Wellness Tips for Leaders

The following is adapted from the section on wellness for leaders that I contributed to the newly published What Exceptional Leaders Know, High Impact Skills, Strategies and Ideas for Leaders, by Tracy Spears and Wally Schmader. Whether you’re a CEO, sales team manager, parent, coach or teacher, you’ll discover useful information on wellness and more. Here’s just a sampling: 

Wellness, as a term, gets tossed around a lot these days. But what does it really mean? According to the National Wellness Institute, “Wellness is an active process through which people become aware of, and make choices toward, a more successful existence.” I like this definition because it reminds us that we are each responsible for our own success as a person. No one can do it for us. We have to want to take that close look at ourselves, and then accept the self-knowledge that results.

Next we commit to making changes and envision how these look moving forward. It’s an “active” and ongoing process, with no formula that works for everyone. Each of us is unique in our challenges, yet wellness is available to all of us who actively participate in the journey.

What Exceptional Leaders KnowThe authors of What Exceptional Leaders Know have done a great job of outlining a 30-day reboot that fits our definition of optimal wellness. They lead us through an Energy Audit and a Neglect Review. Together these tools boost our awareness of what’s working and what’s not.

Next, readers use information from the Audit and Review to create change in the Managed Goals Workshop. When reviewing your own behaviors, be sure a few of your health concerns make it into the exercise. Without our health, we have nothing. You know this all too well if you’ve had a health scare or suffer from a chronic condition. Lucky you if this seems like just another platitude, but someday it’s meaning will be crystal clear. Don’t wait for that day. Don’t fall prey to the mindset of, “yeah but, that won’t happen to me.” Just like everything else relating to personal success and wellness, good health involves awareness (no denial here) and consistent good choices.

My Top Suggestions

In addition to your list of goals that result from your Personal Reboot, I offer three suggestions that every exceptional leader will benefit from. In my practice as a health coach, without exception my clients need reinforcement in at least one of these areas. Even though my suggestions are undeniably basic — the first two you’ve surely heard hundreds of times — they bear repeating because they allow for the strongest, healthiest and most robust platform from which all or your energy, ideas, and talents as a leader flow.


Adequate sleep is elusive to many of us, especially leaders. Two reasons seem to be at the root. The first is that we are taught that go-getters don’t have time for sleep. Sleep is for lazy, unproductive folk with little motivation. We hear about movers and shakers who only require about 4 hours a night (think Martha Stewart, Bill Clinton, Barak Obama and Donald Trump). Remember, these folks are anomalies. They represent only 1-3% of the population. If you’re not regularly logging 7-9 hours (1/3 of us sleep fewer than 6 hours each night), you are accumulating a sleep debt that has far-reaching negative effects on the body and mind.

The second reason we don’t get enough shuteye is that many of us fall into a cycle of bad habits that undermine our ability to get a sound night’s sleep. Poor sleep quality is often blamed on age or chalked up to stress, but there are ways to improve our sleep.

– Why Sleep is Vital

The first step in improving your sleep is to understand why it’s so important to our health and our overall success. Our bodies contain a delicate mix of biochemicals, which regulate how we feel and behave. These brain chemicals become depleted throughout the day, particularly by stress. Sleep is when our bodies restore this important balance.

  • Mentally, sleep deprivation makes us more forgetful, less able to process new information and leaves us vulnerable to depression and anxiety. More sleep keeps cortisol (the stress hormone) in check while boosting our natural mood enhancer, serotonin.
  • Insufficient sleep lowers cortisol and leptin, making us more likely to crave and overindulge in fatty, crispy, salty, and sweet comfort foods.
  • Physically, sleep debt hijacks our immune system, raising the risk of hypertension and heart disease, diabetes, some cancers, and stroke.

– Tips for Getting a Great Night’s Sleep

Now that you’re convinced of the fundamental importance of a good night sleep, there are a few things you can do to help you get it.

  • Charge electronic devices outside of the bedroom, or completely silence them. Beeps, hums, and chirps are disruptive.
  • Cover as many of the light sources in your bedroom as possible – that red light on the TV (a piece of black tape), the glow from your alarm clock (turn it around), the street light streaming in past your shades (invest in better window treatments).
  • Kennel your pets at night, or have them sleep outside of your bedroom. I know I sound hard-hearted, but as comforting and sweet as they are, they wake us up a lot. We need lengthy periods of deep sleep that aren’t possible if we are repeatedly awoken by our bedmates.
  • Have a bedtime routine that doesn’t involve electronics. At least a half hour before bed, dim the lights, step away from the computer, turn off the TV, and do something quiet and relaxing. Make this a habit so that your body comes to know the signals that sleep is imminent.

– If you wake at night and have trouble getting back to sleep

  • Take a look at your exercise level during the day. Is your mind worn out but your body under exercised?
  • Are you anxious about a problem or upcoming event? Keep a pen and paper next to your bed, and take 5-10 minutes to jot down ideas, to dos, even worries. The simple act of putting them on paper will help you rest more easily.
  • Is heartburn an issue? Try eating an earlier dinner, elevate your head and shoulders while you sleep, and avoid foods that trigger indigestion. If that doesn’t help, see your doctor.
  • If you drink alcohol, resist the urge to have a nightcap. Wine or whiskey may help you nod off faster, but as the alcohol is metabolized, it becomes harder to stay asleep and sleep well.
  • Are your mattress, sheets, pillows and PJs comfortable? How’s the temperature in the bedroom?

Most people don’t realize they’re sleep deprived. They don’t tie their irritability, lack of self-discipline or difficulty concentrating to sleep debt. Try some of the suggestions above and take notice of other changes that result.

More Fresh Fruits and Vegetables

That fruits and vegetables are healthy is nothing new. But I have a strategy for anyone trying to improve his or her eating habits. Don’t spend energy counting calories. Forget about denying yourself right and left. Banish the word “diet” from your vocabulary. Simply eat more fruits and vegetables.

By eating more fiber-rich, vitamin-packed fresh produce, you will be crowding out some of the less healthy choices in your day. Keep in mind you can enjoy an enormous vegetable-laden salad and not come close to the fat and calorie count in a burger and fries. And since we’re not denying ourselves, go ahead and have a few fries, but chances are you won’t want nearly as many.

Go for variety. Try new things. If you’re taste buds are somewhat challenged at the thought of veggies, set a goal of trying at least one new fruit or vegetable each day for a week. Another helpful “rule” is to limit any after-dinner snacking to fruit only. You’ll be surprised at the awareness this raises around the difference between true hunger and a craving for something sweet.

Fruits and vegetables are also nature’s best source for vitamins and minerals. Increasing your intake will provide your body with more of the nutrients necessary for robust health. When you consider everything you put in your mouth as opportunity to nourish your body, you’ll eat more mindfully and be less likely to use food for comfort.

Less Sitting

My third suggestion isn’t quite as obvious as sleeping more and eating better. But being sedentary for long periods of time is somewhat of an epidemic, especially among those working in mid- to upper-level jobs. We tend to sit in long meetings, travel by air and car frequently, plant ourselves in front of the computer for hours on end. On average, Americans are seated for 9 hours each day! In 2013, the American Heart Association stated that too much sitting is as dangerous to our health as smoking.

Even regular exercise won’t offset the negative impact of sitting for long periods of time. What does help is incremental movements throughout the day, something Mayo Clinic physician, J.A. Levine, has termed NEAT (non-exercise activity thermogenesis). NEAT encompasses any energy expended throughout the day — from sleeping to fidgeting to climbing stairs — that is not done for exercise. Levine and others have found these activities add up, and have a significant impact on our metabolic rate.

Be more mindful about the length of time you spend sitting still. When doing computer work, set a reminder on your phone to stand and stretch every 15 minutes. Take the stairs, all the time! Consider scheduling a walking meeting as opposed to discussing business over lunch. When on a conference call, put on your headset and pace around the room. You can even add in some deep knee bends and no one on the call will be the wiser.

Wearing a pedometer or using a smart phone app to track your movements is hands down the best way to track your movement. Leaders know you manage what you measure, so why not measure your daily activities in order to increase them.

Standing desks or treadmill desks are becoming more common in the workplace. Some companies invest in one or two, allowing employees to rotate through the workstation throughout the day. Certainly, investing in the health of your employees is a remarkable way to gain their trust and respect.

Your Reach as a Leader Includes Creating a Wellness Culture

As much as you endeavor to improve your health and habits for yourself and your personal success, remember that as a leader you set the tone for many others. In the lingo of positive psychology you are an “influencer.” By practicing and embodying good self-care habits, you inspire those around you. As a leader, you’re in a position to model good habits, reward healthy choices, and spark constructive change. In essence creating a culture of wellness for you and those you manage is a powerfully productive leadership skill.

A wellness culture will not take hold if leaders don’t invest personally in the health-promoting ideas and the tools. If it’s not good enough for the boss, then the team probably won’t spend the time. Employees sense a wellness program that is primarily concerned with improving the bottom line through fewer absences and less expensive health insurance costs. But when a company fully supports the wellbeing of its employees, a zeitgeist forms and builds upon itself to strengthen the company, its employees and its leaders.

– from What Exceptional Leaders Know by Tracy Spears and Wally Schmader —available on Amazon

Six Things to Remember When Feeding your Kids this Summer

I’m very happy to have a reprieve from packing school lunches every morning. But with the kids home for more meals and wanting constant snacks, the new challenge is providing healthy options.  Growing kids need plenty of quality calories and many want lots of choices, yet they’re often picky. Here are a few ideas to help them pack in the nutrients this summer.

1)  Take Advantage of the Extra Time – Summer brings longer days, fewer commitments, and more down time. Take advantage of a looser schedule to spend more time in the kitchen preparing fresh food. It’s easy to fall into the trap of eating out when we’re busy, but eating at home is the healthier choice. (Read more about this in It’s Cool to Cook at Home.)

Boy Eat Watermelon by Miroslav Vajdic courtesy of Creative Commons/ Flickr

Boy Eat Watermelon by Miroslav Vajdic courtesy of Creative Commons/ Flickr

2)  Enjoy More Fresh Produce – Vegetable gardens are usually yielding lots of delicious produce over the summer.  If you don’t have one, consider taking on the project with your kids. Farmer’s markets, near home on while you’re traveling, will be in full swing. Bring the kids along and get creative with what you bring home.

Melons like cantaloupe and watermelon are at their peak, not to mention anti-oxidant filled berries. Mangoes and Pineapples are everywhere. Cut them up and put them in glass containers where they’re easily seen. Serve them as dessert.

3)  Get the Kids Interested in Cooking – Whether you’ve got little ones or teens, teaching them to find their way around the kitchen is key. You might put an older child in charge of preparing one meal each week.

4)  Be the Example – You’ve got to walk the walk. Unfortunately kids are bombarded by bad food choices at the mall, on TV, and even at school, so what they eat, and see you eat, at home is really important. Good eating habits, good choices, start at home.

5)  Prepare and Eat Food Together – This is the best way to be the example (see #4). It’s a simple concept but has huge benefits for your health, waistline, and your family. Your goal might be a minimum of one meal a day eaten together. This is easier if you don’t allow teens or middle schoolers to take food back to their rooms, or eat a meal in front of the TV.

6)  Clean out the Pantry with your Kids – Talk to them about processed and packaged foods and the overuse of sugar (it goes by 41 different names on food labels) trans fats, and other preservatives. You might want to take them to see Fed Up. Then challenge them to round-up any foods that have these ingredients and toss them. Although the FDA has instituted a gradual ban on trans fats, some products still contain them. Look for “partially hydrogenated oil” on the labels of things like microwave popcorn, frozen pizza, refrigerated dough (biscuits), and ready-to-use frosting.

So with all of those easy-to-grab processed snacks out of the picture, what are you going to feed your hungry kids? Here are some snack ideas.

  • Hummus and Vegetables – Think baby carrots, sliced celery, jicama, red pepper
  • Fresh Fruit Popsicles – Outshine by Dreyer’s is a good product, but if you want only organic fruit and no added sugar, try making them at home.
  • Whole Wheat Tortillas – Keep them on hand and fill them with fresh options like red pepper, fresh spinach or arugula, avocado, tomatoes, salsa, beans or my favorite, leftover grilled vegetables.
  • Trail mix – Packaged granola bars are easy and some brands are healthier than others, but consider mixing your own trail mix with healthy nuts  and seeds, dried fruit, and maybe even some chocolate thrown in there. (Remember to put these in glass jars so you and your family see them.)
  • Hard Boiled Eggs – Plain or prepared as deviled eggs or egg salad, all options are a good cooking project to get kids started.
  • Homemade Protein Bars – This is one recipe kids really love.
  • Whole Wheat Pasta – Cook more than you need next time, and then reheat with some pesto, red sauce or olive oil.
  • Fruit – Grapes, apples, berries, cherries, pears, papaya, bananas, melon, apricots…the possibilities are endless.
  • Nut butter – Whether made from peanuts, almonds, or cashews most kids love nut butters. Look for brands without added sugar and oils. My favorites are 365, Woodstock and Kirkland.
  • Smoothies – If you’re not already in the habit of making fruit smoothies, summer is an ideal time to start. As long as you keep the fruit (fresh and frozen) on hand, and maybe some yogurt and even some greens, the kids can whip up a cool creamy snack with ease.

Kitchen Consultation with Barclay SchraffIf you need more help, sign up for a Kitchen Consultation  with me! I offer lots of information and advice on eliminating processed foods, introducing more plant-based options, preparing easy, healthy meals, label reading, and the impact of good nutrition on your health.

Last but not least, I’d love to hear your ideas for healthy meals and snacks. Please post them in the comment section below.

Fed Up — What’s Behind the Obesity Epidemic?

Fed-UpLast weekend, I went to see the new movie Fed Up, produced and narrated by Katie Couric. The movie’s premise is that sugar, specifically the added sugar in processed foods, is the cause of our obesity epidemic.

Should you go see it?

If you already keep abreast of the obesity epidemic, reading articles here and there, and are interested in leading a healthy lifestyle, chance are Fed Up is not going to tell you much you don’t already know.

It did offer some startling statistics, like:

  • The average American’s daily intake of sugar has doubled since 1977.
  • In 1980, there were no cases of type 2 diabetes among adolescents. In 2010, there were 57,638 cases.
  • 80% of schools have a deal with fast food companies, ensuring their products are sold in the cafeteria.
  • Body fat scans showed that some children carried excess abdominal fat even though their weight is normal, meaning children who are not obese – or even overweight – may run the same risks of metabolic disease as their obese counterparts.

I didn’t agree with the movie’s assertion that eating less and moving more is not the answer.

While processed foods are no doubt a huge factor, our sedentary lifestyle is another culprit. We are glued to our electronics and overly reliant on our cars. The United Health Foundation reports that about 25% of Americans have gotten “no physical activity or exercise (such as running, calisthenics, golf, gardening or walking) other than their regular job in the last 30 days.” That seems to tie in with another statistic, that more than one-third (34.9%) of Americans are obese. (Center for Disease Control)

Four Obese Kids:

Four  obese children were profiled, all from poor or working class families. The food on their tables was as overly processed as what we were shown in their school cafeterias. One mother loaded her grocery cart with various reduced-fat foods by Nabisco in her attempts to improve the family’s diet.

A beautiful 12-year-old girl was morbidly obese, despite being on a swim team, running, and kayaking. She made little to no progress in her weight loss during the movie. Her struggle was showcased, and her pain was real.

Peeking into the lives of these fat kids brought home how ubiquitous processed foods have become. Fed Up tells us what most of my readers already know – that the food industry is not interested in keeping American healthy, they are in business to make a profit. They know and exploit how our bodies crave sugar (and fat and salt).  The movie shows the brain scans of people eating sugar next to those high on drugs. In both the pleasure center is all lit up. In fact sugar is more addictive than heroin. Some addicts are eventually able to kick their drug habit, but who can stop eating food?

The message in Fed Up is loud and clear, but until this movie reaches the main stream – is out in the rental market or better yet, is shown in schools, I think it’s preaching to the choir. On opening weekend in Phoenix Fed Up was shown on one screen – in an independent film theater. The audience was older, well-educated, but did contain quite a few overweight viewers. I was glad to see the woman next to me brought four kids. They all seemed pretty jazzed by the movie’s message. That’s one impressive mom!

What Nuts and Seeds Can Do for You

walnutsNuts and seeds are amazing little powerhouses of nutrients. A friend to anyone eating a whole food plant-based diet, they offer many of the same nutrients found in animal products (iron, calcium, protein, B vitamins and more). Yet unlike meat and dairy products, nuts contain predominately heart healthy mono-saturated fats along with fiber and omega-3 fatty acids. Nuts are powerful disease fighters!

A little goes a long way since nuts and seeds are calorie dense, but don’t shy away from them if you’re trying to lose weight. They are both satisfying and nutritious.

A few dos and don’ts:

  • Stick to raw or dry-roasted nuts and seeds, since roasting means added oil.
  • If you have high blood pressure, opt for the unsalted version.
  • Steer clear of packaged nuts with glazed sugary coatings, toffee, chocolate, or BBQ flavoring, etc. If you’re not convinced, read the label!

Use the guide below to get an accurate sense of the number of nuts/seeds in a 1-ounce serving. You might even portion them out in snack bags and keep some at your desk or in your bag.

nutritional content of nuts and seeds from Elemental Wellness Coaching

A few more tips on incorporating nuts and seeds in your diet:

  • Try adding hemp or chia seeds to smoothies, salads, soups.
  • Top salads with a handful of sesame seeds, walnuts or pine nuts to up the protein content.
  • If you’re feeding a family, buying nuts and seeds in bulk makes sense. Store them in an airtight container (glass is great), or freeze them until ready to use.
  • Enrich baked goods with walnuts and pecans. For picky eaters, ground them up and no one will be the wiser.
  • Pack lunches with a handful of lightly salted almonds instead of packaged chips or crackers.
  • Strive to regularly include the big winners – almonds, walnuts, chia seeds, and flax seeds. Enjoy others in moderation.

Stress, Chronic Disease, and the Power of a Hug

10 tips to stress less

What’s your biggest stress trigger? In a recent conversation with friends, a few of us pointed to time pressures. When I have to navigate between several appointments, my kids’ schedules, and attempt to “get stuff done” in between, I feel stressed. Unfortunately, that describes my typical day. So like so many of us, I experience chronic stress.

Unlike situational or social stress, caused by life changes such as divorce, relocation, death of a loved one, chronic stress is ongoing and so can take a real toll on our bodies and minds.

According to the Yale Stress Center, “There is evidence to show that stress and adversity promotes negative thinking, anxiety, bad habits and other poor lifestyle choices by disrupting brain function related to self-control, decision-making, healthy desire and mood. Chronic stress and adversity can also disrupt normal cardiac, metabolic and immune function thereby increasing the risk of hypertension, heart disease, stroke, diabetes, obesity, infections and some types of cancers.”

How does stress contribute to chronic disease?

For one, stressed-out people tend to slack off on self-care with less sleep, poor food choices, exercising less, and smoking and drinking more. Stress also triggers a flood of hormones into your system, including adrenaline and cortisol that give you that fight-or-flight feeling. But when you’re body is constantly under stress, overexposure to stress hormones (known as allostatic load) leads to an increased risk of all kinds of health problems including depression, digestive problems, heart disease, obesity (more fat around the waist), and memory issues. It’s also been linked to aging, rheumatoid arthritis and diabetes.

Our bodies own stress countering hormone – Oxytocin

I don't need Therapy, I need a hug.Stanford health psychologist, and the speaker in the excellent TED talk below, Kelly McGonigal, PhD shares an important insights into stress resilience. It’s all  reaching out to others for support when we feel stressed. Our bodies make this easier, since the package of stress hormones our bodies release contains the cuddle hormone, oxytocin. McGonigal explains, “Your biological stress response is nudging you to tell someone how you feel instead of bottling it up. Your stress response wants to make sure you notice when someone else in your life is struggling so that you can support each other. When life is difficult, your stress response wants you to be surrounded by people who care about you.” The stress response, if we heed it’s call, can actually strengthen human connections, compassion and empathy.

McGonigal cites another study that found whether or not a person believes stress is harmful to their bodies makes a marked difference in the way their bodies react.  Typically the heart rate goes up and blood vessels constrict, but when one views stress as a helpful biological response, your body readying itself for a challenge, the blood vessels remain open and relaxed, actually mimicking the body’s response to joy and courage. She calls this “the biology of courage.”

Next time you’re late for a meeting, breathe deeply, see your stress as a normal biological response, extend some compassion to yourself, and when it’s appropriate, reach out to others for some strength and caring.

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Smarts and Stamina Online ProgramThere’s a lot more great information on the interworking of neurochemicals like oxytocin and cortisol. Explore them with me in my upcoming wellness workshop – Safeguarding Your Health: Disease Prevention through Sleep, Food, Mood and Exercise. Sign up before April 1, 2014 for an early-bird discount!



Carnegie Mellon University (www.cmu.org) Stress Contributes to Range of Chronic Diseases, Carnegie Mellon Psychologist Says (full findings published in the Journal of the American Medical Association).

MayoClinic.org. Healthy Lifestyle: Stress Management: Chronic Stress puts your Health at Risk.

The New York Times. The Heavy Cost Of Chronic Stress. December 17, 2002. by Erica Goode.

Yale Stress Center