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Wellness and prevention information from the experts at the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing


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Mindful eating for the real world

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Molly Ellefson (right) offers one-on-one integrative health and wellness coaching sessions.

By Molly Ellefson, MS, CHWC

Mindful eating, a concept based on Buddhist traditions, is a process of putting all your focus on the food you are eating. You eat slowly with no distractions, while noticing all the nuances of each bite: temperature, texture, flavors, and sensations in your body.

While this can be a powerful experience, most of us aren’t able to eat like this all of the time. Then, how do we eat mindfully in the real world?

In her book, “Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat,” Dr. Michelle May defines mindful eating as “eating with intention and attention.” When you eat with intention, there is a purpose for eating – to satisfy hunger, fuel your body and for enjoyment. When you eat with attention, you tune in to the sensations and flavors of what you are eating. You also pay attention to your body’s internal cues about satisfaction and fullness.

Here are six ways to build mindfulness into your meals:
1. Before you eat, take a minute to think about why you want to eat. Are you physically hungry, bored or are you eating by the clock?
2. Remember that true hunger is a physical sensation. Physical hunger can feel like an empty or shrinking feeling in your stomach. You may also feel the effects of low blood sugar, such as: irritability, trouble concentrating, light headed, nauseated, or have a headache.
3. When planning what to eat, think about what foods make you feel good physically. The goal of mindful eating is to feel better when you’re finished eating, not worse.
4. Consider balance when choosing what to eat. What does your body need and what have you already eaten? Do you need vegetables, fruit, protein, carbs or fat?
5. Think about what foods make you feel satisfied and allow yourself to have them. Remember that satisfaction is both mental and physical. Deprivation of our favorite foods rarely works. How many times have you said to yourself, “I’m never having ice cream again,” only to find eating a pint of Häagen-Daaz two weeks later.
6. While eating, pause periodically. Put your fork down, take a couple of deep breaths and check in with your body and your taste-buds. Notice if you feel any sensations in your stomach or if the food is starting to lose its luster. If we pay attention, even when eating our favorite foods, we may notice that things become too salty, sweet, creamy, etc.

Try one or two of these tips at your next meal. You may notice that you feel much more satisfied when you eat when truly hungry and eat the foods that make you feel satisfied. If you balance eating for nutrition with eating for pleasure, you are eating mindfully. Eating is one of life’s great pleasures – just make sure it isn’t the only one!

Molly Ellefson, MS, CHWC, is an Integrative health and wellness coach with the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing’s LiveWell Fitness Center. She will be teaching the eight-session “Am I hungry?® Mindful Eating Workshop,” based on May’s book, starting Sept. 25. Learn more about the class.


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The state of health in the United States

By Courtney Jordan Baechler, MD

The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) recently published the latest data on the health of the United States. Unfortunately, compared to our peers in other developed countries, we aren’t doing so hot.

The data looked at 34 countries from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) from 1990 to 2010. Although our life expectancy has increased and death rates have decreased, the incidence of disease and chronic disability now account for over half of our health burden in the U.S.

There are a variety of metrics this journal article used to help measure “disease burden.” One was the years of life lost (YLL), which measures premature deaths. The top causes for YLL that are similar to years past include: coronary heart disease, cancer, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and car accidents. Causes for YLL that are rising include: Alzheimer’s disease, drug use and falls.

Another measure for “disease burden” was diseases with the largest number of years lived with disability (YLD). These remained the same from 1990 to 2010: low back pain, major depressive disorder, other musculoskeletal disorders, neck pain, anxiety disorders, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, drug use disorders and diabetes.

The leading risk factors related to disability-adjusted life years (DALY) were:

  • dietary risks
  • tobacco smoking
  • high body mass index
  • high blood pressure
  • high fasting plasma glucose
  • physical inactivity
  • alcohol use.

An individual’s diet composition accounted for 26% of the deaths and 14% of DALY. Tobacco is now being replaced by diet and obesity as the number one cause of preventable death.

What does all of this tell us? Compared to other wealthy countries, we are less “well.” In the United States, we do a great job of intervening and pouring resources into the last six months of an individual’s life. We continue to enhance our technology and ability to deliver acute care. But our ability to keep people well is weakening. We spend 18 percent of our Gross Domestic Product on health care, which is in the highest bracket of spending for developed countries, yet our health reports fair much worse.

Reports like this cause many in health care to pause and ask if we are using resources in the most effective and efficient manner. It also calls out the importance of political policies and plans that help support the individual and community in making good choices around healthy eating, physical activity, and tobacco and alcohol use.

A report like this emphasizes the important work that the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing is doing to help transform health care. We take a mind, body, and spirit approach to working with these challenging chronic conditions. I’m proud to say we continue to:

  • promote care to keep people healthy
  • produce innovative, holistic programs to help people experiencing stress, anxiety and depression, as well as those dealing with physical pain – these programs complement and are integrated with conventional, Western medical treatments
  • work with insurance companies on new reimbursement plans.

With that … keep eating your veggies, and be well!

Courtney Jordan Baechler, MD, practices at and is the vice president of the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing. She was interviewed by TV news station KARE 11 on this topic. View that news segment.


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Exercise tips for aging well

By Gail Ericson, MS, PT 

Gail Ericson working with a client at the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing's LiveWell Fitness Center

Gail Ericson working with a client at the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing’s LiveWell Fitness Center

It’s never too late to start exercising, and doing so is key to being healthy.

With inactivity, the human body may lose up to 10 pounds of muscle each decade. At the same time, cardiovascular fitness may also decline and metabolism will slow, causing weight gain.

The good news is: Most of this is reversible with an exercise program and routine. Basic strength training offers benefits for adults of all ages, even someone in their 70s and beyond.

The results of exercise may not be immediately visible on the outside, but they are significant. Benefits may include lowered cholesterol, reduced blood pressure and enhanced insulin sesitivity. And, it is not only good for you physically, but research also supports mental health and cognitive benefits. It’s one of the best investments you can make in your overall health.

Here are six tips on exercising at all ages
1. Think in small increments. Some exercise is better than none, and any amount will offer health benefits. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends cardiovascular exercise, like walking or biking, at least five days a week for 30 minutes most days. Adding two to three days of strength or resistance training per week will help guard against muscle loss.

2. Focus on four basic categories of exercise. These include endurance, strength training, balance and flexibility. As we age, balance and flexibility become more important. Try to find activities that incorporate all of these areas each week. Yoga or pilates enhance balance and flexibility. Cardiovascular activities like biking, running and walking are good for endurance. Inexpensive weights or resistance bands are an easy and affordable way to add strength training.

3. Your exercise routine may change and that’s okay. Exercise routines will change throughout one’s life. For example, during the 20s, there is a greater focus on group-related and organized sports, boot-camp activities and group classes. In their 30s, people may be stretched with careers and children, so less formal activities may work best. In their 40s and 50s, many people find a home routine or may explore yoga or pilates classes or videos at home. For people in their 60s, 70s and older, gentle movement classes such as tai chi, gentle yoga and others may be a favorite option.

4. Stand on one foot. It sounds so simple, but is so helpful for maintaining or improving balance. Stand on one foot while you brush your teeth or do other routine tasks. If you are concerned about balance, be sure to practice this in a protected area.

5. Avoid sitting for long periods of time. Sitting for extended periods of time is hard on your body and may lead to health issues. Even a little bit of activity will help. Get up, do some squats, take a short walk or climb stairs.

6. Find something you enjoy. If you find an activity you like, you’re more likely to do it.

Gail Ericson is a physical therapist with the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing‘s LiveWell Fitness Center. She has 25 years of experience in exercise therapy and medical fitness. To make an appointment with her, call 612-863-5178.


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Exercise – getting started and sticking with it

by Gail Ericson, MS, PT, Physical Therapist

LiveWellPhoto BlogWe all know the benefits of exercise, like feeling good, and warding off disease and weight gain. So why is it so hard to do it? It’s not about information – there are thousands of publications, online resources and professionals to turn to for exercise recommendations. Even a health scare or a warning by a doctor doesn’t always do the trick.

So, where does one go for motivation? You have to look within yourself. You need to find an exercise program that resonates with, motivates, and has long-term meaning for you. How do you do that? It’s not a cookie-cutter approach, but there is a process to go through to develop an exercise program customized to motivate you.

You can follow these steps:

  1. Evaluate your readiness for exercise. Do you ever say, “I won’t exercise” or “I can’t exercise?” Do you constantly make excuses for not exercising? Then it’s time for some thinking-and-feeling prep work.
  2. Consider your “barriers to exercise” and evaluate what is real and what is an excuse. Brainstorm with friends or family on ways to get around the real barriers. Research movement activities available in your area. Once you start making plans about when, where or with whom you will exercise, you are ready for real change.
  3. Create a personal wellness vision statement by answering in writing the questions below.

    If I had optimal health and wellness:
    – What would that look like? Talk about why these things are of value to you.
    – How would you feel?
    – What would you look like and sound like?
    – What would you be doing for fun, work, with family, and for exercise.

    Write your statement as though it is already happening, such as, “I am energetic and focused. I am less stressed, and I exercise most days of the week because I love it …”
  4. Set long-term goals you’d like to achieve in three to six months or more. Be specific, time sensitive and measurable. Instead of simply having a goal of “I want to be stronger,” consider how you would measure stronger. Try: “I want to do 15 push-ups on my knees without stopping.”
  5. Set short-term goals, such as “I will do five push-ups three times per week.”
  6. Rate your confidence level in meeting your goals on a scale of 0-10. If your answer is seven or below, you might want to rework your goal to something you rate as an eight or higher.
  7. Execute your plan. Reward yourself for meeting your short-term goals with incentives, like a special coffee or new music. Remember, any movement is better than none!
  8. Revisit these goals weekly and adjust them as necessary. Ask yourself: What worked? How can you change a goal so you can achieve it? If you don’t meet some goals, don’t consider it a failure. Learn from it. Remember, change is a process, not an event.
  9. Read your vision statement often to remind yourself of why you are exercising.

If you feel you need more support to get motivated or make a health change, consider integrative health and wellness coaching at the Penny George Institute for Health and Healing’s LiveWell Fitness Center.

Gail Ericson, PT
Physical Therapist
LiveWell Fitness Center


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Feeling overwhelmed? Take a step back, and try these six tips.

by Mary Farrell, MS, PCC, certified professional health and wellness coach and exercise physiologist

In my work as an integrative health and wellness coach, I help people clarify, plan for and achieve their goals aimed at reaching optimal health.

Some of my clients are just seeking a “tune-up” for overall health and wellness. Others have chronic health conditions or are recovering from a disease.

Something many of them have in common is that they are more and more overwhelmed. Once they reach a “tipping point,” they can feel paralyzed. At that point, I can help them take a step back to look objectively at their lives, and I can help them manage stress and its effects.

I don’t think this trend is isolated to the people I see. Many of us struggle with managing the daily pressures and stressors of life today.

If you are feeling overwhelmed, here are six tips that you can use to take a step back and de-stress.

  1. If you can take something off your plate, do it. There are two ways to deal with stress. The first is to take away the source. The second is to learn how to better manage the stress that remains. Remove anything that you would classify as not urgent and not important.
  2. Find an activity that helps you take your mind off the stress, such as listening to music, reading a good book, taking a walk, playing basketball, or perhaps an activity like sewing or knitting. These “personal time outs” work wonders.
  3. Ask yourself, “What is the most important thing I need to do right now to improve this situation?” Focus your energies on just that area.
  4. In life, the most meaningful things are often important, but not urgent. Connecting with friends is one example. Take time for those relationships. People often feel stressed when they are not tending to these things.
  5. Carve out pockets of calm and peace. What do you need to maintain to keep grounded? Which rituals and routines bring you comfort? What time do you need to go to bed in order to feel rested? Find these rituals and routines and stick to them like an appointment.
  6. Don’t take on too many changes at once. Remember to zero in on the one thing that would have the most impact for you. Nobody quits for starting out too slow, but they often quit for starting out too quickly.

To learn more about integrative health and wellness coaching, or to make an appointment with Farrell, call 612-863-6316.


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The skinny on being fat

by Courtney Jordan Baechler, MD, MS

There’s been a lot of media hype about a study showing that people who are overweight or mildly obese have lower mortality rates than people of a normal weight. The news is based on a research article published by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA).

I learn about reports like this the minute they hit newsstands because my patients ask me, “Dr. Baechler, did you see?  It says that it’s good to be fat.” Articles like this get a lot of attention because: 1) the research results are contrary to a lot of other evidence, and 2) it’s hard to lose weight, and news like this gives us an excuse to gain weight.

Let me take this opportunity to debunk the hype and say: It’s not advantageous to be overweight or obese. The JAMA study looked at associations between being overweight and dying. It did not examine associations between being overweight and getting ill.

Many studies show that we in the U.S. live longer than residents of other countries. This has nothing to do with our weight. We live longer because of all the medical technology available to us (stents, dialysis, transplants, respirators, etc.). While we can postpone death, we still may be quite sick with chronic disease in the meantime.

In fact, we are much sicker today than we used to be, and many people with chronic diseases start out being overweight or obese.  Then, as they get more sick, they lose weight.  For instance, the average person that gets heart disease is overweight. However if their heart disease progresses to heart failure, they often lose weight as the disease progresses and they near death.

So, when we think about associations like this study does from afar, it looks like being slightly overweight or mildly obese is associated with lower mortality rates. However, that is deceptive because the association is made at one snapshot in time ― right before people die ― when most chronic disease have progressed and people happen to be less overweight.

The other point that this study did not take into account is that people who have anorexia, smoke or abuse alcohol tend to be less overweight and obese, however they are still not “healthy.”

Let me be clear:  There is no advantage to being overweight or obese, and those conditions pose severe risks to your health. As is stated by the World Health Organization, obesity is the second leading cause of preventable death, just after smoking.

The lesson: Anytime you hear health related news reports that defy common sense, you’re most often not hearing the whole truth.

Learn more about healthy weight loss.

Stay well!

Courtney Jordan Baechler, MD, MS