibility then became clear. It is to help you, whatever your age, be healthy and age well by sharing with you knowledge, experience and low-cost readily available solutions.

My experiences have brought me greater insight into why some enjoy vibrant aging whereas those around them do not. And why many individuals, even children, now suffer from illnesses that only old people used to get. From the thousands I have talked to over the years, this is what I have learned:
• More than death, you are worried about pain and suffering
• You want to keep your brain working well
• You want to remain healthy and independent as long as you live - you do not want to live out your years in a nursing home
• You want to have fun, feel energized and enjoy life, love and the pursuit of happiness

So what are the odds of success? It is a fact that people are living longer. At 50, you may have as much as another 50 years ahead of you. You have the chance to do it right and decide to adopt better health habits now. Clearly staying alive and drifting through the rest of your years watching TV is wasteful. A new approach is needed.

What do you want to be when you grow up?
People asked you that question when you were a child. They were not expecting you to think much further than 30. Use your second chance as your landmark to begin your Health Asset Plan. Just as you started a financial portfolio, with savings habits and investments intended to see you through life, it is time to start taking a good hard look at your health habits. Are you saving, squandering or going into debt?

I know that’s a lot to figure out, and you may not have an answer for yourself just yet. But help is on the way.

The plan

Living longer comes with a new sense of freedom. Your early life was spent mostly doing what you thought others told you or wanted you to do. Your children may have grown up or left the nest. Your responsibilities may be changing. But beware. This is not a call to revolt. This is about taking stock and taking action – taking responsibility for your health.

Step 1. Become Aware. Step back from where you are and what you’re doing – and look at yourself.  Are you doing what you want to do? Are you living how you want to live? Do you have the ability to do the things you want to do, and if so, why aren’t you doing those things? 
Step 2. Decide to be Healthy. If you don’t have the ability to do the things you want to do, are you willing to begin taking action now to eventually get to that point? It is not enough to know and plan. You need to take charge of building your Health Assets step at a time.
Step 3. Get Started. Assess. Whatever your age, get started today by completing our free Health Assets self-assessment. You can get it by signing up for our Newsletter. When you have completed it, go back and re-read the questionnaire as well as your answers. Where are your strengths and what needs work?
Step 4. Develop your Personal Health Investment Plan. You can do whatever it is you want to do. You just have to first, know what you want, and secondly, know how to get it. If you don’t know how to get it, find out how by doing research, reading, asking questions, taking initiative, asking more questions, and learning as much as you can.
Step 5. Set Milestones. Establish Intermediate Objectives. Break it down to manageable goals. Visualize yourself. How do you see yourself in 20 years?
Step 6. Take Action. Focus your attention on one item that needs work. Find solutions. Take up meditation to relieve stress. Take a step at a time and work on it until it becomes a new health habit. Or seek help and guidance through personal health coaching.
Step 7. Check your progress by completing the self-assessment questionnaire once more. What a difference!!
Step 8. Reward yourself and Celebrate.

It does no good to be financially independent in your old age, in fact at any age, if you are not physically and mentally independent enough to enjoy it. Asked about what surprised him most about humanity, the Dalai Lama answered, "Man.... Because he sacrifices his health in order to make money. Then he sacrifices money to recuperate his health. And then he is so anxious about the future that he does not enjoy the present; the result being that he does not live in the present or the future; he lives as if he is never going to die, and then dies having never really lived."

On your journey toward your desired lifestyle, many things will try and hold you back. Don’t let yourself be one of them.

Leave your comments, enter the conversation. We are all in this together.

So what do you want to be when you grow up?

Meditation – The Reminder

by George Danellis    

This is a follow up for Third Age readers to my post on how to get started with meditation. If you didn’t see that article or would like a refresher, you can check it out here.

As I noted previously the benefits of a regular meditation practice are well known today, even in the West, where meditation has not been a cultural tradition: improved health and well-being, greater patience and calm (even in dealing with those perpetually “difficult” situations), heightened effectiveness in work and personal activities, and even more empathy for our fellow beings.

But there is one challenge to realizing these benefits: meditation is not a push-button solution. And if there is one thing clear about 21st century western culture in general, it’s that we like our solutions quick and easy. And the messaging we get every day touts a lot of these quick and easy solutions, even while we (mostly) know better. As Dr. Joan herself emphasizes, it's up to us to become active participants in our lives. It’s no different with meditation. Luckily for us, our natural state is un-contrived awareness, which means that with only a small amount of meditation each day shifts do occur.

Please know that you are definitely not alone if at some point you started and then stopped a meditation practice, or you just can’t imagine sitting quietly with your thoughts and emotions for more than 30 seconds. I encourage you to keep trying. Because in this age of constant sensory input, the one thing that is pretty much guaranteed to improve the quality of your existence is to develop a greater awareness of what is actually going on at any given time. And in the opinion of several hundred million people worldwide a key to doing this is through meditation. So here are a few additional thoughts (no pun intended) to keep us on track:

A dog barks, the mind thinks. Thoughts are the natural product of the mind, and each of us has our own ingrained patterns. The key is to allow thoughts to come and then to pass, which they will do if you allow them.

Your mind will wander. When you become aware that you have strayed into planning next weekend’s activities, or have been reviewing that business meeting that went poorly, just let it go. Gently bring your attention back to your breath, without self-judgment. Consider that it’s wonderful that you are even working to develop this capability.

Not too loose, not too tight. This is the classic instruction. Mindful awareness is not about stopping or blocking your stream of thoughts or emotions, regardless of what you may have heard. It is about becoming more aware of what’s going on. And when you are sitting quietly it can become readily apparent what is happening in your mind! So neither zone out, nor be too intense. And over time the seemingly incessant stream of thoughts will likely begin to quiet.

It’s called practice for a reason. The more you do it, the greater the benefits. Over time you will start to understand why the great meditators spend years in retreat.

Take it into the world. Any time you bring your attention to what is going on you are in fact already meditating. During your everyday existence practice bringing your awareness to any situation. Quietly observe a flower, drinking in it's colors and aroma. Likewise notice when you have been hooked by a thought in the middle of a conversation, rather than actually hearing what the other person is saying, and softly return your awareness to the conversation. Notice the flavor, temperature or sensation when you drink a beverage. And when ‘negative’ emotions arise, like fear, aggression or anxiety, gently bring your attention to what’s going on, including any sensations in your body. Just notice, that's all.

Becoming more aware of what goes on with your thoughts and emotions is a key step to working with them.
By making meditation a priority in your life, even giving it just 20 minutes a day, you will see things in a whole new way.
George is an aspiring delusion buster, surfer and snowboarder, and advises organizations and municipalities on how to develop and act on their Sustainability Visions.  

A Love Affair with the Shuttle – Sweet Memories

Columbia escorted to landing at Edwards Air Force Base in 1993

As many of you know nearly my entire working career was spent at NASA. I was very much involved with flight experiments, first on the Russian spacecraft COSMOS, then the 14-day Gemini VII missions.  I proudly watched Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin step on the Moon during the Apollo program, and followed the research on Skylab as it was happening. As the acting Deputy Director of Space Research at the NASA Ames Research Center in 1976, I was thrilled to watch the first images of Mars as the Viking spacecraft landed on the red planet. Exciting as all of these experiences were, none matched the beauty and the drama of my Shuttle years – and I did not even fly in space.

I’ll take you back to 1973, when in a board room meeting, our Director, Dr. Hans Mark, explained NASA’s decision to stop work on the space station and instead focus resources on developing the Shuttle. It was said that we could not afford both and a major selling point of the shuttle was its cost-effectiveness. The space shuttle was like a space ‘bus’ – for the first time NASA (and for that matter anyone) would have a reusable space craft that could ‘shuttle’ back and forth with both astronauts and cargo to the station when it was ultimately built.

It’s hard to forget the launch of the first Shuttle, Columbia, back in 1981 with Apollo astronaut, John Young and rookie pilot Bob Crippen. A major consideration in the selection of these pioneers was the early research of our bed-rest studies. The studies showed the likelihood that in the shuttle even older men or women might be able to handle the rigors of the 20 minute higher gravity acceleration, re-entry profile, and be able to pilot the shuttle back to earth. Never before had the astronauts needed to have their cognitive and physical abilities in place upon re-entry.

The Shuttle was primarily designed to act as a hauler. It could carry humans as well as 50,000 lbs of important cargo into orbit and then return to Earth for a soft landing. This cargo capacity is what made it possible to launch jumbo space telescopes and satellites, or to repair the ailing Hubble telescope that is still sending us back stunning images from the outer corners of the universe.

Over the years, NASA began to use the shuttle much more for scientific research, something the Shuttle had neither been designed nor equipped to do. Missions grew in length, and so too did the importance of our work to keep astronauts healthy and safe during and after their missions.

The partnership of astronaut and Shuttle saw Earth without borders, its floods and fires.

I had the benefit of getting close to Columbia when in 1993 I went to work at NASA Headquarters in Washington DC. For this mission, Columbia’s cargo bay held Spacelab, a fully equipped life and microgravity research laboratory built by the Europeans.  My first responsibility as Director of Life Sciences was the Space Life Sciences-2 mission.  It was impossible to realize how cramped the crew quarters were until I spent a whole day with the 7 astronauts in their shuttle simulator while they trained for their 14-day mission. I ate their food and appreciated their tight timeline, as I tried to not get in their way. Shuttle astronauts train for about two years until they are drilled to respond to almost every possible scenario. The trainers throw in unexpected problems for them to overcome. Everything is orchestrated so that each knows exactly what they are doing and how to work best as a team.

Anyone who came in close contact with the Shuttle was seduced— NASA Administrators, Presidents, astronauts and ground crew. Because astronauts of all nationalities wanted to ride the Shuttle, a new era of international cooperation in space began. These partnerships did much to improve our international relations as cooperation replaced competition.

It was impossible to not gasp at Columbia’s gleaming, streamlined beauty as it launched into earth orbit. Less popular but my personal favorite was the elegant and seemingly effortless silent glide to landing that belied the firewall it had just gone through. I had not expected to see the landing of Space Life Sciences-2 but poor weather in Florida caused Columbia to be diverted to its alternate landing site at Edwards Air Force Base in California. This meant that there was hardly anyone at the shuttle’s landing. There I was as Columbia came to a stop on the runway. The astronauts exited, the payloads were unloaded and I found myself alone standing under Columbia, her skin slightly beat up with char marks on the tiles— not an airplane as some thought of it and not a simple machine.  I stood there in awe.  I told her she was beautiful anyway. I thanked her for bringing back her precious cargo. That was a magic moment I shall always cherish.

A few moments later I was present when the pilot Rick Searfoss was being tested for balance on the sway platform. One of the moves required he do the test with eyes shut. As we watched, Searfoss swayed forward without putting his arms out to protect his fall. A group of us jumped in and grabbed! His 14-day flight was the longest to date and we learned that day that this length of space flight erases the sensation of falling. A moment of discovery, it opened up a whole field of understanding of how the brain and gravity work together here on Earth. This discovery was further explored on the Neurolab mission in 1998. From that point on all astronauts wore a harness during the posture test.

Later in 1998 was another special moment for me as John Glenn returned to space at the age of 77. Not surprisingly, about 1,000 news media were there to report on this event. Many of us NASA folks were there busily answering questions in different languages. As the shuttle landed at Cape Canaveral in Florida, this time after nine days in space, my heart was nervously pounding until I saw Senator Glenn come safely down the shuttle steps.  As I wrote in my book The G-Connection, Harness Gravity and Reverse Aging Senator Glenn’s triumphant return to space got real during a conversation at my desk in NASA HQ. There was much concern about his age. I had been confident that he would do fine in flight - it was the return to Earth’s gravity that I was worried about. Happily, my worries were unfounded. His data reminded us that it is not how old you are but how well you take care of yourself that determines your ability to respond to physical challenges.

One question is whether the public's love affair with the Shuttle was because it looked like an airplane? Perhaps because of that we expected it to be as safe. But going into space is a seriously risky business. The loss of Challenger in 1986 was hard for all Americans and for me because I met the crew on their visits to Ames to train on the Shuttle-landing simulator. My dear Columbia and her crew were similarly lost on reentry in 2003, reminding us just how risky this business will always be. We lost 14 of the best.

The shuttles are now 30. This may sound old but the Shuttles have a lot more flying years in them since each was designed to fly 100 times and they are nowhere near that. However, they are now done. The decision to retire them is not for safety reasons but the cost of operating both the International Space Station (ISS) and the Shuttles at the same time. Yet neither works best without the other. Without them there is no way to carry out external repair work on the ISS in the event of a system failure or accident. Loss of control of the ISS would mean catastrophic reentry into Earth’s atmosphere. Commercial space developers and the Russian Soyuz are expected to fill the gap for the near term.

Whatever the outcome of this debate, I feel so fortunate to have lived this amazing happy and sad Shuttle era.

As they retire to museums, millions of all ages will admire, touch, explore them inside-out and dream of leaping far beyond Earth in a way that watching them on TV, could never do. The Shuttles’ new mission – to remind the next generations of last century’s daredevil creativity and to inspire them to always reach for the stars.

How to Improve the Quality of Your Sleep

Why is it Americans don’t get enough sleep? Basically, because we do not fully appreciate its importance and then act accordingly. We think of sleep as just a time-out, in contrast to the emphasis
we put on each day’s waking activities. Or perhaps we have come to rely on pills to make sleep satisfactory.

Yet deprive yourself of sleep and not only will your mind be less sharp, your immune system will not protect you from diseases, your metabolism is thrown off balance, you are more likely to put on weight, and your skin and eyes will look tired. In short, you feel lousy.

But you have the solutions. Take a few actions. Create better conditions for quality sleep. Small changes can make a big difference to your sleep and your life. And limit your needlessly taking meds.

Common Sleep Problems

• Insomnia, the inability to fall asleep, is the most common sleep problem for adult Americans; 54% experience at least one symptom of insomnia a few nights a week and 33% almost every night. These people feel constantly tired yet don’t feel the urge to sleep.
Sleep-maintaining Insomnia - you may fall asleep but wake up and cannot go back to sleep. This may be due to several things, including needing to urinate,  having inconsistent sleep patterns caused by drinking alcoholic beverages, or are worried about something. You may be awakened by restless leg syndrome, a bad dream, suffer from depression, or may be affected adversely by a medication.
• Your sleep is disturbed by sleep apnea. Apnea is when you stop breathing while you are asleep, sometimes snore, gasp and go right back to sleep again without even realizing what happened. Sleep apnea is most common in overweight people and affects almost 7% of Americans. Those with untreated apnea feel tired due to their inability to get sound sleep. Because of their sleep deprivation they are 2 to 7 times more likely to have a car accident than the general population. The good news is that you can get tested, diagnosed and treated.
• Sleep deprivation – getting less than 7 to 8 hours of sleep for most people – may develop as a result of general, poor sleep habits like staying up late and getting up early to go to work. Even 20 minutes less sleep per night than required results in cumulative sleep loss. And the truth is that it’s very hard to make it up just by sleeping in on weekends.

Sleep Solutions: A check-list of do’s and don’ts

• Plan for sleep as you plan for your day. Be active throughout the day, but not right before bedtime, if you want to sleep at night.
• Set the stage. Make your bedroom welcoming and tidy, and your bed, pillows and bedclothes comfortable. Don't skimp. Get the right mattress and rotate it often. Replace it as often as you might change your car. You spend one third of your life in it.
• Get consistent with bed- and wake-up times. This is one that people underestimate. Also, don’t sleep in a chair in front of the TV. When you begin to feel sleepy, go to bed
• Winding down from the day’s activities will help you relax, fall asleep and stay asleep.
o Do not drink anything with caffeine after 3pm.
o Do not drink anything for two hours before bedtime to avoid the need to pee.
o Do not exercise in the evening. It will keep you awake.
o Limit alcoholic beverages and don’t drink any within 3 hours of bedtime.
o Dim lights of your sitting room two hours before bed; use reading lights if needed. Darkness allows melatonin to increase. We've all heard and experienced the impact of blue light on our sleep. Leave that tempting electronic device in the living room.
o  If you get up in the night, use night lights only.
o Do not make or accept phone calls from anyone for one hour before bed-time Similarly, do not enter into decision-making or problem-solving discussions late in the evening.
o If you watch TV before bed-time avoid disturbing programs.
o Never watch TV in the bedroom.
• If you want to read, use a reading lamp, aimed at the book not your face.
• Turn down the thermostat before going to bed in colder months. Programmable thermostats will take care of this for you, and can be set to turn the heat back on, prior to your rising.
• Apply stress-relieving techniques like breathing exercises if you wake up in the middle of the night and cannot go back to sleep within 20 minutes .
o Ask yourself “what is worrying me?” and if you can do nothing about it at the time, make a note of it and resolve to attend to it during waking hours.
o Get up and do something relaxing and satisfying like listening to quiet soothing music, until you feel sleepy again.
o Keep the area dark, and use white noise to neutralize sounds.
• See your doctor if you think you have apnea or restless leg syndrome get tested. For apnea, a device called CPAP (Continuous Positive Airway Pressure) helps you breathe during sleep. Restless leg can be reduced with increased exercise during the day or medication during the night. Consult with your doctor.

You are the one with the ability to improve the quality of your sleep and your life. Begin by paying more attention to how you feel and why you feel this way. Take ownership of your sleep and begin to make small adjustments in the way you approach it. Sleep is the time for body and brain to reboot from the day’s work and restore. Sleep and wakefulness serve different functions. Both are needed for balanced wellbeing.

Why Sleep Matters

During my career at NASA we allocated a lot of resources to ensure that our astronauts would be able to perform their duties safely and effectively. The quality and amount of their sleep was a crucial factor, and likewise it is for you and me. Today, 40% of Americans say they do not get enough sleep. On average, Americans get 6.9 hours of sleep each night, slightly less than the 7 to 9 hours recommended by experts. If you’re Japanese you likely get much less, but more if you are from France. So, what does it matter if we don’t get enough sleep?

•    Without enough, quality sleep we cannot fully enjoy our waking hours.
•    Getting enough sleep comes with substantial benefits, crucial to our physical well-being, such as increased energy, fitness and improved immunity.
•    Without adequate, quality sleep our mental and emotional health deteriorates often evidenced by fatigue, depression, anxiety, and reduced effectiveness.
•    Seventy million Americans have what is considered a “sleep problem”, including insomnia or sleep apnea. In addition to the challenges suffered by the individuals, the diagnosis and treatment of sleep problems is said to translate to a direct cost of more than $15 billion per year. The additional indirect costs, like accidents, lost productivity and hospitalization, amount to more than $50 billion. Sadly, more than 100,000 automobile-related accidents per year are sleep related.

In a 24-hour day roughly one-third (8 hours) is spent sleeping while the remaining 16 hours we are awake. We do a great deal of planning and structuring of our waking hours to work, socialize, be active and so on. Often viewed as “the opposite of being awake”, we perceive sleep as an unconscious or semiconscious passive state that just happens and does not require our attention. Somehow, we believe sleep will take care of itself to provide us with much needed respite from the day’s activities. We carefully plan our day using watches, calendars and lists to organize each day. How many of us pay similar attention in planning and structuring our sleep?

Two significant events of the 20th century led to greater appreciation of the costs and benefits of sleep.
First, the invention of the electric light bulb enabled the practice of work during what had for all time been normal sleeping hours. This led to the discovery that all living organisms on Earth have an internal, circadian 24-hour biological clock that is fine-tuned by daylight and night-darkness. Disturbing or reversing these rhythms comes with consequences.

Secondly, methods were developed of continuously recording the electrical activity of the brain and of imaging (MRI) its changes day and night. This has led to awareness that the brain is extremely active during sleep and that disrupting its normal pattern of activity can have disastrous consequences on emotional and physical health. Even so, much remains to be learned.

This is the first of a series of blogs on sleep where I’ll delve further into the nature of sleep and how your approach to it can help you live healthier, fuller lives. For now, here are five non-medicinal solutions to improving your sleep:

1.    Avoid stimulants for several hours before bed time. Consume no caffeine, and this includes caffeine from foods like chocolate, after 3 pm.
2.    Plan for sleep by powering down. Ever notice how going from the computer or smart phone to the pillow doesn’t encourage nodding off? Avoid exertive physical activity after dinner.
3.    Make your bedroom for two things only: sleeping and making love. TV’s and even reading should happen elsewhere. And your beloved cell phone? Don’t even think about it.
4.    Set and keep a consistent bed-time. There’s a reason we did it for our kids.
5.    Respect your sleep time. You spend one third of your life doing it.

Sweet dreams!

Meditation - Getting Started

by George Danellis

Ok, so “meditation”. The word itself makes most people a little bit uncomfortable, sort of like being sat at Thanksgiving dinner right next to your most obnoxious relative. Meditation often provokes images of flaky people, or figures in golden robes. Maybe you’ve tried it yourself and have memories of an uncomfortable experience where your body hurt or thoughts and emotions seemed to come in a relentless, uncontrollable stream. So you gave up, or never started.

And that’s wholly understandable. I know, because I’m human too.

But maybe you’re one of those fortunate folks (like me, some of my friends, business colleagues and the more than 20 million Americans) who have gotten past these initial obstacles and are now enjoying the benefits of a regular meditation practice. If so, please let me know in the comments section below how I do at both explaining why meditation can improve the quality of your life, and how to get a practice started the easy way.

The Why
  • Improved Health. From being able to maintain a more stable and healthy weight, to reducing blood pressure, to dealing with pain, to addressing unhealthy habits - developing a meditation practice is a winning proposition for your health. Doctors today are rapidly recognizing the benefits of meditation for their patients.
  • You’ll Become Less Bothered by the Small Stuff. Over time a meditation practice will help you better see how things really are in any given moment, rather than how we often make them out to be. Day by day you’ll develop a bit more of a ‘No Big Deal’ attitude.
  • Improved Effectiveness. Whether handling a work duty, a creative activity or a personal relationship, meditators report improved concentration and a general sense of awareness, with less anxiety.
  • Not Why You Thought. You’ll have your own reasons for starting. Over time I guarantee that other benefits will arise. That’s just how it goes.

The How
While there are many types of meditation, the one here is a secular practice that can be done by anyone, and is commonly called Mindful Awareness.

  1. Take Your Seat. Find a comfortable, quiet place. Sit with upright posture in a chair with your palms resting naturally on your thighs. Close your eyes. Or if you prefer to leave your eyes open look slightly downwards with an unfocused gaze.
  2. Bring Your Awareness to The Breath. Take one big breath and fully let it go. Thereafter breathe normally, gently noticing the breath go in, and then out. Perhaps allow your jaw to relax and your mouth to rest slightly open -whatever feels natural.
  3. When Your Attention Wanders, Bring it Back To The Breath. Because it will wander, over and over again - from what’s for dinner tonight, to how you might have handled “that situation” differently yesterday, to how you can’t keep your attention on your breath. It’s been said that just as a dog barks, a mind thinks. So there’s no reason to judge yourself, just let the thought go and bring your attention back to the breath. Over time you’ll get the hang of it.
  4. Conclude with Gratitude. Give thanks for whatever you want, including your new meditation practice!

To start, I recommend doing this meditation for 5 minutes, three or four times a day, whether in your living room or car, sitting in a park or wherever it works out for you. Over time, increase the length of your meditation sessions until you are up to 15 minutes or longer. A goal to sit for thirty minutes a day is good but not necessary, and I recommend allowing yourself one day a week that you set aside to not meditate.

Enjoy your new meditation practice!

George Danellis is a Corporate Sustainability consultant, surfer and lover of a good meal enjoyed with friends and family. He's had a sitting meditation practice since 2007.

Mark Kelly and Gabrielle Giffords Conquer the Odds.

With Mark Kelly about to command the last mission of the space shuttle Endeavor, I wanted to write a bit about their journey, as a follow-up to my January post on their situations and the stress related to it. 

As we all know, on January 8th, 2011 in Tucson, Arizona astronaut Mark Kelly's and his wife Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' lives were turned topsy turvy. This dynamic and loving couple were at the peak of their careers. Instead, they were then faced by both a life-threatening violent injury and a seemingly impossible choice about his commitments and dreams. For Kelly, this was about whether to stay consistently by his wife's side, or to continue towards a lifetime opportunity as commander of the Shuttle Endeavor's last flight. Not an enviable situation.

Fast forward to late April. It is now Tuesday and Endeavor is on the launch pad. The precious cosmic ray detector payload, which is to be fixed on the exterior of the International Space Station, has been loaded and the payload bay doors closed. Lift-off is less than three days away. Commander Mark Kelly and his crew of five are in the usual pre-launch quarantine and the count-down has begun. The excitement grows with a mixture of nervousness and pride. This launch would have been noteworthy without the added attention of the Kelly-Giffords storyline. Dignitaries including the Obamas are beginning to arrive. 

In the space community, it was always understood that Mark Kelly would make the decision to go ahead with his mission. As Kelly put it, 

"You've got to make a determination whether ...is this something you think is worthwhile? And the way I do that is I've got to look at what's the personal risk to me and what's the reward to our nation in doing this? I think the space shuttle program and human space flight in general provides a great deal for our country." 

This is the result of his analysis and conclusion of the overall dilemma he and his wife were facing. Not least in his decision was his wife's health status. We have heard about Representative Giffords' determination, and results in her  recovery, no doubt influenced by her wish to see her husband's dream fulfilled. Her improvement made Commander Kelly's decision significantly easier.

On her side, knowing how much this mission meant to her husband, Gabrielle Giffords was going to do everything in her power to make it possible. She made his launch her motivation to recover faster. This meant that not only did she have to overcome great odds to survive, but to go a leap further by declaring early on that she wanted to be present for the launch. Setting such a seemingly insurmountable, but relatively short term goal, gave her the determination during an otherwise long and slow journey to recovery. It was a tangible target. Imagine how much slower her recovery would have been if there was no pressing target for which to reach? From a rehabilitation point of view her desire to support her husband and to be at the launch may have been the best thing that could have happened to her.

Representative Giffords and Mark Kelly show us how, when you assess your situation (even when it is utterly traumatic) and decide on a position you intend to aim for, much is possible.

As Endeavor is making her final launch before retiring, may she and her crew travel safely, and may the story of Commander Kelly and Representative Giffords serve to inspire.

Mix Up Your Exercise for Better Results

If you are already exercising regularly, here are some suggestions to help you get the most from your effort, and develop some enduring, beneficial habits. Allow Spring's arrival to be a helpful nudge.

If you are like many of us and feeling like you need to increase your activity but cannot quite get motivated or find the time in your busy schedule, here are some tips that may help you make exercise more enjoyable and effective.

When you read about exercise today what you commonly see are standard recommendations for types of exercise and how long you should exercise based on averages from studies in groups of people. While this information is valuable it's unlikely that you are that 'average' individual. Each one of us is in our unique place and have things we like to do, resources at our disposal, and more. It's important to note that 'more and harder' are not always better. We are best served by adapting these global standards to real life. Our life.

The following recommendations are based on proven methods, as well as the latest research and observations that to be healthy, fit and sustain activity over time, it is not only which exercise we do that matters but how to develop activity habits that fit into our individual lives.  

1) Go for Variety. The body gets accustomed to the same thing every day and over time stops responding in the same manner. Ever reach a plateau?

2) Confuse the Body by alternating the speed or intensity or frequency of what you do if even by small amounts and with moderate intensity. This is why interval training is better than maintaining a steady pace at anything you do. Walk faster and slower. Take a few steps backwards every so often.

3) Change Posture. Stand up as often as you can throughout the day. Believe it or not, as well as improving balance and functional strength, this stimulates an enzyme that targets abdominal fat and has more physiological benefit than taking slow walks.

4) Take a Class.  Classes provide structure, accountability and also variety since no two classes are alike, and you will do things that you otherwise wouldn't. There are lots of classes out there at health clubs or public recreation programs. My favorite is Yoga, where you learn to use breathing to energize or calm yourself, while increasing flexibility and balance.

5) Try Pilates. Pilates is amazing at strengthening your body's core muscles that support your back. It reminds me to suck my stomach in when I sit at my computer or driving. Start with an introductory class if you have never done it.

6) Make it Social. Grab a friend or group and play tennis, golf or take a long walk once a week.

7) Swim. Outdoors if you can, but anywhere is good. Swimming is a wonderful, low-impact activity and just plain feels good.

8) Get Dirty, Have Fun: Gardening is not usually thought of as exercise but the next day your pleasantly aching muscles may tell you otherwise. Stretch before and after and don't try to do your spring clean-up and planting all at once. And the next time you walk by the playground, swing on that swing, even slowly. You may even make a new, younger friend or two.

9) Relax. And I'm not talking about watching TV. Most of us think we know how to relax but really aren't accomplishing it. I'm talking about an activity that releases your tension and brings you back to a state of equilibrium. Relaxation is just as important to our muscles and joints as contracting them. Not sure how to do it? Take a restorative or Yin yoga class and learn that feeling.
10) Do it now, then do it later. Do you fail to start exercising due to not having enough time? Instead, do 3 or 4 minutes here and 3 or 4 minutes there. Which do you think will have results - lamenting your busyness and not doing anything, or doing a little bit at different times during the day?

I consider myself a fairly active person but if you are like me, you may spend a little too much time sitting in front of a computer or a TV, especially during the colder months. It's also easy to go with what's comfortable and not test our bodies in smart and reasonable ways. I hope that with Spring's arrival, you will allow some of these suggestions to spark a renewed enthusiasm about your exercise program.

Aging Well With a Generous Daily Dose of Gravity

I imagine that most of us don't worry so much about dying but about what comes just prior to that part of life. Like my friend Tom Rogers used to say: "I want to be healthy till I drop dead!" Aging well and retaining dignity and independence is what it's all about. 

The human body is a gift. We owe it to ourselves to take good care of it and in fact we have more influence over this body than we might believe.  Not feeling your best is no fun and often very costly. In contrast, a healthy body and mind help you feel good and look young. At times, you may for instance get down on yourself about what you’ve eaten or having been relatively inactive. It’s important that you be aware of this and make choices that better support your wellbeing. Although medications have their place, practical, non-medicinal solutions are readily available as well. There is much to be learned from previous generations.

Modern Times and Technologies
Many modern technologies have contributed to robbing us of good health. They crept up on us before we quite realized what was happening.  Although the TV remote control, your car, your computer and the washing machine make your life and work easier, they also reduce your need to move. 

Designed for Gravity
Your body was designed to live and move in gravity which, in turn, makes movement effective. We’ve learned from astronauts living in space how important using gravity is to wellness. In spite of hours of strenuous exercise while in the microgravity of space, astronauts lose stamina, balance, coordination, and muscle and bone strength 10 times faster than on earth. These are all changes you experience on earth as you age, only much more slowly than our astronaut friends. Yet if you asked a doctor about the effects of gravity on human health they would probably look at you blankly. There is nothing in the medical textbooks about gravity.

At NASA we learned that you can produce similar changes on earth by lying in bed continuously.  With the greater inactivity prevalent today from extended periods of sitting and lying down these accelerated age-like changes can be hazardous to your health.  The simple answer for us living on earth is to move more in ways that use gravity.  Children do this spontaneously. Before the advent of Jane Fonda's videos or Gyms and Wellness Centers, our grandparents did it naturally in the course of the day.

Mother Nature's medicine to aging well in technology-rich modern times is a generous daily dose of gravity. For your body to be well and strong it is crucial to use and challenge gravity by moving about throughout the day, every day.

Aging is Not Dependent on Age

We think of gravity as the force that makes apples fall off trees and allows skiers enjoy the thrill of sliding downhill. When it come to ourselves though, we tend to view gravity as the enemy that drags us down and ages us. It makes our body sag, muscles and bones atrophy, we lose our balance and coordination and cannot get a good night's sleep. Did you know that astronauts in space, where they experience almost no gravity-- we call it microgravity -- show the same changes? Do astronauts grow old faster in space without gravity? And if these changes are due to aging, why do they recover once back in Earth's gravity? After all, we presume that you and I grounded here on Earth do not recover from these same changes.These were the perplexing questions I faced in my research at NASA.

Developing a Ground Model
Given the small numbers of humans going into space, experiments on the ground had to be devised where we could study in depth many more people in conditions that mimic the effects of living in space. Healthy men and women, similar in age to astronauts, volunteered to lie in bed continuously for weeks. Lying down decreases the length of the axis in the body through which gravity can act. An even better model  was lying at an incline with the feet up and head slightly down. The first 20 minutes are a bit uncomfortable because the blood rushes to the head but after that it feels normal and astronauts tell us it feels much more like being in space.

After a few days of this bed rest, healthy young volunteers show the same accelerated age-like loss in muscle and bone and the other spaceflight changes we saw in astronauts, except they were less intense. Were these healthy men and women also aging faster merely by lying in bed? Like astronauts, they also recovered once they were up and about and the axis of gravity acted on their body in the head to toe direction.

Answers Came from the Ground

The simplistic answer was that these changes may seem similar but are due to different causes and mechanisms. After all it has been assumed that as we age we do not recover from these similar changes.
While visiting a friend's mother at a nursing home it dawned on me that the question I was asking should be turned around. It was not, " Do astronauts and people on earth grow old under conditions of reduced gravity?" Outrageous as it seemed, what if the question to ask was "Could the physical deterioration associated with the passage of time be reversible as well?" " My research team wondered if it could have something to do with somehow being exposed to less gravity as we age. This consideration raised a highly exciting prospect.

The Theory and the Action
Years after first expressing this theory acceptance is gradually growing that the changes associated with increasing years -- age -- are distinct from aging. They are ageless. They are due to a life of reduced influence of gravity on the body. This means that they are not inevitable, that you can actually do something to prevent, delay and even reverse the changes normally associated with aging. Even though gravity is all around us, from age 20 on when development peaks, we progressively decrease challenging gravity in everyday life. It is not merely about inactivity. Not only do you sit more but the secret from space research is that you need to  move more with respect to the axis of gravity.Think about gravity until using it becomes a habit.

Mark Kelly's Decision: Coping with Stress

                                                            by Joan Vernikos

Does worry keep you up at night? Do you fuss over fears, "what if" worries, stuff that needs to be done? It's easy to become all wired up with stress.

But have you stopped to think about how real this stress is?  It seems real enough at the time. Yet you can quickly erase it from your mind once you realize that it falls in the category of something that is not under your control.  You are unnecessarily wasting energy if you do not realize that all this anticipated stress is generated by you.

Then there is stress that comes unannounced, that you cannot disregard because it happens  unexpectedly and you must deal with it.  The incredible live TV drama of the shootings on January 8th, a beautiful sunny day in Tucson, Arizona came, like 9/11, to shake us out of putting off making sure we tell people we love them.

Think of that day's awful events. On the one hand, families lost loved ones and many were needlessly injured and experienced trauma. Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords not only came near to losing her life but suddenly is facing the steep climb to carve out a somewhat different kind of future. Things never quite return to the way they were.

Consider what her astronaut husband Mark Kelly has been dealing with. He is Commander of a Shuttle mission only weeks away, and must have hit emotional bottom that fateful Saturday. Grueling naval and astronaut training, that equipped him in dealing with great risks as well as with news media, must have come in unexpectedly useful. Yet in his wildest dreams this was not the scenario he had prepared for. Additionally, his major support and twin brother Scott Kelly was unavailable, 200 miles up in space as Commander of the International Space Station. Should one tell astronauts in space this sort of tremendously bad news? Today's technology makes it impossible to keep anything a secret. These are professionals and they are trained to deal with bad news and challenges of all sorts.
How could astronaut-specific training have helped Mark Kelly? In the case of loss or near loss, astronauts will react like any other human being and use the tools they have developed. The list includes prayer, action, continuing with life's demands, taking care of one's own health, letting go of negative emotions and having people to lean on through the process of recovery.

In the case of  prolonged uncertainty, as in the case of Mark Kelly, the rigorous training to analyze, anticipate, think through and act must click in automatically. Yet no one can be trained for this kind of event. When others rely on you, helplessness is not an option. Staying emotionally in control and calm remains a fundamental requirement from which he can draw strength. His training would say:
  • Get the facts
  • Analyze
  • Remain informed
  • Question gently and constantly and establish control. Doctors and caregivers are in virgin territory with this case. Nothing can be taken for granted.
  • Organize assistance
  • Act on whatever is under your control
  • Faith 
Decision-making is one of the most stressful life events. Mark Kelly recently announced his decision to remain on-schedule to lead his 14 day mission on the shuttle Endeavor's last scheduled flight.
"As you can imagine the last month has been the hardest time of my life," he said.  Of his wife, he added "She's made progress every day; I have every intention that she'll be there for the launch." 
Godspeed Mark Kelly!