Saturday, January 18, 2014

Why Employee Wellness Works: The Link to Anti-Aging and Health Promotion

In the early days of health promotion, many recommendations (including those in employee wellness programs) grew from years of simply watching people and noticing links between lifestyle and what ultimately made them sick. Observation showed that those who smoked, abused alcohol, didn't exercise, and ate mostly junk food often suffered from illnesses, such as heart disease, strokes, cancers, and diabetes. People who exercised, ate lots of fruits, veggies, grains, and lean meats, and managed life stresses tended to live longer and experienced fewer diseases or conditions associated with old age.

What wasn't known (then) was why this was true; there were theories but surprisingly little hard science. As a result, many people, including some in the medical profession, were slow to embrace employee wellness programs and recommendations.

The Mystery Revealed

As time went by, skepticism waned. Scientific research began proving what those in the employee wellness industry knew intuitively: lifestyle choices have impact... huge impact. Anti-aging medicine is one of the resulting specialized fields -- a relative newcomer focused on any activity that slows, prevents, or even reverses aging.

Who hasn't attended a high school reunion and been surrounded by classmates -- all the same age, yet some look old enough to be their friends' parents. Others seem to have barely aged since graduation. How can people age so differently? That question lies at the heart of this research.

To understand "anti"-aging, it's necessary to understand aging. Obviously, it can be defined in terms of growing older, when abilities begin to decline and battles with disease and poor health become more common. How quickly (or slowly) those changes occur depends on a combination of genes, environment, and lifestyle. Anti-aging medicine seeks to modify these factors in our favor.

Hormones as Defense

Among the most potent weapons in today's anti-aging arsenal are hormones. Basically, they're chemicals released by cells in one part of the body that affect what cells do in other parts of the body. Cells responding to a hormone's "message" do so because they produce a specific molecule (or receptor) on their surface. Think of these "receptors" as a lock on the cell door. Only the right hormone has the key to unlock the door and deliver its message. All other hormones will be rejected by the cell. There are a great many hormones -- and each has a different message to deliver.

It's generally believed that hormone levels decrease with age. Insufficient quantities of a hormone mean target cells don't receive instructions to do their jobs. This leads to disease and premature aging.

The question now being asked is how much does lifestyle affect the extent of this hormone decline? We do know that when an aging body's hormones are brought back to more youthful levels, there is a powerful rejuvenating effect. The person feels, acts, and looks younger.

While these potent (and often expensive) hormones can be replaced artificially by an appropriately certified physician, that is not the purpose of this article. Instead, let's focus on how to naturally increase production of important hormones through the healthier lifestyles advocated in a typical employee wellness program.

Increasing Hormones Naturally

One of the most important hormones is Human Growth Hormone (HGH). Originally known for helping children grow tall, for many years it was thought that HGH had no real benefits to fully grown humans. However, anti-aging research reveals that maintaining youthful HGH levels does have proven benefits for aging adults:

    Healthier and younger looking skin
    Faster healing and reduced infections after injury or surgery
    Decreased total body fat
    Increased lean muscle mass and bone mineral density
    Improved cholesterol blood levels
    Enhanced libido
    More stamina and endurance during exercise
    Quicker recovery time between workouts
    Better mood, coping skills, and overall well-being
    Higher energy levels.

Other hormones support HGH in slowing the aging process. Some additional benefits of this hormone team are to enhance brain function, reduce risks for cardiovascular disease, and improve immunity.

Look again at the above list. When people complain about the more common negative signs of aging, the symptoms they often describe are the symptoms of low levels of HGH and supporting hormones. Logically, raising these hormones should help improve signs of early aging.

While many lifestyle issues fall under the umbrella of wellness, most worksite health promotion professionals agree physical activity, avoiding tobacco and other risky substances, stress management, proper nutrition, and maintaining an ideal weight are basic components of any employee wellness program.

Here's where it gets exciting. Look at the impact these lifestyle choices have on HGH levels:

    Fitness -- regular aerobic and anaerobic activity stimulates HGH production
    Smoking, drug abuse, and overuse of alcohol -- slow HGH production
    High-quality nutritious foods and not overeating -- enhance HGH production
    Stress -- chronic unrelieved stress slows HGH production
    Sleep -- sufficient good sleep encourages HGH production
    Obesity -- slows HGH production; when HGH levels are raised, weight loss efforts are more successful.

Get the picture? Healthy lifestyles help keep HGH levels up and poor lifestyles decrease HGH levels. By adopting positive behaviors that help the body produce ideal amounts of HGH on its own, we can slow the aging process. Imagine sharing that message with employees who think they've heard it all in corporate wellness programs.

Health Ahead

But employee wellness programs shouldn't stop there. Once employee wellness audiences have a plan for staying healthy and vital, help them explore what they will do with those vibrant golden years. Studies of healthy, happy seniors show a direct link between positive attitudes and aging. Some examples:

    Don't obsess over the little things
    Laugh off the occasional "senior moment"
    Don't allow regrets to rule your life
    Learn from mistakes if you can, but ultimately, just move on
    Preserve a youthful sense of curiosity and wonder and you can preserve your youth as well.

Life is about growing and changing. We should spend our lives having the time of our lives.

Dean Witherspoon, CEO and founder of wellness firm, Health Enhancement Systems, has 25 years in employee wellness promotion. He has served on the board of the Association for Worksite Health Promotion and held several regional as well as state offices. Dean is a nationally known speaker and author, having presented at more than 70 conferences and written hundreds of employee wellness articles for national publications.

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