Personal Health

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Project Louise: Entering The Home Stretch, Time To Press ‘Pause’

pause button

(Maximilian Schonherr via Wikimedia Commons)

Is it just me, or do we never really outgrow that “back to school” feeling? As a new school year looms for my kids, I find myself similarly anticipating a return to seriousness, a settling down, an evaluation of past progress and a recommitment to getting things done.

Plus, we are now entering the final third of Project Louise – and that has me feeling like I’ve got a lot to do in a very short time! Yes, I work best under pressure; yes, nothing motivates me like a deadline; and yes, I tend to put things off until I really don’t have any choice but to do them. But I confess I’m feeling a bit anxious that I have not lost as much weight as I wanted to by now, and that I am going to have a really hard time hitting my end-of-year goal without some kind of drastic action.

But hold on a minute. The one thing I’ve learned this year is that making permanent change is not about drastic action. It’s about nudging, guiding, steering yourself gradually from one course to another – a gentle gliding curve, not a hard yank of the wheel. So, before anyone gets crazy here, let’s take a deep breath.

(That’s another thing I’ve learned. Breathing is good.)

So. Where are we on this path, and where do we need to go? I say “we” deliberately because I’ve already figured out one thing I want to focus more on in the home stretch: I’d really like to know what you’d like to know. What kind of advice and support do you need in order to reach your own health goals?

Over the past months, we’ve explored a bit about diet, a bit about various kinds of exercise from power yoga to cycling, and a fair amount about personal change. But what’s missing from the picture for you? What kind of experts would you like to hear from, and what would you like to learn?

Here’s one idea to get you started. Next week I’ll be talking with an internist who studies the many effects of stress on our health, and I’m hoping to get some good tips on how to manage stress more effectively. If there’s anything you’d like me to ask her, let me know. Continue reading

Project Louise: ‘The Single Best Thing You Can Do For Your Health’

Maybe you’ve seen this video already — it went viral on YouTube a while back. But I hadn’t, until CommonHealth co-host Carey Goldberg encouraged me to. If you also haven’t, I encourage you to watch it right now.

Go ahead. I’ll wait.

So, now that you’ve watched it, I can go ahead and talk about it without worrying that I’ll spoil the big reveal for you. Actually, even if you didn’t listen to me and haven’t watched it, I’m not too worried about that, because the huge secret in this video is simply that (last chance to watch before I spoil it for you!) we should all be walking or exercising or in some way moving our bodies about half an hour every day.

We should all be walking or exercising or in some way moving our bodies about half an hour every day.

Not exactly news, right? But for me, anyway, something about the very simplicity of the video’s presentation made me sit up and pay attention in a fresh way. Dr. Mike Evans, the video’s creator, has made it his mission to present preventative-medicine information in as clear and useful a way as possible — and, to my mind, he’s done exactly that here.

The point: We all have 24 hours in a day. Spend 23 and a half of those hours any way you want, but just use the remaining 30 minutes to go for a walk. And the health benefits will be incredible. He’s got charts and stats and everything to prove it. By the end of the presentation, I just couldn’t wait to get up from my desk and go for a walk.

And I’m going to do that in one minute. First, though, I’ll pass along another link to a Dr. Mike insight — this one from a post on his blog. It’s in the form of an infographic, and I’m thinking of blowing it up and putting it on my wall. Again, a simple and obvious point with a powerful potential for lasting change: There is no one big thing we have to do to make ourselves healthier. It’s all about making a lot of little changes, sticking with them, then making more little changes and sticking with those, too.

Little changes like going for a walk.

OK, I’m out of here.

Project Louise: New Habit? It’s In The Bag

(BeWellPhilly)

(BeWellPhilly)

The Salad Club is dead. Long live the Salad Club!

Way back in January, in the early days of Project Louise, my fabulous colleague Jessica Coughlin made an offer I couldn’t refuse: She would bring in salad ingredients every day, and I would eat them.

We’re lucky at WBUR to have a well-equipped staff kitchen, so it was easy to take whatever showed up in the bag and make a delicious, huge salad. Other folks in the office soon noticed this development and wanted a piece of it, and so the Salad Club was born.

For a small – I mean really, really small – monthly fee, Jess would bring in all kinds of wonderful greens from her garden, along with produce from Allandale Farm, great dressings and other assorted treats. The other four Salad Club members, including me, could also bring in whatever garnishes and accompaniments we wanted to add.

Nirvana ensued.

But, like so many good things, it couldn’t last forever. Two weeks ago, Jess announced with regret that because of vacation, moving, and the increasing work demands of her despotic boss (that would be me), she just didn’t have the bandwidth anymore to keep doing this.

Despair ensued.

But then a funny thing happened. Continue reading

When Hand, Foot And Mouth Disease Sweeps Through: What To Know

(Bob Reck via Compfight)

Veronica Thomas
CommonHealth Intern

Summer is not only the season for watermelon and zucchini. It’s also the time for Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease. Typically found in younger kids, it’s a contagious viral illness marked by a fever and rash — either skin or mouth blisters.

Hand, Foot and Mouth swept through several WBUR employees’ families recently, so we checked in with an expert: Dr. Clement Bottino, a pediatrician at Boston Children’s Hospital in the Division of General Pediatrics who sees a lot of the illness in the Primary Care Center. “Nothing unusual,” he says, “just the summertime viruses.”

“Viruses are kind of like vegetables,” he explains. “There are winter and summer varieties. The winter ones cause illnesses like the common cold, while those in the summer cause fever-plus-rash-type illnesses, like Hand, Foot and Mouth.”

Hand, Foot and Mouth typically affects children under the age of 5, but older children and even adults can catch it as well. Symptoms can vary. Some children may only have a fever and mouth blisters, while others have the characteristic rash without other symptoms. The rash may present with classic red bumps on a child’s hands and feet, or a more diffuse rash that includes the diaper area.

Some people, particularly adults, may show no symptoms at all, but they can still spread the illness to others. Hand, Foot and Mouth is transmitted through direct contact with saliva, mucus or feces. Daycare is notorious as a hotbed of activities for spreading infection: hugging, sharing cups, coughing and sneezing, and touching infected objects. While patients are most contagious during their first week of illness, they can spread the virus for weeks after the symptoms fade.

According to Dr. Bottino, the most important thing for parents to know is that the virus is mild and “self-limited,” meaning it usually goes away on its own, causing no scars or lasting problems. Most patients feel better in seven to 10 days without any treatment at all. I asked Dr. Bottino what else parents should know about Hand, Foot and Mouth Disease. Our conversation, edited: Continue reading

Project Louise: Exercise Every Single Day? Says Who?

(Bjørn Giesenbauer via Compfight)

(Bjørn Giesenbauer via Compfight)

OK, this is getting interesting. One week into the challenge laid down by Editor Carey and Coach Allison — to exercise every single day before 7 p.m., and to post a comment reporting that I did so before 11 p.m. — I have made several discoveries.

  1. Carey was right. Exercising every day makes you feel better.
  2. The sweatier the exercise is, the better you feel.
  3. I hate being told what to do.

Let’s focus for now on No. 3, because we all know that Nos. 1 and 2 are true. Right? We do know that, yes? We just don’t do it because … well, because of No. 3.

At least that’s what I’m concluding about myself. Even though I signed up for Project Louise of my own free will, and even though I did it because I really, truly want to change my habits for good and live a longer and healthier life, and even though I know that Carey Goldberg, Allison Rimm and all the other wonderful people who are helping me on this journey are truly here to help, not to push me around, a huge part of my brain reacts to all this support and encouragement and expert advice with a simple, all-too-familiar refrain:

You’re not the boss of me.

Yes, this is the week when I’ve been getting in touch with my inner child. Or, more precisely, my inner brat.

As soon as I wrote that, I realized that I have heard that phrase before — from a wonderful woman named Pam Young, who has written a lot about this idea that we all have an inner “brat” whom we need to learn to love. Because it’s that little bratty voice that keeps us from doing all the good, mature, responsible things we all know we should do. And as long as you keep fighting the brat, you’re going to lose — as any mother of a 2-year-old can tell you.

Likewise, as that same mother can tell you, the secret to success is to persuade the 2-year-old that what you’re telling her to do is actually fun — to make her want to do it, and even to make her think that it’s her own idea. Continue reading

Project Louise: Lose Ugly Belly Fat Fast! Yeah, Not So Much

(Photo: TORCH magazine via Compfight)

(Photo: TORCH magazine via Compfight)

By Louise Kennedy
Guest contributor

I had an epiphany of sorts over the weekend: I hate my belly.

Actually, you can’t really call it an epiphany if it’s something you’ve felt for just about your entire life. And ever since I got a little chubby in second grade – a chubbiness that lasted until puberty, returned with the classic “freshman 15” in college and has waxed and waned ever since – I have gazed down at the extra flesh between my navel and my hips with a mixture of shame, disgust and self-loathing.

And let’s just say that passing the 50-year mark hasn’t helped with any of this. Here’s how we know Mother Nature has a sense of humor: Just when your body stops being capable of pregnancy, it starts looking as if you’re already about 4 months along. Permanently.

But that’s no reason to hate myself, is it? Sure, I’d like to lose the weight. But if I don’t, I don’t want to carry around this toxic mix of negativity along with the extra pounds.

So here’s the real epiphany: I don’t want to hate myself anymore, not even one imperfect part of myself. I don’t have to love my belly; I just want to stop hating it. I want to make peace with my body.

My, that sounds sane. But you may come up with another adjective when I tell you what I did next: I Googled “belly fat.”

Here’s a quick tip: Don’t do that.

Oh, go ahead if you want to. But I can save you the trouble. Here’s what I learned: Continue reading

Project Louise: Beginning To See The Light

By Louise Kennedy
Guest contributor

Well, I did it. I got the damn thing done.

When you create a vision of your ideal life, it's easier to see what fits in and what has to go.

When you create a vision of your ideal life, it’s easier to see what fits in and what has to go.

For those just tuning in: Last week, I attended a workshop run by my strategic coach, Allison Rimm, in which she promised to help all of us develop a vision for our lives and start to create the strategic plan that will make that vision a reality. Since I’ve been promising Allison for months that I would write my vision statement and then somehow not quite doing it, I figured the workshop would, if nothing else, make me get out my pen.

And it did.

What’s interesting is that I had been thinking about my vision, off and on, for all these months – but there is something about actually putting it down on paper that is energizing, exciting, and very motivating. When you take the time to describe, in detail, exactly what you want your life to look like, it becomes more tangible – almost as if you can see it. (Gee, I wonder if that’s why it’s called a vision.) And once you see it in all its glory, you really, really want to make it happen.

Which is where the next part of the exercise comes in: figuring out what you need to change in your current life to make it resemble your ideal life. I was reassured to realize that many parts of my life are already working pretty well. I have healthy and happy children, one of my top priorities; I generally love my job, and I have wonderful friends.

As for the other elements – financial stability, personal writing projects and a few more things – well, now that I’ve identified those as a central part of my vision, I can start to build feasible steps toward achieving them. With a full-time job and the aforementioned children, I don’t have a lot of time to write outside of work. But because it’s truly important to me, I decided to commit to spending 30 minutes a day at my desk, every day. That, I can do. And it’s already making me happier.

Allison’s workshop gave me a couple of tools to help find those 30 minutes – and maybe some more time, as I get better at comparing my daily choices to my long-term vision. She had each of us fill out a calendar outlining a typical weekday; a take-home part of the exercise, which I haven’t completed yet, invites me to do the same for a typical week and then a typical month. But even just looking at a single day was useful. Continue reading

‘I’m Not Stupid, Just Dyslexic’ — And How Brain Science Can Help

Sixth-grader Josh Thibeau has been struggling to read for as long as he can remember. He has yet to complete a single Harry Potter book, his personal goal.

Growing up with dyslexia: Josh Thibeau, 12, imagines his brain as an ever-changing maze with turns he must learn to navigate. Here he is with his mother, Janet. (George Hicks/WBUR)

Growing up with dyslexia: Josh Thibeau, 12, thinks of his brain as an ever-changing maze with turns he must learn to navigate. Here he is with his mom, Janet. (George Hicks/WBUR)

When he was in first grade, Josh’s parents enrolled him in a research study at Boston Children’s Hospital investigating the genetics of dyslexia. Since then, Josh has completed regular MRI scans of his brain. Initially, it seemed daunting.

“When we first started, I’m like, ‘Oh no, you’re sending me to like some strange, like, science lab where I’m going to be injected with needles and it’s going to hurt,’ I’m like, ‘I’m never going to see my family again,’ ” says Josh, who lives in West Newbury, Mass.

Josh and his three biological siblings all have dyslexia to varying degrees. Pretty much every day he confronts the reality that his brain works differently than his peers’. He’s even shared scans of his brain with classmates to try to show those differences. Some kids still don’t get it.

“There was a student that said, ‘Are you stupid?’ Because my brain was working in a different way,” Josh says. “And I’m just like, ‘No, I am not stupid…I’m just dyslexic.’ ”

The Pre-Reading Brain 

On average, one or two kids in every U.S. classroom has dyslexia, a brain-based learning disability that often runs in families and makes reading difficult, sometimes painfully so.

Compared to other neurodevelopmental disorders like ADHD or autism, research into dyslexia has advanced further, experts say. That’s partly because dyslexia presents itself around a specific behavior: reading — which, as they say, is fundamental.

Now, new research shows it’s possible to pick up some of the signs of dyslexia in the brain even before kids learn to read. And this earlier identification may start to substantially influence how parents, educators and clinicians tackle the disorder.

Until recently (and sometimes even today) kids who struggled to read were thought to lack motivation or smarts. Now it’s clear that’s not true: Dyslexia stems from physiological differences in the brain circuitry. Those differences can make it harder, and less efficient, for children to process the tiny components of language, called phonemes.

And it’s much more complicated than just flipping your “b’s and “d’s.” To read, children need to learn to map the sounds of spoken language — the “KUH”, the “AH”, the “TUH” — to their corresponding letters. And then they must grasp how those letter symbols, the “C” “A” and “T”, create words with meaning. Kids with dyslexia have far more trouble mastering these steps automatically.

For these children, the path toward reading is often marked by struggle, anxiety and feelings of inadequacy. In general, a diagnosis of dyslexia usually means that a child has experienced multiple failures at school.

But collaborations currently underway between neuroscientists at MIT and Children’s Hospital may mark a fundamental shift in addressing dyslexia, and might someday eliminate the anguish of repeated failure. In preliminary findings, researchers report that brain measures taken in kindergartners — even before the kids can read — can “significantly” improve predictions of how well, or poorly, the children can master reading later on.

Implicated in dyslexia: The arcuate fasciculus is an arch-shaped bundle of fibers that connects the frontal language areas of the brain to the areas in the temporal lobe that are important for language (left). Researchers found that kindergarten children with strong pre-reading scores have a bigger, more robust and well-organized arcuate fasciculus (bottom right) while children with very low scores have a small and not particularly well-organized arcuate fasciculus (top right). (Zeynep Saygin/MIT)

Implicated in dyslexia: The arcuate fasciculus is an arch-shaped bundle of fibers that connects the frontal language areas of the brain to the areas in the temporal lobe that are important for language (left). Researchers found that kindergarten children with strong pre-reading scores have a bigger, more robust and well-organized arcuate fasciculus (bottom right) while children with very low scores have a small and not particularly well-organized arcuate fasciculus (top right). (Zeynep Saygin/MIT)

Pinpointing The White Matter Culprit

Using cutting-edge MRI technology, the researchers are able to pinpoint a specific neural pathway, a white matter tract in the brain’s left hemisphere that appears to be related to dyslexia: It’s called the arcuate fasciculus.

“Maybe the most surprising aspect of the research so far is how clear a signal we see in the brains of children who are likely to go on to be poor readers.”
– MIT neuroscientist John Gabrieli

“It’s an arch-shaped bundle of fibers that connects the frontal language areas of the brain to the areas in the temporal lobe that are important for language,” Elizabeth Norton, a neuroscientist at MIT’s McGovern Institute of Brain Research, explains.

In her lab, Norton shows me brain images from the NIH-funded kindergartner study, called READ (for Researching Early Attributes of Dyslexia).

“We see that in children who in kindergarten already have strong pre-reading scores, their arcuate fasciculus is both bigger and more well organized,” she says. On the other hand: “A child with a score of zero has a very small and not particularly organized arcuate fasciculus.”

She says we’re not quite ready to simply take a picture of your child’s brain and say “Aha, this kid is going to have dyslexia,” but we’re getting closer to that point. Continue reading

Project Louise: Clearing The Clutter, In Both Closet And Brain

OK, so maybe cleaning a closet isn't a huge workout. But it does wonders for the mind. (Derek Jensen via Wikimedia Commons)

OK, so maybe cleaning a closet isn’t a huge workout. But it does wonders for the mind. (Derek Jensen via Wikimedia Commons)

By Louise Kennedy
Guest contributor

Wow, two weeks in a row where something works! Maybe I really did turn the right corner this time.

Once again I committed to exercising on Sunday, and once again I did it. Inspired by Carey Goldberg’s playground workout, I lunged and planked and pulled myself up, in between pushing my daughter on the swings.

Then, when my son finished mowing the yard and asked me to rake up the grass clippings for him, I saw it as another great chance to keep moving – and challenged myself to do it as fast as I could. Yeah, I got a blister. But I also felt great.

I think this is the key: I don’t much care for working out. But I do like to work. And I like to play even more.

The thing about my Sunday activities is that I was actually accomplishing something – not just getting some exercise, but spending time with my kids and making the yard look better. So the exercise I get along the way doesn’t feel like time stolen from things I’d rather be doing, but rather like an integral part of those very things. Continue reading

Could Medical Marijuana Help Stem The Opiate Addiction Crisis?

Marijuana is touted as a treatment for chronic pain, multiple sclerosis and anxiety — and some say it may be a way to help alleviate Massachusetts’ opiate crisis. But that idea is causing some tension in the addiction treatment community.

A Less Potent Alternative? 

Shelley Stormo is a clinical psychologist at Gosnold, the largest addiction treatment facility on Cape Cod. She has secured provisional approval to open a medical marijuana dispensary in Fairhaven called Compassionate Care Clinics, and the state is now verifying her application. Stormo hopes by this fall, she’ll be able to help patients avoid opiates by using marijuana.

“I’m changing my efforts a bit to really focus on how to prevent addiction,” Stormo said. “Through offering the medical use of marijuana as an alternative to potentially much more harmful and deadly opioids.”

Stormo says marijuana is safer for several reasons.

“Marijuana does not have the physical addictive components that opiates do,” she said. “It does not have the propensity, as opiates do, for overdoses. There’s no documented death by overdose of marijuana.”

Although Stormo does not advocate using marijuana to treat addiction, other medical marijuana professionals say the so-called gateway drug may one day be used as part of an exit strategy.

Continue reading