Tim Truax

Why I Donated Stem Cells

About three years ago, Excellus BlueCross BlueShield Network Analyst Tim Truax felt inundated by stories about children dealing with cancer. A couple of them hit really close to home. He saw the lives of a close friend — and then a family member — turned upside down when they learned of their children’s cancer diagnoses.

“I wanted to find a way to help, but quickly realized that all I could do was respond with the usual platitudes that we all say when we don’t know what else to say or do,” said Truax. “I’m so sorry to hear that.” “I’ll keep you and your family in my prayers.” “If you need anything, please let me know.”

All of these usually heartfelt responses seemed insufficient.

Be the match

For Truax, an answer came a couple of years later in a most unlikely place, Golf Digest. That’s when an article detailing former PGA Tour player Jarrod Lyle’s battle with acute myeloid leukemia caught his eye.

The article noted that the Australian golfer had undergone bone marrow transplants as he battled the disease. Highlighting a procedure whereby people can determine if they could be a match for anyone on a bone marrow waiting list, the article linked to the national marrow donor program, BeTheMatch.org.

Online, Truax learned that anyone who is between the ages of 18 and 44, is committed to donating to any patient in need and meets the health guidelines makes an ideal bone marrow donor candidate.

Truax decided to register with BeTheMatch.org. He created an account, answered some questions and requested a registry kit. It arrived about a week later.

The kit’s instructions involved touching the inside of his mouth with cotton swabs. Then he sent the cheek cell swab samples to BeTheMatch.org.

The Green Light

In a matter of weeks, Truax was matched to a 23-year-old male who was battling acute lymphocytic leukemia. He agreed to participate in additional testing to see if he’d be the best candidate.

Once Truax received the green light to move ahead in the donation process, he met with Upstate Medical University doctors, who conducted additional tests.

Preparing for stem cell donation

Soon after, Truax learned that the patient with whom he was matched needed a stem cell, rather than a bone marrow, donation. His preparation changed slightly given the change in donation.

For the actual donation, he was hooked up to what looked like a dialysis machine. As Truax described it, this machine took stem cells, along with red and white blood cells, from one arm. At the same time, it injected blood and some clotting factors into the other arm. The procedure took six hours. Then, he was able to go home for a couple of days of recovery.

In remission

Truax was relieved and happy to hear that thanks to his donation, the young man’s cancer was in remission. Truax, however, counts those feelings as secondary to his desire to spread the word regarding the relative ease of the stem cell donation process. He speculated that the process may have been a little more difficult if he had donated bone marrow.

Still, the process was far easier than anticipated.

“I honestly thought there would be more to it,” he said.

Tim Truax

Photo of Tim Truax

It’s Time to Have “The Vape Talk”

When Shaquana Divers talked with her teenage daughter about e-cigarettes, she was shocked to learn just how popular they are with kids at school. Her daughter said that even though kids are told about the harms of e-cigarettes, many still use them. Some start using as early as sixth grade. Divers, an Executive Program Manager with Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, was concerned about the growing popularity of e-cigarettes.

Numbers to Gasp At

Parents like Divers aren’t the only ones shocked to learn about the popularity of e-cigarettes. In New York state, e-cigarette use among youth increased 160 percent between 2014 and 2018.

Trends in e-cigarette use among high school student in New York

One in four high school students in New York said they used e-cigarettes at least once in 2018.  The U.S. Surgeon General has gone so far as to declare the  increase in youth vaping as an epidemic. 

Behind the Smokescreen

E-cigarettes are battery-operated devices that heat a liquid (sometimes called “vape juice” or “e-juice”) to produce an aerosol vapor that is inhaled. They are also known as vape pens, e-cigs, mods or by a common brand name,  JUUL®.

E-cigarettes can look like a variety of objects, such as USB drives, cigarettes or pens. They can easily be hidden. In fact, some devices don’t even produce a vapor cloud when exhaled, making them harder to spot.

Small Device, Big Problems

Many young people believe that e-cigarettes are less harmful than other tobacco products. But e-cigarettes are not harmless. They can contain a number of dangerous ingredients such as:

  • cancer-causing chemicals
  • chemicals linked to lung disease
  • heavy metals, such as nickel, tin, and lead
  • ultrafine particles that can be inhaled deep into the lungs
  • high levels of nicotine

It is unsafe for young people to use any product containing nicotine. Nicotine can cause addiction, harm the developing brain and affect memory and attention. Some e-cigarette cartridges have a higher concentration of nicotine than a pack of cigarettes.

Many people aren’t aware that e-cigarettes can contain nicotine. One study showed that 63 percent of JUUL® users between 15-24 years old didn’t know the product contains nicotine.

Wheezing, Explosions and Long-Term Risk

Research shows that e-cigarettes can also have other health impacts. E-cigarette use among young people may:

According to the CDC, e-cigarettes can also have defective batteries that can cause fires and explosions. A few of these have led to serious injuries, including  third degree burns, broken teeth, and even loss of vision.

Since e-cigarettes are still a relatively new product, scientists don’t know all of the long-term side effects of e-cigarettes.

Tips For Having “the vape talk”

With serious health risks and a lot of misinformation, it’s important to talk with your child about e-cigarettes. For Divers, open conversations are a key to her parenting strategy. That’s why she made it a priority to talk with her daughter about e-cigarettes and support her in continuing to make good, healthy choices.

But, it’s not always easy to have sensitive discussions with your children. The American Lung Association offers these tips for having the “vape talk” with your child:

  1. Choose a time and place where you are both comfortable and more likely to open up, like when you’re riding in the car or having dinner.
  2. Acknowledge the smart decisions your child makes  every day. Encourage them to keep positive choices going.
  3. Ask open-ended questions  to encourage conversation. Some suggested conversation starters include: Are a lot of kids vaping at your school? What do you think about vaping? Do you know how vaping can damage your health?

Resources for quitting

E-cigarettes are not approved by the FDA as a method to quit smoking. Use only FDA-approved methods when trying to quit.

Here’s just a few ways to get the ball rolling when it comes to quitting or helping someone quit:

  • Talk with your doctor
  • Call the NYS Smoker’s Quitline at 1-866-NY-QUITS (1-866-697-8487)
  • Visit SmokeFree.gov
  • Visit The Truth Initiative website to learn about text message programs that help young people stop using e-cigarettes

A free e-cigarettes educational poster is available to download here

A Healthier Take on Takeout Food

Takeout food.

Greasy, delicious and convenient. Americans love getting takeout, whether picking it up or having it delivered. And it’s a $30+ billion industry. We all have our go-to options —pizza, subs, burritos and Asian food are among the traditional favorites. Is your mouth watering yet?

We all know takeout isn’t the healthiest food. Enjoying it every now and then is okay, but eating it too often could hurt your wallet and your waistline.

Let’s transform Takeout

Instead of getting takeout, try healthier dishes that you can make at home . It’s a change that can improve your health and may save you money. And the best part? You can satisfy still your takeout cravings while maintaining a healthy diet.

I spoke with Pat Salzer, Registered Dietitian and Workplace Wellness Support Coordinator with Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, about tips and tricks to make it happen.

photo of Pat Salzer

Pat Salzer, Registered Dietitian and Workplace Wellness Support Coordinator with Excellus BCBS

Be Prepared

Why do we love takeout food so much? It’s easy. Instead of having to worry about making food, it’s already done for you. Want to make home-cooked meals easier? Get prepped.

The first step is meal planning. Salzer suggests planning meals for the week during the weekend and stocking your kitchen with the right ingredients. Meal planning helps  you make sure you have what you need ahead of time.

When it comes time to cook, you will already have all the ingredients you need to get started. I even prefer to cook two or three meals at once to save time. That’s called batch cooking.

Looking for some great recipes to get started? Here are some of our personal favorites:

Change the Norm

For many people, getting takeout at the end of the day is simply a habit. People become so used to ordering food that it becomes part of their routine.

Salzer said that making cooking at home the norm will make it much easier to avoid getting takeout. This goes back to the idea of planning your meals ahead and having the winning ingredients ready to go. Start small by planning to eat home-cooked meals most days of the week.

Get the Family on Board

Change is much easier with the support of those around you. Instead of going at it alone, Salzer suggests getting other members of your household to eat home-cooked meals with you. Ask others to help with planning meals for the week,and keep each other accountable with sticking to the plan to eat what you cook. Whether you’re cooking for yourself, your significant other or the whole family, making meals at home that everyone will enjoy is a fun way to start a new healthy habit.

Easy swaps and additions for your favorite takeout food

Want to cook more at home but not ready to give up your beloved pizza or subs? Some simple swaps and additions can help you enjoy the food you love at home, in a healthier way.

If you’re a lover of subs and sandwiches, try making a sandwich at home on whole grain bread. If you can’t imagine a Friday night without pizza, try a homemade pizza with a side salad to help fill you up with veggies. You can also try adding greens or fruit as a side to make-your-own tacos or burritos. Salzer recommends that fruits and vegetables make up half of our plate at any meal.

For more tips on finding healthy meal alternatives, check out our guide on how to avoid drive thrus, which features much of the same greasy fare as takeout.

11 Places to Picnic in Upstate NY

Summer is a short season in upstate NY. That’s why it’s the perfect time to exchange your usual lunch out with a meal “al-fresco” at one of these picnic spots in upstate NY.

1. Porter Park, Youngstown, Niagara County

There is no better place to have a picnic than on Lake Ontario. You can see Niagara on the Lake, and on a clear day, you have a full view of Canada! The beach is rocky but there is always plenty of driftwood to sit on and enjoy the view. There is a large grassy area, picnic tables and pavilions as well. This hidden gem is set back from the road and most people drive right by it.

2. Hamlin Beach State Park, Hamlin, Monroe county

Further east on Lake Ontario is Hamlin Beach State Park. This park also offers sweeping views of the lake,  beach swimming (when it is warm enough!) and great picnic facilities including pavilions. While you’re there, explore the self-guided trail of the Yanty Creek Marsh.

3. Highland Park, Rochester, Monroe County

Highland Park may be known for the Lilac Festival in the spring, but there’s plenty to see all summer long in this park. Not only does it have plenty of places to sit in the grass or at a picnic table, but in the early summer, the trees are still flowering and bringing in a wonderful smell. Also, within the park is Lamberton Conservatory, which is full of large palms and ferns, as well as little button quails that run around your feet.

Lamberton Conservatory in Highland Park (photo by Rachel Dowling)

Lamberton Conservatory in Highland Park (photo by Rachel Dowling)

 

4. Stony Brook State Park, Dansville, Livingston County

Head south to visit Stony Brook State Park. Enjoy a day in the park with a picnic and an adventure on the hiking trails. You can also go swimming in the natural pool, fed by the stream that is always refreshing.

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5. Harriet Hollister Park, Springwater, Livingston County

Less than an hour from Stony Brook State Park, Harriet Hollister Park is another beautiful spot with picnic tables, biking trials and a pavilion. This park comes with a breathtaking view of Honeoye Lake and the Rochester skyline in the distance. Sixteen miles of hiking, biking and even cross-country ski trails are available.

6. Onanda Park, Canandaigua, Ontario county

Located on the western shores of Canandaigua Lake, Onanda Park park offers picnic tables, a small beach, a swimming area, and a lake view. The park also features numerous hiking trails across the street. Trails can be found that are close to the stream, as well as more challenging hills that give you views of the multiple waterfalls upstream.

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7. Watkins Glen State Park, Watkins Glen, Schuyler County

At the southern end of Seneca Lake, Watkins Glen State Park is a perfect place for a relatively flat hike. You may get a little wet from the spray from the absolutely gorgeous waterfalls, but it is well worth it. They also have ample picnic tables to use after your hike.

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8. Clift Park, Skaneateles, Onondaga County

A short drive from Syracuse, this park offers an incredible view of Skaneateles Lake. Make it an even better trip by stopping at Doug’s Fish Fry for take-out to eat on the benches in the park. After your picnic, you can walk down the pier that stretches out into the water. The park also has a public beach that is open during the summer.

Skaneateles Lake (photo by Erika Gruszewski)

Skaneateles Lake (photo by Erika Gruszewski)

 

9. Green Lakes State Park, Fayetteville, Onondaga County

Named for its two glacial lakes, Green Lakes State Park has plenty of pavilions and picnic tables throughout the park, offering sun or shade depending on what you like best. After your picnic, enjoy a leisurely walk around the lakes or enjoy a swim in the blue-green waters.

 

10.  Southwick Beach State Park, Henderson, Jefferson County

It’s the closest thing you can get to being at the ocean within an hour’s drive from Syracuse. The sand dunes and miles of beach are beautiful with good sized waves for jumping or boogie boarding. There are plenty of picnic tables to use and a nice new playground. You can get ice cream at the pavilion after a long day at the beach.

11. Verona Beach State Park, Verona, Oneida County

This park has a large picnic and cookout area with a lot of tall shady trees. You can feel the breeze coming off Oneida Lake, which makes it a very pleasant place to spend a summer afternoon. Plus, there’s the beach!

50 Small Changes for a Healthier Life

I’m obsessed with my popcorn popper. My hot-air wonder has been popping healthy treats since before I met my hubby and had kids – even before I got the now-elderly feline.

You come to my house, I serve you popcorn. You invite me to your house, I come with popcorn.

My friends mock me for my love of air-popped popcorn. But they lust after salty chips and fudgy ice cream, while I happily embrace my popper and bag of popcorn kernels.

It’s my simple solution to healthy snacking.

“Swapping out junky treats for air-popped popcorn is a simple change that can lead to a healthier tomorrow,” said Patricia Salzer, registered dietitian, Excellus BlueCross BlueShield.  “One cup of popcorn is about 30 calories – if you don’t add gobs of butter and other unhealthy stuff!”

It’s not the only simple solution to life’s healthy living problems. Consider these 50 small healthy changes that can make a big difference, and visit ExcellusBCBS.com/LiveFearlessNation for more on how to make small changes – one fearless step at a time. Help spread the word with family and friends and inspire others to be part of this Fearless Nation.

Eat better

Let’s start with my biggest hurdle – eating right! I generally eat OK, especially when I’m inhaling popcorn, but I’m a sucker for sweets. Here are some ideas:

  1. Invest in an air popper! (Are you surprised this is tip #1?) You, too, can be mocked by friends for snacking on nothing but popcorn. But, get this. One of those friends ran out a few years ago and BOUGHT HER OWN POPPER! It changed her life.
  2. Banish the Oreos to the highest of shelves! Exile the double fudge ice cream to the back of your freezer!  Out of sight, out of mind, right?
  3. Wash and cut-up raw veggies and coax them to the front of your fridge. When you’re looking for something quick to eat, you can grab and go. For an added treat, dip them in a hummus or a yogurt mix.
  4. Swap out the cookie jar for a bowl of apples. Apples are guilt-free because they have just traces of fat and sodium and no cholesterol. The skin of the apple is loaded with disease-fighting antioxidants.
  5. Ditch the gigantic plates. Smaller plates can help control portion size. The bigger the plate, the bigger the portions . . . and the more calories you’ll consume.

  1. Fill that smaller plate with the right stuff. Fill half the plate with fruits and veggies and split the rest between lean protein (chicken, fish, beans, etc.) and grains.
  2. Hey ladies: If you’re thinking of having a baby at some point, consider stocking up on folic acid. This vitamin helps to prevent birth defects. Aim for 400 micrograms of folic acid daily in vitamins or foods, such as fortified breakfast cereal.
  3. Ditch the “I need to get Vitamin D” excuse for excess sunbathing. Don’t risk getting skin cancer. Consider eating foods high in the vitamin, such as tuna fish, salmon and fortified milk. The vitamin is critical to having strong and healthy muscles and bones.
  4. Carry around a water bottle for easy drinking. Drinking lots of water can help curb your hunger and help you lose weight.
  5. Not a fan of water? Add flavor to tap water with slices of cucumber, cinnamon sticks, apples, fresh cranberries or a sprig of mint.
  6. Now that you have an air-popper, consider adding a crock-pot to your collection of small appliances. Become a wiz at making easy, healthy meals. It can even save your sanity and your marriage.
  7. Add veggies to your meals, whenever possible. Got fussy kids? Find ways to sneak veggies into their foods. Try this Stealthy Zucchini Meatball recipe.
  8. Eat breakfast. Lose weight. Really.
  9. Indulge in healthy snacks. Think plain Greek yogurt, a few nuts, fruit, veggies or nut butter. If you get too hungry, you’ll likely overeat at your next meal.
  10. Buy fruits and vegetables that are in season in the fallwinterspring and summer. Eat foods at their peak for flavor and freshness.
  11. Drink your greens. You won’t taste the added veggies, but you’ll be getting an extra serving of produce without even trying. Check out this recipe.

Move more

I used to run – a lot. But then then I had kid #1 and kid #2, and started running less. I stressed over my inability to find enough time to run.

I finally faced reality. As long as I moved a lot in a day, it’s OK if I didn’t run. My new outlook saved my sanity, and kept me active.

Here are ideas for moving more:

  1. Buy a FitBit or another activity tracker — if you don’t mind spending the cash! It might be the motivation you need to hit certain activity goals, like 10,000 steps or more a day.
  2. Walk out your front door and keep walking. Walking has the lowest dropout rate of any physical activity. It’s so easy to do!
  3. Loop around the perimeter of a big box store such as Walmart, Target or Wegmans before you fill your cart. Destiny USA in Syracuse has a walking path around its stores, or check out these community walking paths if you live near Monroe County.
  4. Race your kid. Run outside with the little ones, climb that tree, jump rope and kick the ball. When I’m low on steps for the day, I race my kindergartener around our yard to boost my activity totals.
  5. Stand up! More than half of your day is likely spent sitting. Too much sitting is linked to heart disease and other serious issues. Sit all day at work? Set a reminder to stand every hour. Stand when on a conference call or eating lunch. Or, try a walking meeting with co-workers.

  1. Wake up 10 minutes earlier for a quick workout. I’m currently hooked on a 12-minute Tank Top Arms Workout on YouTube. My co-worker swears by the free workout app, Seven, for — you guessed it – seven-minute workouts.
  2. Time strapped in the morning? Squeeze in a few push-ups (on toes or knees) before you brush your teeth.
  3. Keep refilling the water bottle or glass of water. That’ll get you extra steps – especially from added bathroom breaks!
  4. Skip the email! Get up, walk to your co-worker’s desk and have an actual conversation in person.
  5. While watching TV, stand, stretch or squeeze in exercises.
  6. Schedule a gym date with a friend. You’re more likely to go if you have a buddy holding you accountable.

Feel better

My neighborhood is full of big weeping willows and other park-like, mature trees. A creek winds through my yard. A walk around my yard or street is the perfect stress buster, since being in nature is a great mood booster. Here are other ideas to help you stay sane:

  1. Trek through a park, forest or trail. As I mentioned — nature is believed to reduce stress and depression.
  2. An even simpler solution? Go outside and breathe in the fresh air.
  3. When you’re outside, look up! The sky can be beautiful and a great distraction from your troubles.
  4. Gardening – Fixing up your yard or tending to rows of tomato plants can help reduce stress.
  5. Breathe … deeply. It’ll help distract you from your thoughts and might actually help you (really) relax.
  6. Power Pose!  Stand tall with your hands on your hips! Or, flex your muscles! Do whatever pose makes you feel powerful for two minutes. It might boost your confidence before a job interview or another high-pressured event.

 

  1. Exercise to . . . relax? It’s a real thing. Exercise can decrease stress levels while stimulating the feel good chemicals in your brain, called endorphins.
  2. Pen thank you notes. Focusing on the good things in your life, such as how others have helped you, can make you feel happy.
  3. Write only happy thoughts. Journal about what makes you feel good. It’s the same idea behind #33. Gratitude can boost the positive emotions that make you happy.
  4. Call a friend. Connecting with good friends can prevent you from feeling lonely, offer companionship and boost your overall mood.
  5. Smile! I mean a real, full-fledged smile that leaves crinkles around the eyes. Smile your way out of your crabby mood.
  6. Volunteer. If you want to fight depression and loneliness, helping others is a great antidote.
  7. Hey road-ragers: Get a stress ball. Instead of shrieking at the car in front of you, find other ways to alleviate stress.

Sleep more

I took an amazing nap the other day. It was Sunday, and I was up early with the kids. After a morning of chasing them around, doing errands, laundry, etc., I was cranky and exhausted. Then I took that amazing 20-minute nap. I woke feeling unusually refreshed and pleasant!

Here are tips for grabbing more of that elusive shuteye:

  1. Nap! A short, 20-30 minute nap can help fix a poor night’s sleep.

  1. No bedtime iPhone-ing. That light from your smartphone might wreck your ability to sleep.
  2. Read a book. When I’m struggling for shuteye, I grab the Kindle and read until my eye lids start to droop. It. Works. Every. Time.
  3. Quiet your racing mind. One large sleeping roadblock is your obsession with your to-do list, your workload, your kids, etc. But meditation can help calm your mind and relax. Sleep.org has tips for meditating before bed.
  4. Skip the booze. I’m really sorry about this one. The wine before bed might help you quickly doze off, but you might not get a restful night’s sleep. Everyone’s body is different, so listen to yours in deciding if and how much to drink before bed.
  5. Exercise during the day. When I run, I sleep. Doing aerobic exercise for at least 10 minutes and you might have a more satisfying slumber.
  6.  Snack before bed. This blog article, “11 easy snacks to help you sleep better,”  will get you thinking about nighttime indulgences.
  7. Adult lullabies. Sure, you’re a big adult with big adult responsibilities. But even big adults sometimes need “adult lullabies” to wind down and fall asleep.
  8. Thin, firm or no pillow? Are you a back, side or stomach sleeper? Certain pillows will work best for certain sleepers. Get tips HERE.

Our last small change is….

Have you seen how kids clean their teeth nowadays? They’ve got bags of colorful, flavorful “flossers” to sharpen their fangs. All I got as a child were boring containers of … floss.

  1. Speaking of floss, do it! Flossing helps prevent gum disease, which in turn can lead to a host of health issues. So floss, and you might reduce your risk of heart disease.

A dog may be the key to losing weight

Want to Lose Weight? Grab Your Dog’s Leash

Losing weight is…well, hard! Eat healthy, be more active…you know the drill. But getting started and sticking with it are two of the hardest parts. So, what if you had someone to keep you on track, was always available, and never said no? Would it also help if they were one of your best friends?

If you answered yes, the answer may be just a few feet away from you.

If we’re out of shape, then our pets probably are too. About 54 percent of dogs (and 58 percent of cats) are overweight or obese, according to the Association for Pet Obesity Prevention. About 2 in 3 upstate New York adults, meanwhile, are also overweight or obese, according to an Excellus BlueCross BlueShield report. Heavier adults are at risk for serious chronic diseases and health problems. But, did you know that obese pets also face many of the same health problems as humans, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, arthritis, urinary disease, skin problems, and breathing problems. Also, overweight pets often have shorter life spans (up to 2.5 years less). Taking steps to stay in shape with our pets may help keep them around longer.

Taking “steps” to be active

In 2015, the U.S. Surgeon General encouraged people to be active and walk more. Strong evidence exists that physical activity has substantial health benefits,” according to “Step it Up! The Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Promote Walking and Walkable Communities.” “Walking is an excellent way for most Americans to increase their physical activity.

It’s a simple formula. One overweight adult + one overweight dog = one really good reason (and motivation) to lose weight together. One easy way to get started would be to just go on regular walks together a few times each week.

The Wake-up Call that Saved Brad’s Life

A walk or a run can be great exercise.

Brad, a 6-foot-6-inch former athlete, had a wake-up call in his mid-30s. His doctor said he was at risk for heart disease and other health problems, such as diabetes and stroke, because of his weight and lack of exercise. He adopted Buddy, a black Labrador retriever. ”The energetic dog became Brad’s running buddy and ticket to better health. “  (More on the story of Brad and Buddy.)

Couch Potato to Athlete – The Story of Eric and Peety

Eric, a 57-year-old salesman from Spokane, Washington, says a plump dog named Peety helped turn him from a couch potato struggling with obesity into a slim athlete. Eric weighed 330 pounds. He lived by himself and would often eat two extra-large pizzas (consuming potentially thousands of calories) for dinner. He spent more than $1,000 a month in medications for type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure.

One month before Eric was due to have weight-loss surgery, he was advised to eat a whole-foods diet AND to rescue a dog. The thinking was that having a dog might force Eric to get outside and be more active. (Maybe he’d even meet other people?) Peety, a 7-year-old border collie/Australian shepherd mix, “came into his life and changed it forever.” More on how Eric and Peety changed each other’s lives  (Their video.)

The Tale of Otto the Bulldog

how to help a bulldog to lose weight

Otto the Bulldog started taking longer walks and lost 15 pounds.

Typically you can’t get an English bulldog off the couch, let alone walk more than 50 feet,” says Brittany, a digital marketing manager from Rochester, NY. “Ever since he was a puppy, Otto, our 6-year-old English Bulldog, has enjoyed going on walks.”

As he grew older though, Otto’s vet wanted him to drop from 65 to 55 pounds. Brittany gradually extended their typical route. We often forced him to take breaks, just to catch our own breath!” Combining longer walks with better food, Otto has dropped down to 50 pounds, has a softer coat and is happier than ever. No need for a Fitbit® alarm – Otto reminds us to walk every day with a long, dragged out whiny mumble. What a great way to unwind after work, talk about our day, and get our steps in as a whole family.

Set up a routine and stick with it

The philosopher Lao Tzu had a saying that went something like, “The journey of a 1000 miles begins with one step.” If you’re just getting started, go for shorter walks, gradually increasing them as you feel comfortable. It’s important to set up a routine. Try walking at the same time every day. Dogs like routine and will likely come and encourage you on those days when you may not feel like it (just like Otto).

Also, if your friend or neighbor has a dog, maybe you can walk together.

Keep safety in mind for both of you. Stay hydrated. In hot weather, try going early or later in the day when it may be cooler. In cold and snowy weather, wear good boots and check their paws for snow and ice buildup.

Nutrition is also an important part of the puzzle.

If food were in front of your dog all day, they would likely keep eating. We often have the same instincts. says Janette Westman, a workplace wellness consultant at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield. A dog’s food is controlled by their environment. The owner puts it out when it’s time to eat and controls the amount. We could create a similar environment for ourselves. By reducing how much food is constantly in front of us, we could be less tempted to snack all day long as well. Also, planning ahead is another way to make healthy eating easier.”

You can also try modifying some of your habits using the “Five Rules for Eating” from Stephen Cook, M.D., MPH, Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Rochester Medical Center. If you do choose to snack during the day, there are healthy options that can give you a boost between meals. Try keeping a banana, apple, or a handful of almonds handy. Pat Salzer, a registered dietician for Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, has suggestions for healthy snacking throughout the day.

What about healthy eating for my dog? According to the American Kennel Club, there are things you can do to prevent them from packing on unnecessary pounds, like establishing a regular eating schedule, limiting between-meal snacks, and choosing low-calorie treats.

Don’t already have a “workout” buddy?

Consider adopting/rescuing a dog. Check with your local animal rescue organization if interested in pet adoption. Some will allow local volunteers to come and walk their dogs. That can also be an option if you’re not quite ready to adopt.

Please consult with your doctor before beginning any diet or exercise regimen for yourself and a veterinarian for your furry friend.

Twinkle, Twinkle Little UGH. Solutions for Parents who Hate Kids’ Music.

Becoming a parent stirs up a lot of fears. Will I be a good caretaker? Who will take care of my child when I go back to work? How do you keep one of these things alive? You mean we can just take them home?!

And that’s just the stuff you talk about publicly.

The Creepiness of Children’s Music

One of the secrets I’ve harbored in the deep recesses of my mind is a disdain for kids’ music (and those weird music videos!). The chipper, high voices. Bright primary colors. People singing while wearing spandex.

I’ve tried to get on board. I attended a newborn story time at our local library,* where they handed out lyrics to  kids’ songs and taught interactive movements. A totally cool idea, and very helpful for someone like myself who hasn’t been around kids that much and has no idea where to start with such things. Story time was met with marginal success:  my baby slept on my lap while I sang and clapped. My mind kept wandering along with the ridiculous lyrics we were singing. The song “Hickory Dickory Dock” reminded me of a Hickory Farms summer sausage gift basket. Ants marching one by one in the house are usually met with the sole of my shoe, because I’m the resident exterminator. And spiders? During a discussion of “Itsy Bitsy Spider,” my brother texted, “I hate spiders. Why would I sing about them?” Well said, sir.

Then the time of reckoning arrived. A beautiful, innocent, googly-eyed baby staring up from the crib, longing for some parental interaction. When I opened my mouth to croak out something, I didn’t know what to sing other than “Happy Birthday.” That experience showed me the need to create some playlists that wouldn’t be too terrible to sing along with over and over again. Because what is more fun in life then creating your own soundtrack?

The Positive Effect That Music Has on Children Makes It A Must

Solutions for People Who Hate Kids' Music

Studies have shown that music can have a really positive impact on childrens’ development.

I appreciate and support the benefits that music (even lullabies like “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star”) can have on child development. I have Sesame Street records and sing “Row Row Row Your Boat” and “Buzz Buzz” like it’s my job. Study after study has shown so many positive effects that music and music therapy can have on a child at any stage, even in-utero . While listening to music, premature infants in the neonatal intensive care unit  show signs of improved breathing and heart rates, along with advances in neurological development, weight gain and appetite..

It’s just that the entire universe-altering shift to parenthood is so overwhelming that it’s hard to let all facets in at once and the preordained music playlist, well, sometimes it just hurts. So you try to preserve some small semblance of your past that you want to share with your little one.

Playlists That Don’t Suck

There is nothing revolutionary here and obviously you can put any music you like on your soundtrack.  I’ve been known to sing the jingle from the Cellino & Barnes commercial when desperate. Sleep deprivation causes things like an inability to remember your once-favorite songs, the words to the ABCs or those melodies earmarked for kids. I’ve found it helpful to have playlists queued up so I can spend more time interacting with our little one instead of racking my brain for songs to sing.

Playlist for bouncing, clapping & tummy time:

Listen to this playlist on Spotify

  • Ophelia, The Lumineers
  • Take it all Back, Judah and The Lion
  • HandClap, Fitz and the Tantrums
  • I am the Walrus, The Beatles
  • Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa-Fa (Sad Song), Otis Redding
  • Budapest, George Ezra
  • Home, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros
  • Welcome Home, Radical Face
  • Dog Days are Over, Florence and the Machine
  • I Feel the Earth Move, Carole King

Playlist for mellowing out:

Listen to this playlist on Spotify

  • Three Little Birds, Bob Marley
  • Here Comes the Sun, The Beatles
  • Morning Song, Avett Brothers
  • In the Dark, Nina Simone
  • Hello My Old Heart, The Oh Hellos
  • The Circle Game, Joni Mitchell
  • Our House, Crosby, Stills and Nash
  • Mercedes Benz, Janis Joplin
  • Half Acre, Hem
  • Lullaby, Lord Huron

Playlist for loud crying (either the baby’s or yours):

Listen to this playlist on Spotify

  • Renegade, Styx
  • Crying, Waiting, Hoping, The Beatles
  • Ain’t Too Proud To Beg, The Temptations
  • Helter Skelter, The Beatles
  • I Bet My Life, Imagine Dragons
  • New York, Alicia Keys

*Looking for a kid’s story time in your community? Check your local library. Here’s a place to start:

 

How I Learned to Avoid Drive-Thrus and Eat Healthier on a Budget

When I moved off campus my junior year of college, I was excited to have an actual kitchen to cook in and a place to eat that I didn’t have to share with hundreds of other students.
That feeling quickly faded when I remembered how much time and money it takes to cook and grocery shop when you’re a broke college student and also going to classes, club meetings, working and seeing friends.
Staying up late was normal for me. Some nights I’d leave work at 1:30 a.m., or I was up late studying or hanging out with friends. There was no way I was going to take the time to cook myself an actual healthy meal. Even if I wanted to cook, I probably didn’t have anything in my fridge to make it.

I saw fast food as my only option.

Drive-Thru Voodoo

Frequenting fast food drive-thrus became a regular habit for my friends and me. They were the only places open late at night and the cost seems cheap when you can get a meal for only a few dollars. If I did go to the grocery store, I’d buy chips or microwaveable meals that were easy to make. I probably used my oven a handful of times over an entire semester.
But the truth is, with a bit of planning, broke college students and young professionals can eat healthy without spending a lot of time or money. Pat Salzer, registered dietitian and workplace wellness consultant at Excellus BlueCross BlueShield, shares eight tips to help you save time while eating healthy on the cheap.

8 Tips for Healthy Eating on a College Student’s Budget

  1. Have group meals. Find friends who like to cook and make your meals together. Having a group of people working together to make dinner is more fun than cooking alone and will help you avoid fast food restaurants.
  2. Don’t grocery shop when you’re hungry. This might seem like an obvious tip that you’ve heard a thousand times, but it’s true! When you’re hungry, your willpower goes out the window. Everything will look good, especially the things that don’t take long to make.
  3. Buying in bulk isn’t always a good thing. Bulk can be good if you know that you’ll eat all of it. However, it’s not worth buying large quantities, especially produce, if you’ll just stress about not eating it all before it goes bad.
  4. Have a plan when you shop so you’ll get what you need and only what you really need. You won’t overspend if you stick to a grocery list. This strategy might also help you avoid filling your cart with junk food—like those little pints of Ben & Jerry’s chocolate fudge brownie ice cream that I love so much!
  5. Be realistic about what you will eat. I would always buy Greek yogurt because I knew it was healthy. Only problem was, I don’t like Greek yogurt. I tried to force myself to like it, but it wasn’t happening. The yogurt would sit in my fridge until it hit the expiration date and then I’d have to (thankfully!) throw it out. There’s no point in spending your money on something that you know you won’t eat.
  6. Prepare big batches of healthy, delicious foods that’ll leave you with lots of leftovers (and unlike in tip #3, you know you’ll eat it). Whatever you make for dinner, you can also eat the next day for lunch. It’s also a good way to keep yourself from overeating at a meal if you know that you need to save some for the next day.
  7. Buy fruits and vegetables that are in-season. Not only will that sweet Red Delicious apple you bought in the fall taste better, but it’ll likely be cheaper, too. Try different types of produce—you might be surprised by what you like! I was shocked (shocked) to learn that I actually liked the taste of broccoli!
  8. Stash affordable, healthy foods for snacks—yogurt, string cheese, cottage cheese, peanut butter, etc.—around your apartment, house or dormitory. These foods will help satisfy late-night cravings and deter you from embarking on fast food runs.
Finding the Right Gym in 2017

7 Steps to Finding the Right Gym

If you’re like me, you ended the year celebrating the holiday season just a little too much and you’ve started the new year looking for the perfect gym to undo the damage of rich desserts and not enough activity.

Finding the right fitness facility can be tricky if you’re looking for more than just the lowest-cost option.

treadmill upstate ny

A treadmill is great for running in the winter months.

“You need to assess your fitness goals before selecting the best gym for you,” said Janette Westman, workplace wellness consultant, Excellus BlueCross BlueShield. “Do you want a basic gym with treadmills for a daily run or walk, for example, or do you prefer one with a variety of classes or state-of-the art equipment to keep you motivated?”

My needs as a gym buff have evolved over the years. When I was a broke, recent college graduate, I went with the cheapest option. All I needed was a place to run in the winter—at the lowest possible price!

Spinning Class Upstate NY

Select a gym close to your job.

As I earned a little more, I gravitated toward facilities that also had early morning spinning classes. But once I had kids and was paying daycare bills (yup, I was broke again!), I gravitated toward the free workplace gym.

Given my holiday weight gain, I’m now also hunting for a fitness facility to use on the weekends, when I don’t want to trek into work to work out. I’m considering a  gym or a facility that also offers classes, such as kickboxing.

Westman, a former personal trainer, offers the following tips for finding the right fitness facility in the new year:

  1. Location: People often stop exercising because they lack the time. If you exercise after work, select a gym close to your employer. Weekend warriors in the battle against the bulge may want a facility close to home.
  2. Hours of operation: The gym should be open when you plan to exercise. Early birds, for example, may need a fitness center that opens at the crack of dawn to allow for the 5 a.m. swim before work.
  3. Classes: Ask if classes such as spinning and yoga cost extra. If you’re solely interested in classes, a studio instead of a fitness facility may be a better option.
  4. Equipment quality: Ensure the cardio and weight machines are clean and in good condition.
  5. Staff: Are staff members friendly and qualified with the right certifications? You may want a gym with fitness trainers and dieticians to help you get healthier.
  6. Free trial pass: Test the gym during the times you’ll likely exercise. Is it too crowded? Are the classes, equipment, and atmosphere right for you? Are showers and changing facilities up to par? Is the parking convenient? Will you feel comfortable asking staff for advice or posing questions, such as how to use unfamiliar equipment?
  7. Cost: Ask if the gym will waive the enrollment fee so that you’re only responsible for the monthly dues.

Important Tip:  Some health care insurers may offer a benefit that helps pay for a gym membership. Be sure to check your policy to see what’s available to you. Don’t leave money on the table!

Fighting Cancer: A Teenager’s Story of Courage

Being a teenager and going through high school can be difficult. There are classes to keep up with, sports commitments and demands for your time from family and friends. And, for Brittany McNair, a cancer diagnosis.

McNair was diagnosed with osteosarcoma June of 2005, the end of her freshman year of high school. She went to the doctor after not being able to walk and after several tests, found out that she had cancer in her right leg.

The former three-sport athlete went from running daily for soccer and indoor/outdoor track to relearning how to walk. She didn’t think she’d run again.

The high school years are a time when your peers are constantly judging you. Because chemotherapy treatments caused her hair to fall out, McNair feared having her picture taken or being asked to remove her hat. She also learned to get creative to avoid the dreaded hospital visits. (More on that later.)

With the help of friends, family and a local nonprofit, McNair found a way to keep some of the normalcy of her teenage years. Her family also emerged stronger and closer as a result of it.

A Teenager's Fight Against Cancer

Brittany McNair on her 16th birthday while in the hospital for cancer treatment.

A Visit to Her Hospital Room

In August of 2005, surgeons replaced the bones in McNair’s right leg with a metal prosthesis. At the same time, they removed her calf muscles and performed knee replacement surgery on that leg. She was 15.

As she recovered in the hospital, McNair received a visit from Lauren Spiker, executive director of 13thirty Cancer Connect, formerly known as Melissa’s Living Legacy Teen Cancer Foundation. Spiker had formed the organization three years prior after her daughter, Melissa, died of cancer, and was running it from her home.

On the wall at 13thirty Cancer Connect is Melissa’s request of her mother before she died, “If you have learned anything from me through all of this, do something with it to make a difference – to make things better.”

Spiker explained her daughter’s request.

“When Melissa was going through treatments for cancer as a teenager, we noticed that there weren’t many support groups for teenagers or young adults.”

Spiker visited McNair in the hospital to invite her to join their support groups, including a popular pancake breakfast at Spiker’s home with other teenage cancer survivors. A few weeks later, McNair participated in a photo shoot for a brochure for the organization. From that day, McNair has continued to attend 13thirty Cancer Connect events.

“13thirty Cancer Connect helped me in ways I couldn’t even begin to describe,” said McNair. “I’ve made lifelong friends there, and I am so thankful for them.”

The organization welcomes individuals ages 13 to 30 who have cancer and their families. A few years after McNair joined the group, 13thirty Cancer Connect began offering fitness classes to give people who have been diagnosed with cancer a chance to exercise with the supervision of a physical therapist and get their strength back.

“Our program was able to recently expand, thanks to a $3,000 grant from Excellus BlueCross BlueShield,” said Spiker.

It was through this program that McNair started to run again.

Brittany with Lauren Spiker, executive director of 13thirty Cancer Connect

Brittany with Lauren Spiker, executive director of 13thirty Cancer Connect

Friends on the field

McNair was lucky to have friends who worked hard to keep her connected to high school (and all the drama!).

Her soccer teammates and their families took turns decorating and filling a box of goodies for McNair to have before she went to the hospital for chemotherapy on Fridays. She found the box on her front porch every Thursday.

“I would be in the hospital all weekend and my teammates would give me everything from candy to DVDs in that box,” said McNair.

McNair’s favorite? A barf bucket. (The chemotherapy made McNair pretty sick!) It was decorated with different words and phrases related to barfing.

After her diagnosis, one family gave her a laptop to help her keep up with school, but she also used it to keep up with her friends and high school happenings.

“AOL Instant Messenger was the big thing then, and I would be on my laptop all the time talking to friends so I was kept in the loop,” said McNair.

Her friends also would visit her at home and in the hospital. As often as she could, McNair would go to basketball games to watch her sister cheer, and she’d also sit on the bench and help her coach during soccer games.

A birthday to remember

McNair really wanted to be in school with her friends on her 16th birthday on Dec. 23, 2005. Usually her birthday falls during winter break, when there’s no school, but that year was an exception.

On the morning of her birthday that year, McNair’s mom – Jennifer Arnold – noticed that her daughter felt hot. So Arnold took her temperature. If McNair had a fever, that meant she’d have to go to the emergency room and would automatically be in the hospital for 24-48 hours. When Arnold came back, McNair’s sister was in the room.

“I didn’t think anything of it,” said Arnold. “I figured they had just been talking before Brittany’s sister went to school or something.”

Arnold looked at the thermometer and it read a normal temperature. Arnold made McNair take her temperature again, but this time she didn’t leave the room.

“The thermometer said she had a fever just like I thought,” Arnold said. “Brittany’s sister took her own temperature, and the girls tried to trick me!”

McNair’s friends ended up visiting her in the hospital and celebrated her birthday there.

It wasn’t the first time her friends or family were willing to intervene on McNair’s behalf.

 “I don’t know why it was such a big deal.”

When McNair walked into the school cafeteria to take her regents exam, the proctor wouldn’t let her in because she was wearing a hat.

“I don’t know why it was such a big deal,” said McNair. “I guess they were worried I was going to hide notes in my hat or something.”

McNair refused to take off her hat. She didn’t want to tell the proctor that she was embarrassed of her bald head. Eventually, one of her friends stepped in and explained why McNair wanted to keep her hat on. The proctor let her into the cafeteria to take her test.

After she sat down, a different proctor also asked her to remove her hat. Again, she refused. This time, a math teacher intervened and said that she could keep her hat on.

That night, Arnold attended a basketball game to see Britany’s sister cheer. The same math teacher approached her and apologized. He hoped that her daughter did well on the test.

“Brittany hadn’t told me that anything had happened at the regents test so I was trying to think of what could have possibly happened,” said Arnold, adding that she was also thinking , ‘Well I’d be more concerned that she didn’t do well because of all the work she hasn’t been doing.”

It wasn’t the first time McNair fought requests to remove her hat.

Learning to embrace her bald head

Like most 16-year-olds, McNair was eager to get her driving permit. She went to the DMV to take the written test and after passing it, stood in line to have her picture taken for her license. The photographer told her to remove her hat. McNair refused.

“My dad started arguing with the people at the DMV to let me keep my hat on and eventually they did and took my picture,” said McNair. “After that, when people looked at my I.D., they were confused to see that I was wearing a hat.”

McNair was determined to learn to drive during her sophomore year. Since she was still relearning how to use her right leg, used two feet instead of one to apply the brakes or use the accelerator.

“Looking back on everything from when I was diagnosed and going through chemo, I would tell other people going through the same thing to take pictures and rock the bald head,” said McNair. “Those are the two things I wish I had done.

Non-traditional Christmas

Arnold thinks back fondly on Christmas that year. It was a few days after McNair’s birthday fever and she was still in the hospital. She and her husband agreed to bring both McNair and her sister three presents to open at the hospital; they could open the rest when McNair returned home.

“My husband and I made two trips from the hospital to the house and back to pick up more presents because the girls didn’t want it to end, they were having so much fun,” said Arnold.

Brittany, her father (David), and younger sister (Alexis) on Christmas Day. Alexis is now a Pediatric Oncology nurse at Golisano Children's Hospital. She was inspired by the nurses who cared for Brittany.

Brittany, her father (David), and younger sister (Alexis) on Christmas Day. Alexis is now a Pediatric Oncology nurse at Golisano Children’s Hospital. She was inspired by the nurses who cared for Brittany.

When McNair came home on New Year’s Eve, her parents said she and her sister couldn’t open the rest of their presents until the next morning. They wanted the girls to have that feeling of waking up and seeing presents under the tree.

“The girls went to bed at 3 a.m. on New Year’s Eve and then woke up a few hours later to open presents,” said Arnold. “It wasn’t a traditional Christmas, but we made the most of it and that’s what made it so special. “

Changing the family dynamic

Mother and daughter smiled and laughed as they recalled those special memories. “Brittany’s cancer diagnosis definitely changed our family dynamic for the better,” said Arnold. “We’re all incredibly close and I love it.”

Brittany with her mother, Jennifer Arnold in September 2016.

Brittany with her mother, Jennifer Arnold in September 2016.

McNair, now an avid runner, made her athletic comeback October 2014 running the Bandana Bolt 5K at Seneca Park, thanks in large part to 13thirty Cancer Connect’s fitness program. Her mom joined her for the race as a fellow runner.

“With this new awesome fitness program that I’ve been doing for a couple years now, I’m slowly regaining my strength in my leg, regaining confidence and regaining the old me that was that former athlete,” said McNair.