5 Shortcuts to Relieving Your Stress

Research produces a report every so often that reports on the effectiveness of exercise and mindfulness for relieving stress. A recent study suggests that the combination of exercise and mindfulness lowers anxiety and depression. But we’re not always immediately ready to overcome the barriers for setting up a regular exercise routine and/or a daily mindfulness habit.

In the meantime, here are some shortcuts to relieving stress at work and/or home:

1. Do your chores mindfully 
Doing an activity, which we would typically do mindlessly, more mindfully can be helpful for managing stress. This study found that focusing on the smell of the soap and the soapiness of the dish water helped participants lower their anxiety. But you’re in charge of cooking, not washing dishes? Fret not, someone’s got to cut the vegetables, clean the kitty litter, walk the dog, and water the plants (paying attention to whether there are new shoots)…the world’s your oyster, as long as you do it mindfully.

2. Enjoy a cup of tea
Life’s difficulties seem more manageable with a cup of tea. Apparently it’s not because tea itself is relaxing but rather, we find hot beverages to be soothing. It may also be that the scent of lemon, lavender and mango reduces our stress response. French Earl Grey which is a blend of citrus with the usual bergamot, paired with a lemon tart or mango pudding, could be the balm to your stressful day.

3. Savour your coffee and bread
The smell of freshly-baked bread was found in this study to make participants more likely to help a stranger, while the smell of roasted coffee beans helped to lower the stress of sleep deprivation in this study. But if you enjoy the smell of neither bread baking nor coffee being ground, there’s yet another quick fix. The scent of jasmine produced a calming effect on the participants of this study. So the next time you need to go shopping to feel better, try hunting down some scented candlesperfume, or handmade soaps!

4. Early bird gets better sleep
Exercise and mindfulness aren’t the only recurring themes in stress management. In fact, experts now advocate getting the right amount of sleep — not too much and not too little. And getting good quality sleep is apparently about shutting out the street lights with blackout curtains or moving to a neighbourhood with less light pollution (Pulau Ubin, anyone?) and getting up to soak up the morning sun. Short-wave light when received in the early part of our day, regulates our sleep cycle, which helps us manage stress better.

5. Are you guilty of catastrophizing?
The key to having less stress is about how we perceive the stressors. It’s actually within our control. A 2016 study observes that those, who experience negative emotions during an event they view as stressful, tend to have a poorer physiological response to stress — their heart rate doesn’t vary a great deal. In contrast, a healthy response to stress is characterised by greater variability in our heart rate. So, one way to manage stress is about letting go! Try asking yourself if it’s as bad as you initially thought it was…

6. Get proactive — be helpful!
A recent study found that engaging in helpful behaviours is another effective strategy for coping with everyday stress. Participants of the study who did more for other people not only experienced more positive emotions during the day but they also had better mental wellbeing. Try these random acts of kindnessHere are some more!

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Are you eating to feel good or to feel better?

“Thoughts drive dieting plans, but feelings drive dieting behaviour”. We plan rationally what to eat, but we gorge on things which make us feel good.That’s what health psychologists are telling us. No doubt, garlic scallops with broccoli makes us feel good. But after a morning of fighting fires and an string of tedious afternoon meetings involving front line hand-to-hand combat with tiring individuals, we’ll be wanting something that makes us feel better. We’d probably be somewhat receptive to truffle fries and mud pie. We’ll be looking forward to that last slice of chocolate cake waiting patiently for us in the fridge at home.

It’s the same reason why we’re able to sustain a relatively narrow diet of something healthy but quite plain (e.g., a mono-food diet of cabbage soup or a daily regimen of raw veggies and steamed salmon) for only so long. We crave foods which draw out a warm and fuzzy feeling from us in our moments of weakness. I mean, moments of stress, when life throws us challenges. And it’s not something we’ve cooked up. There’s data to show that we’re prone to emotional eating when we experience job burnout and fatigue.

But we need not be slaves to our cravings. Here are seven questions to ask yourself:

1. Are you feeling stressed?
We may not realise it but our emotions are in the driver’s seat when it comes to eating. We reach for comfort foods when we’re stressed. We treat ourselves to something nice after we’ve had to deal with something challenging. This is not just anecdotal evidence. A recent study shows that we’re much more likely to choose tasty but unhealthy food over a healthy but less tasty one after we’ve experienced a stressful event. The reason for this has a neurobiological basis: Our cortisol levels, which are elevated by stress, disrupt the self-control mechanism in our brains, which means that stress can derail our well-intentioned plans to eat healthy. That means that managing your stress levels is one of the key components of eating healthy.

2. Which foods are you emotionally attached to?
Stress is not the only thing we should be concerned about. Anxiety and depression also affect how we eat. At least half of the people who responded to a recent US survey agreed that weight loss was caused by not exercising enough and by the foods they ate. Only 10% considered mental well-being to be a main factor for being successful at losing weight. To cope with emotional eating, it can be helpful to understand why you eat what you eat. Keeping a daily journal can help you track the (unhealthy) foods which you eat to make yourself feel better. Use technology to your advantage: Apps like Calorie Counter and Diet Tracker not only track the nutritional value of your meal, but give you the option to label your foods with say, your emotions.

3. What emotions are you experiencing?
How often have we had lunch but not remembered what we ate? Multi-tasking at lunch or dinner time means that we often inhale our meals without considering whether we should continue eating because we’re still hungry. A 2014 study has shown that those who received training to recognise basic emotions in themselves and others were more likely to choose a healthy snack than the control group. The trained group also achieved weight loss after 3 months, whereas the control group gained weight in the same interval. According to other researchmindful eating — which includes being aware of one’s emotions when eating — means that you’ll be less likely to eat for emotional reasons. To reap the other benefits of being more motivated to exercise and having better blood glucose regulation, ask yourself what emotions you’re experiencing when you’re reaching for your 3rd pineapple tart.

4. Are you in a good mood?
Knowing how you feel when you’re about to eat is one thing. Stopping yourself from finishing all the pineapple tarts and the last of the kueh lapis is another thing. That’s where the findings of a 2014 study come in. Researchers found that people in a good mood more often chose healthy foods than those in a neutral mood. Of course, those in a bad mood more often chose comfort (and unhealthy) foods than those in a neutral mood. But the researchers also managed to get those in a bad mood to make better food choices: Getting them to focus on the future rather than the present made more who were in a bad mood switch to healthy foods. So, distract yourself with music or friends when you’re in a bad mood to avoid indulgent emotional eating.

5. Did you have breakfast this morning?
Breakfast has been linked to various positive health outcomes. Here’s one more! A 2014 study explains the reason why breakfast leads to less overeating during the rest of the day. It turns out that eating at the start of the day regulates your feel-good hormone, dopamine, reducing your food cravings during the rest of the day.

6. Do you really need to eat everything at the buffet?
Given a choice between a cheap all-we-can-eat buffet and a pricier one, which would we choose? The cheap one might be good for our wallet in the short run, but a 2015 study finds that we’re much more likely to overeat and feel guilty for our indulgence at the cheap than pricier buffet. So, practice mindful eating and go for the not-so-cheap option…if nothing less than a buffet will suffice.

7. Are you still feeling hungry?
Proteins, grains and pulses are the secret to curbing our appetite. And not all foods are equal: almonds, saffron, and pine nut oil also help us feel full for longer, according to an 2014 report in Food Technology.

Getting into a habit and reaching your goals

Forty-seven days into the new year, you may have made a new year resolution and may be finding it hard to stick to it. Your new year goal may have been to get more exercise and eat healthier. Or it may have been to spend less and save more money. But it’s been an uphill task over the Lunar New Year.

It takes less than a minute to eat a pineapple tart, but much more time and effort to burn all that energy off — 50 floors for each tart to be exact. Bak kwa can be savoured for a wee bit longer, but not as long as the time it’ll take to climb 40 floors for each coin devoured over the weekend (calorie counts for all the various goodies here). Meeting up with friends over brunch, mall and warehouse sales, red packets and late-night games played with square tiles are the highlights of the festive occasion. It’s hard to get away with spending very little or nothing at all.

Our ultimate aim may be to lose weight or to have a healthier bank balance to make the downpayment on a property. But it’s only within reach when we articulate a goal that is specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. We make it possible for us to keep our new year resolution when we set a SMART goal.

Rather than saying we’ll eat healthy, we’re setting ourselves up for success if our plan is to “eat a serving of leafy vegetables at lunch and dinner” and “a serving of fruit with breakfast and at tea-time” by the end of the year. Rather than saying we’ll exercise more, we’re much more likely to implement an exercise habit if we were to aim to “do a physical activity for an hour twice a week” by the end of the year. Because really, who has time to exercise every day? Even carving time out to exercise every other day can be a challenge. Instead of saying we’ll spend less and save more, it’s be more effective to “set a monthly budget for dining and entertainment” by the end of the year.

But articulating a concrete goal which you can see yourself marking on your monthly calendar is only the first step. We’re more likely to succeed in achieving our goal when we form habits. Instead of saying we’ll sleep more, we’ll get more and better sleep if we were to cultivate a sleep habit each month. The goal of setting a budget for specific expenses would be within reach if we were first to develop a weekly habit of recording our expenses at the same time each week, say Sunday evening. Similarly, getting into the habit of eating fruits and veggies daily and exercising on specific days in the week makes it that much easier to achieve the goal of losing weight (How do fruits and veggies help? Here’s how), particularly when we’re preoccupied with life (I mean, problems, difficulties, challenges, sources of stress…that sort of thing).

Research reveals that doing a behaviour for the first time requires our attention. If our typical lunch and dinner are wonton mee and fish noodle soup, we engage the part of our brain which is responsible for decisions to add a portion of veggies to our meal. We intentionally seek out places which serve a generous portion of green veggies with our char kway teow and select foods which already have veggies built into the dish like yong tau foo. As we repeat this behaviour, our actions are stored in the area of the brain responsible for memory. Eventually, the mere action of getting lunch or dinner will automatically cue us into ordering a portion of veggies with our meal. And acquiring the habit of daily veggies and fruit makes our goal attainable.

But there are a few more tricks that will help jump-start your habit formation…

1. “Eating healthy” 
A 2013 study found that acquiring both exercise and diet habits simultaneously was more effective than acquiring them sequentially. People who tackled both exercise and diet habits were more successful in achieving their goals than those who changed their diet habits first and then acquired exercise habits.

So, it’s a good idea to implement both exercise and diet habits at the same time rather than one after the other.

2. “Getting exercise”
A 2015 study found that habits which prompted people to exercise were more important than the habit of exercising itself. Setting an alarm which cues us to go for gym class after work makes it more likely that we’ll actually go to the gym. Likewise, setting an appointment in the calendar to cue us to go on a nature walk or bike ride on the weekend, be it with friends or on our own, makes it more likely that we’ll realise our exercise goals. The study found that it could take a month or longer to develop the habits which prompt us to exercise.

Cues, such as having dinner with friends after attending a free mall Kpop fitness or Zumba class, can help you achieve your exercise goals.

3. “Spending less and saving more”
Because we may choose to shop and spend in order to make ourselves feel better (so say most the 700 women polled in a 2009 study), having a budget can help keep us in check.

But we’re more likely to stick to our budget if we also keep in mind the why of our goal, and if we focus on one goal. A 2010 study found that compared to people who listed 4 ways to save money, those who wrote down why they wanted to save money, actually spent less money when given the opportunity to do so, while a 2011 study observed that people were more successful at saving money when they focused on one goal (e.g., to gain financial independence) rather than multiple goals (e.g., for children’s education, a rainy day, retirement).

So, the first step in financial planningmaking a list of why you want to save money — is far more important than you think. That together with your newly minted habit of tracking monthly expenditure, you’ll be able to set a budget for all the categories of spending (e.g., mortgage repayments, insurance plans, transport, utilities, groceries, phone and internet subscriptions, dining out, clothes, entertainment), bringing you closer to your goal of “spending less and saving more”. To make it even easier, you can take advantage of this budget calculator which will do all the work for you.

 

New ways to de-stress

Apparently, we’re a very stressed workforce.

According to a 2015 workplace survey of 7, 883 employees who used their company’s employee assistance programme (read more here to find out about EAPs), there was a high level of anxiety among younger employees. Compared to X-gen and baby boomer employees, high anxiety was reported by 5% more employees in the millennial age group.

But it’s probably not just the Y-gen who need help managing their stress and anxiety. Even foreign domestic helpers have mental health concerns. According to a study by the Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economies, 2 in 10 domestic helpers showed signs of psychological distress.

The fact is, we all could do with a bit of help. A 2014 study showed poor coping strategies were more likely to lead to the development of insomnia.

So what does help?

1. Zap your fatigue with a nap
It’s not new that getting a nap helps your brain perform better at tasks of memory. But if you were in doubt, here’s a new finding that supports that idea.

What’s new is the finding that taking a nap is “an effective strategy to counteract impulsive behavior and to boost tolerance for frustration”, so says this new 2015 study. So, go ahead and get those 40 winks. Look here for the best way to nap.

2. Exercise and meditate your stress away
Previous studies show that exercise improves your mental health and psychological mood. But new research shows that sports and physical activity can be as effective as depression meds. Put another way, exercise has been shown to be an effective way to lower stress hormone levels, in turn alleviating depression.

Like exercise, doing relaxation exercises while at work can help us cope with high levels of job stress. A 2015 study showed that mindfulness techniques to be as effective in alleviating depression as depression medications, while another 2015 study found that workplace mindfulness exercises helped reduce stress responses among nurses.

So, getting physical and mindful are some of the best ways to manage stress.

3. Boost your mental health with a balanced diet
The experts advocate the consumption of “key nutrients, such as polyunsaturated fatty acids Omega-3, essential amino acids, B-group vitamins (B12 and folate), vitamin D and minerals like zinc, magnesium and iron” for our mental health..

4. It’s all in your attitude!
Research suggests that staying psychologically healthy can be as simple as just having a positive outlook. A 2015 study found that people had better mental health when they were able to stay calm and/or cheerful while coping with a stressful situation.

And when you have tried all that, you can try a few more whimsical options:

5. That’s how the smart cats do it
A new study found that watching cat videos helped boost viewers’ positive emotions, while reducing their negative ones. Here’s a Maru video to get you started.

6. Time to get your colour pencils out
Colouring is the new black. Not only are there colouring books for adults, there are colouring workshops too. Research findings about the mental health benefits of colouring for adults are as easy to find as an oak tree at the Singapore Botanic Gardens. But research has found creative pursuits to be helpful for relieving stress. So go on, get those crayons and watercolour brushes out.

7. After work, doing nothing is better than checking facebook
A recent study found local commuters reported more positive emotions “zoning out” than being connected online on their evening commute home. In contrast, they reported more positive emotions while engaged in online social networking and text messaging on their morning commute into work.

So, you have it now. The official endorsement to engage in a little bit of people-watching. Without any pangs of guilt. It’s for your own mental health of course. And it works best when on your way home from work.

5 Places to Visit When You’re Feeling Stressed

5 Places to De-stress in Singapore

It’s finally the holidays! Hooray!

You’ve finally managed to get 5 minutes to yourself. To arrange to catch up with some friends. To space out over lunch with your colleagues. To sleep in on the weekend. To enjoy the commute now that the roads are pleasantly clear, even during peak hours.

Right about now, you might be thinking about how you can to reset your balancing act of juggling work and life. And re-charge yourself.

There’s plenty of research about what helps us adapt well in the face of life’s challenges. What helps us bounce back when we experience set-backs, things that cause emotional upheavals, even the minor intrusions onto our otherwise happy demeanor. Factors which help include being able to make realistic plans and carry them out, knowing what your strengths and abilities are, being aware and able to manage your emotions, and having problem solving skills (from The Road to Resilience: APA).

But It also helps if you also make the effort on a regular basis to manage your stress levels. That means spending time in green spaces, getting regular exercise and building physical activity in our routine, spending quality time on strengthening social connections with our families and friends, creating time for relaxation routines (yes, even walking around the neighbourhood counts), and investing in creative pastimes, even if it’s a passive appreciation of culture and natural history.

Here are some ideas to kick start your journey! Not only can you do all of the above if you go with your family and friends, but you’ll be glad you went because these gems won’t be here at for very long:

1. Biddadari
This 93ha leafy ex-cemetery, which currently is home to a wide variety of flora and fauna including butterflies, birds, squirrels, and tembusu trees, will become a housing estate with the the first underground air-conditioned bus interchange on the island in a few years. Visit this forgotten woodland to see rarely sighted birds like the Oriental scops owl, Blue-winged pitta, and Indian cuckoo, as well as regular residents like the Lineated Barbet and the Finlayson or variable squirrel, which can only be found in the area.

Getting there: The forest is next to Mount Vernon. Exit at Woodleigh MRT or take bus number 100, 135, or 155 and stop on Upper Aljunied Road.

2. Bukit Brown
An eclectic and fascinating collection of Chinese graves which include those of well-known figures from the early immigrant local Chinese community is just one feature of this 233ha sprawling cemetery. Take a tour through history at this heritage site (maps available at bukitbrown.org), or enjoy the melodious song of the Straw-headed bulbul and White-rumped sharma and agile antics of the Common tailorbird and White-breasted Kingfisher at this urban oasis (find out more the birds at Bukit Brown here).

Getting there: Bus services 52, 74, 93, 157, 165, 852, and 855 will get you to Adam Road. Head for Sime Road and the main entrance is after Lor Halwa. If you’re driving there, Lor Halwa can also be accessed through University Road (off Dunearn Road), which continues as Kheam Hock Road.

3. Pulau Ubin
Current plans to protect the diverse wildlife and eroding shoreline mean that this island should stay a haven for flora and fauna for a while. But the ever-changing landscape in Singapore (including her smaller islands) also serves as a reminder that it’s good to enjoy the kampung feeling at this small island while it’s here.

Seagrasses, coral, and the Horseshoe crab and Fiddler crab are among the natives to be found among the mangrove trees during low tide at Chek Jawa. Visit House No. 1 just inside the entrance to Chek Jawa for a good view of the only remaining fireplace in Singapore. And you might just find a toothless wild boar trying to make friends with your food near Chek Jawa.

Getting there: Take a bum boat from Changi Jetty for $2.50 (each way) and hire a bicycle when you get to the island.

4. Kampung Lor Buangkok
Current renovations are under way for some of the houses at the last kampung on the island. Visit this 1.22ha village to relive a forgotten era with their free-range chickens (although you can also spend all day peering at the freely roaming and magnificent jungle fowl at Pasir Ris Park if you’re than keen on chickens) and idle your afternoon away on a tree swing.

Getting there: The kampung is at 7 Lor Buangkok. Bus services 70, 103, and 854 take you to Yio Chu Kang Road. Stop at the bus stop near Church of St Vincent de Paul and cross the overhead bridge to the kampung.

5. Lim Chu Kang and Kranji farms
The lease for farming land in Lim Chu Kang will expire in a few years’ time. So that means, that the Lim Chu Kang farms may not be there for very long. But you can visit existing ones that have invested in sustainable farming along the Kranji Countryside. Their regular farmer’s market offers an enticing smorgasbord of locally made jams, chutneys, nut butters, sambals, and herb plants and seeds. The trees in the area are also home to industrious yellow-headed Baya weavers during the nesting season, while the otters and kingfishers at Sungei Buloh are only a stone’s throw away in the same neighbourhood.

Getting there: Bus service 975 will leave you at Lim Chu Kang Road. The farms at Neo Tiew Crescent are a bright and sunny 30min walk away. The nature reserve is best accessed on bus service 925 which stops on Neo Tiew Crescent, soon after the bridge on Kranji Way.

So, get out and enjoy the fresh air!

All work and no play makes June very dull

Don't distress. De-stress!

Long-term exposure to work-related stress impacts our mental health. According to a recent report, more young professionals are experiencing burnout (Straits Times, 14 April 2015), while a recent local study reports that as many as 1 in 13 or 14 have depression, if they’re professionals or senior managers, or if they’re from the sales and service industry.

Not exactly a pretty picture. For most of us, it’s a blurry line between work and personal life. But before we roll down the slippery slope of workaholism, there’s a few things we can do to help ourselves. We don’t need to take huge leaps. But we can start instead with small steps:

1. Get inspired to exercise
Exercise is an effective strategy for managing stress. Even a 10-min walk can do wonders for your mood and mental well-being.

  • With the SEA games starting today, it’s a great time to get inspired. Watch the swimming and cycling to get into the mood for a dip in the pool and ride around the park connectors.
  • Get a free workout with HPB’s physical activity programme Sunrise in the City at different locations across the island. Gym classes available include yoga, kickboxing, Zumba, functional and circuit training, and body combat.
  • Take a guided intertidal walk with the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum to Pulau Hantu on 5 August 2015 (6.30am to noon).
  • Round up your colleagues for a friendly game of badminton at an Singapore Sports Council court ($3.50/hour on weekdays before 6pm).

2. Culture-up for SG50
Research suggests that creative pursuits are another way to beat stress, even if it only involves appreciating cultural activities as part of the audience. It’s a great excuse for some alone (or not-so-alone) time with your loved ones.

  • The Peranakan Musuem features an exhibition on the lives of 50 influential Babas and Nonyas until March 2016.
  • A huge collection of oil paintings telling the story of Singapore and her late leader Mr Lee Kuan Yew are on show at The Crescent (Level 2) at the Suntec Convention and Exhibition Centre until the end of June 2015.
  • Cultural and musical performances, along with kacang putih and ice ball stalls, celebrate the 50th anniversary of the nation at the Singapore Botanic Gardens on the National Day weekend, 7-8 August 2015.
  • Visit the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum at Kent Ridge which features Southeast Asian plants and animals. The Phylogenetic Garden is among the gardens surrounding the museum which is open to the public without an entry ticket to the museum which is open 10am to 7pm.

3. Socialising without food
Spending time with your friends and family without it involving food in Singapore is a tall order. But there are a few things which can bring you and your friends and/or family together:

  • Kranji Countryside Farmers Market just had its quarterly farm festival on 30 and 31 May 2015. But if you missed it, there’s the fortnightly farmer’s market at The Pantry at Loewen Gardens on the first and third Saturday of the month.
  • Original craft and designs are part of the showcase at the Maker Faire which is held in Tampines on the weekend of 11-12 July 2015.
  • Enjoy the music over a beer with friends and family at the Beer Festival from 25 to 28 June 2015.
  • Visit the four new arrivals from Australia at the Zoo and get a 50% discount on a River Safari ticket when you pay for your entry ticket to see the koalas at the Singapore Zoo.

7 Ways to Manage Your Stress

Burnout in the city

  • Do you get to work, but not feel like working (or doing anything)?
  • Have lots to do, but feel way too tired to tackle any of it?
  • Having difficulty concentrating or focusing on the task at hand?
  • Feeling disillusioned or being cynical at work?
  • Find yourself being more critical or irritable with others at work?

Did you answer yes to the questions?

There are inevitably days when we’re not motivated at all to be productive. We get to work but leave the tasks that need doing for “later”. Or we get started but take ages doing the stuff that needs to be done.

There are definitely work days when we’re too tired to be our efficient and productive model selves. Possibly from staying up late or waking too early. Or both. And we dose ourselves with (more) caffeine to keep going.

But having a feeling of being fatigued and unmotivated about work more than just occasionally is something to sit up and pay attention to. Feeling overwhelmeddisillusioned, and/or cynical at work are also warning signs of job burnout. Being less able to see things from the perspective of others at work (when you usually do) should also set off an alarm bell or two.

For those feeling the effects of burnout, it may be time to speak to HR or a professional counsellor. Doing a self-assessment may also be a step in the right direction:

  • Test yourself here.
  • Find out if you’re experiencing job burnout here.
  • Analyze why you may be experiencing stress at your workplace here.

For those of us who think our insipid days at the office occur as frequently as solar eclipses, we might still want to pay attention to how we deal with stress at work and home. Here’s how we can improve our ranking as a happy nation:

1. Carve out undisturbed time for work
A substantial number among the 292 local senior managers and business owners polled in an international 2015 workplace survey, said that they were most productive before 9am. It’s not that we need to shift our work hours. Rather, we need to carve out a block of time for work that’s not disturbed by emails and distracting conversations.

2. Put an embargo on emails
Checking your email later in the day allows you to take advantage of chunking. It’s more efficient to reply to a batch of urgent emails than to reply to every email as it comes in. It also has improves your mental wellbeing. A 2014 study found that those who checked their inbox only 3 times a day felt less stressed than their peers who had no limit on the number of times they could check their inbox a day.

3. Get the optimal amount of sleep
Employees in sleep-deprived Singapore usually say they need more sleep. So it might come as a surprise that there’s actually an optimal amount of sleep we should get, if we’re to maintain our mental and physical well-being.

The US National Sleep Foundation’s 2015 report recommends 7 to 9 hours of sleep for working adults. A 2014 study which followed 3,760 adults in Finland for an average of 7 years, found that the optimal amount of sleep was 7 to 8 hours a night. Those who slept over 10 hours a night were just as likely to be absent from work due to sickness as those who slept less than 5 hours a night.

If you’re not getting the right amount of sleep, it may be time to review your sleep habits: “Do you have a regular sleep schedule? Do you have a bedtime routine? Do you make sleep a priority?” Get more tips here.

But it may be that your sleepless nights relate to work-life balance. A 2015 study found that employees increased their sleep by one hour a week and were more efficient in getting to sleep after participating in a 3-month programme designed to train managers and employees how to better manage work-family conflicts. You might not have access to such a training programme, but work-family concerns are issues worth reviewing. If only just to get more sleep and improve your mood. Small things like that.

4. Get happy by napping 
So okay, it’s not realistic to expect that everyone will get their much needed 7 to 8 hours of sleep every night. Once every other week, you’ll mess up your routine with too much caffeine, partying too hard, overworking, getting tired and cranky infants to bed, looking after sick pets, and many other reasons too innumerable to list.

That’s when you should plan to invest in a good quality nap. A 2015 study showed that 2 half-hour naps reversed the adverse effects of having only 2 hours of sleep on our stress response and immune system. Here’s a cheat sheet to help you get started.

5. Walk around the problem
It’s easier to sleep when you exercise. That’s not new. Neither is the news that people with depression in their 20s tend not to engage in physical activities. What’s new is the finding that those who exercise more as they age are less likely to be depressed. That’s what was found by a 2014 study which followed 11,135 adults until the age of 50.

Similarly, another 2014 study finds that those who go for group nature walks report better mental well-being and less stress. This may be explained by a 2014 finding: Recent research suggests that exercise plays a protective role in shielding our brain from the adverse effects of chronic stress — depression (read this article to understand the science behind this mechanism). So, it may be time you explored a nature park near you. Try something new: Springleaf Nature Park or Kranji Wetlands.

6. Go nuts on fruits and veggies
You’ll have better mental health if you eat more fruits and veggies. That’s what a 2014 study on 14,000 respondents in England found. The majority of those who reported high levels of “optimism, happiness, self-esteem, resilience, and good relationships” said that they ate 3 or more servings of fruits and vegetables daily, with over half of them eating 5 or more servings daily.

It may be that those with high mental well-being tend to have healthy lifestyle habits. But if you’re mental well-being scores are low (find out here), you might want to ask yourself, how many portions of fruits and veggies am I eating every day?

7. Comfort yourself but not with high-fat foods
Research suggests that a high-fat diet can adversely affect our mental health. Animal studies link gut bacteria from a high-fat diet to an increase in anxiety behaviours, while studies on humans find that taking prebiotics and probiotics improves our stress response to threatening stimuli. What this means is that having good gut bacteria could potentially help alleviate anxiety symptoms. And eating less saturated fat and more fruits and veggies will encourage good bacteria to make a home in our gut.

We may not know if we’re the ones who suffer the most from stress (we do actually — those with a more variable heart rate will suffer more from stress, says a 2014 study — but it’s not easy for the average consumer to measure their heart rate variability). But at least we know a few things we can do to change it.

Chew the fact (s)

Back View of Man Running on Stairs
“Chew the fat” is an eatery in the newly hip district, Everton Park. It’s only a 20-min bus ride or 15-min walk from the office. In spite of the lure of a much needed espresso or latte, waffles with maple syrup, traditional ang ku kueh, delectable polish dumplings, and food court prawn mee, it’s much too far in this heat and 84% humidity to walk to for a CBD lunch.

Although these are certainly things which would keep us happy. Social conversation over coffee and cake. A sugar high from ice cream to get us through our post-prandial afternoon lull. A nice walk through the restful Pinnacle courtyard en route to Neil Road. But these aren’t always quite enough to get us through a stressful week at the office. Even though we know the psychological (and physical) benefits of exercise.

We might not be ready for a 50km run for 50 days: But if you’re in the pret-a-ultrathon mode, look here for how to join this SG50 celebration. But for the rest of us trying to get into a fitness regime, here are some new ideas to chew on:

1. Believe in yourself
It’s one thing to know that you should exercise (or start exercising). And it’s another to get started. Especially if you’re self-conscious about your shape or size (read this article). Getting professional help in order to work on issues such as self-esteem, rumination habits, having negative and/or irrational thoughts can do much to help those in such a quandary.

2. Enhance your workout with music
A recent study found that those who listened to music of their choice exercised much harder during a high-intensity work-out than those who had no music to listen to while working out. Put on your exercise shoes and load up your favourite playlist. Music, maestro!

3. Start with small steps
It’s easier when you start with small goals. Instead of aiming to do the whole 5 floors up to your office, you can take the lift up to your office but walk down from your office every day. Or you can get an app (or two) which helps you squeeze in a brief exercise session every day — 5 minutes only. Another prospective study published recently found that those who ran for just 5 to 10 minutes a day were likely to live as long as those who fulfilled the usual 150-min-a-week physical activity requirements. So, exercising for just 5 minutes a day can have huge benefits to your health.

4. Professional counselling
Consider coaching or counselling to help you deal with the stress of trying to get fitter. Weight loss isn’t a walk in the park. It’s often an uphill battle that just gets harder the more we try. And trying to exercise can increase your stress hormones, leaving you feeling stressed about getting fit, says a 2014 study. Ways to manage the stress more effectively can be brought about with one-to-one coaching and through professional counselling sessions.

5. When did you last have fun?
Thinking about a positive exercise experience can be just the thing you need to help you keep at it. A 2014 study found that those who were asked to recall a positive exercise experience were more likely to exercise in the subsequent week than those asked to recall a negative one. Think of a time when you had fun to set yourself up for success (instead of failure).

6. Try paying yourself to exercise
Ever wanted to reward yourself for exercising? Well, there’s an app that does that. This new app PACT pays you to stick to your fitness regime. It’s because we’re motivated by concrete incentives. Try it out!

7. Four wheels good. Two wheels better.
A 2014 study found that those who cycled to work were happier than other commuters. It’s no wonder given the commuting traffic we confront every day. It might be that cyclists have the opportunity to focus on things which provide a therapeutic break from stressful thoughts about work. And being in a green environment makes us feel better. Whatever it is, try cycling to reduce your stress.

8. Hitting the sweet spot
Once you’re having fun, you can always have more fun! Although squeezing in 5 minutes of exercise a day is a great start, you’ll want to do more once you enjoy it. Recent research involving an overwhelming large number of participants through national databases indicates that going beyond the minimum requirement (150 minutes a week of physical activity) has long-term benefits to our physical health. Here’s that research explained.

And think about what that does for your mood and mental well-being! Chew on that (not just the fat)…

Ways to promote healthy lifestyles at the workplace

Someone in HR usually has the good fortune of having job of promoting a healthy lifestyle to the rest of the office. It may even fall on the shoulders of an interest group or a recreational activities committee. In other organizations, these brave souls have an official title – the workplace health committee.

But whatever their title, they will want to impress upon others the merits of eating more fruits and veggies. They will want to persuade their colleagues to switch from polished to unpolished rice. And they will aim to get everyone to chalk up 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity physical activity a week. They will cheer them all to get an annual basic health screen and goad others into the lecture theatre to learn more how they can manage their stress.

There are of course national campaigns with prizes to help these fortunate employees with their cause. And there are resources to fund workplace health endeavors. But the path to slow food and an active lifestyle is often paved with good intentions. With many a detour to the fast food restaurant and a back alley shortcut to chilli crab, Hokkien mee, and char kway teow. So, they could probably always do with more help.

Here are some lessons to be learnt from consumer research:

1. Some things are best seen in black and white
Some messages are best presented in monochrome. A 2015 study found that participants made more rational decisions when information was presented using black-and-white images than colour. In fact, researchers suggest that monochrome could be useful for situations concerning a distant future. Promoting a healthy lifestyle for the benefit of the family or a healthy retirement, may be best made in black-and-white, not in colour.

2. Don’t shortchange your employees when serving healthy food
We’re likely to enjoy the food more if we pay more for it, according to a 2014 study. Customers who participated in the study rated the food to be more enjoyable when they paid $8 for a all-you-can-eat high quality buffet in upstate New York than when they paid $4 for it. Those who paid less were more likely to say that they had overeaten, to feel guilty about the meal, and to say that they liked the meal less and less in the course of the meal. So don’t undercharge your employees for good quality healthy meals at the staff canteen.

3. Help us make good decisions with fewer choices
Having too many choices can lead to poor decision making. A 2015 study shows that participants don’t make optimal choices when they have to consider all 16 options together. Rather, they make better decisions when they use a strategy called sequential tournament, where they pick one of four options, until they make a final choice from the preliminary selections. Giving fewer options (and dietary information) at the canteen can help employees make healthier food choices.

4. Lighting affects our eating experience
We appear to experience emotions with more intensity on sunny days compared to overcast days. That we perceive food to taste more spicy and judge others to be more attractive when these are presented in bright light, are among the findings of this recent study. It seems that emotional messages are best received in bright lighting, whereas rational decisions may be better done with subdued lighting. That means it may be a good idea to turn up the lights for healthy lifestyle posters in the lift and lobby, and turn down the lights at the office canteen.

5. When to use questions and when to use statements?
Participants in a recent study responded more positively to ads with statements when they were in a state of higher excitement, but preferred ads phrased as a question when they were in a lower state of excitement. In the study, respondents were listening to music that was either stimulating or calming. It seems that when we’ve got a lot to process, we prefer to be told what to do; when we’re not so preoccupied, being asked a question will pique our interest. So poster campaigns in a busy lunch canteen will fare better as statements, whereas poster campaigns in a boring corner of the office may be better received as questions?

Just some food for thought.

Are you eating to live? Or living to eat?

Raspberry Pancakes

Eating is one of our national hobbies. So says the Rough Guide. It has to be true.

This guide in the Guardian introduces our top 10 street foods. Wonder how many UK tourists would come to Singapore just for chilli crab. Or does the guide aim to make homesick Singaporean undergrads dream about char kway teow?

There are over 250 local food blogs and a food blog to compile all food blogs. The handmade coffee hipster cafe scene is ‘shrooming pretty much one new cafe every other month. We have more than a few apps dedicated to food locations and reviews.

There’s a food festival pretty much all the time. There are two food fairs coming up: the Food and Beverage Fair 2015 on 19 to 22 March and Savour on 26 to 29 March 2015. As if there wasn’t enough lo hei and pineapple tarts at the recent Lunar New Year celebrations to nudge your BMI to the next level. And if you wait a bit longer, there’s the Singapore Food Festival from 10 to 19 July 2015 and the World Food Fair from 10 to 13 September 2015. And between Oktoberfest and log cakes at the year end, there’s the Asia Pacific Food Expo 2015.

It’s pretty clear that we love our food.

In fact, getting us to reduce our risk of colorectal cancer by eating less bacon, canned sausages, ham, spam, corned beef, and salted fish (more about that here) will be a walk in the park. Compared to getting us to eat less. That’s an uphill task. But a task that the Health Promotion Board (HPB) has to accomplish all the same. They’re going all out to help us get with the healthy programme. They have a National Healthy Lifestyle campaign, a Scratch and Win contest for drinks ordered siew dai (with less sugar), and even exciting prizes for worthy individuals able to shed 3 kg on HPB’s Million kg Challenge.

Recent research however does have things to say about how we can help ourselves stay on track with our food choices, portion sizes, and BMIs. Here are some ways to tip the scales in the right direction:

1. Drink water before your meal
Drinking water before a meal can be the key to sticking to a meal plan or portion size. A 2010 study showed that drinking 2 cups of water before a meal resulted in individuals losing 4.5 pounds more on average than the control group.

But water may not be for everyone. A recent randomized trial showed that consuming diet drinks produced more weight loss than consuming water. Those who drank water while following a 12 week weight management programme lost on average 9 pounds, while those who drank diet drinks on the same programme lost 13 pounds.

But before you start your water parade, know that drinking water without an accompanying plan to eat a healthy portion of veggies and fruits isn’t going to get you very far. Not convinced? Read this article.

2. Manage your stress
Are all calories equal? Not quite. As it turns out, it’s easier to lose weight by cutting down on carbs than fat. But cake, ice cream, and cupcakes are the things we crave when we’re feeling stressed. So it’s important to manage your stress (and to read our earlier blog on stress management and emotional eating).

3. Don’t snack with your favourite TV programme 
A 2014 study found that viewers ate more M&Ms, cookies, grapes, and carrots while watching the film, The Island, on TV than when watching an interview programme. Apparently, we eat more when we’re distracted. So watch your K dramas without the snacks. Or swap out the cookies for apples and pears to save on unnecessary calories.

4. Focus on the fun stuff and lose weight
If you think “exercise”, you may find yourself eating more than you should later on. But think that you’re having fun, and you’ll won’t. Just getting people to think that they were going on a scenic walk rather than an exercise walk made them eat fewer M&Ms after the walk. Thinking that you’ve “exercised” may lead you to consume more calories than if you weren’t so focused on the fact that you were exercising. Instead, concentrate on having a fun experience (read our earlier blog post about having fun)!

5. Get the right kind of social support
When our family and friends provide reassuring comments about our size, we’re likely to maintain our weight or even lose weight. When they don’t, we put on weight. That’s what a 2014 study of women participants found. Pressure to lose weight from concerned friends and family, didn’t bring about the desired effect. In fact, it did the opposite. Participants put on weight, even when they weren’t concerned about their size to start with. So don’t let your loved ones nag you. Instead, get them to support your healthy food choices.

6. Assess your hunger before the meal
It appears that we’re less likely to stick to our health goals when we’re dining with someone who has an unhealthy BMI. In a recent study, participants ate more pasta when dining with someone wearing a prosthesis (adding 50 pounds to his/her weight). It didn’t matter whether that person ate more salad or pasta. But if that person did have more salad, participants themselves ate less salad! It turns out that it’s important to decide on our meal choices and portion size before the meal so that we’re not distracted into eating more food than what we would otherwise consume.

7. Choose wisely from the menu
It turns out that we tend to order anything on the menu that attracts our attention. Menu items in a different colour font, bold and italics, probably set apart in a box, are precisely what we’ll order. They’re likely to be the tastiest thing on the menu. But you need to ask yourself if it’s healthy choice…

8. Don’t automatically finish everything on your plate
On average, children only finish almost 60% of what’s on their plate. In contrast, adults typically finish over 90% of what’s on their plate, according to recent study published in the International Journal of Obesity. Researchers of this study suggest that children eat according to how full they feel and whether they like the foods on their plate. It appears that we, on the other hand, eat whatever we’ve put on our plate. We may therefore need to be wise about how much food we pile on our plate!

9. Distract yourself at night
recent study of participants on a weight management programme found that people were most tempted to cheat at night and when there were other people around. When you have those late night cravings, try meditation or relaxation techniques. Getting into the routine of regular physical activity could also reduce food cravings (here’s why).