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Get well soon

By Nikki Mandow

Saturday 1st March 2003

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Penny Wood is in her 40s, head of an executive leadership development consultancy business, and busy. Six years ago she took stock of her life, realised she lacked energy and decided (not for the first time) she needed a healthier lifestyle. There was a problem. She'd tried a fitness regime before but hadn't kept it up. "I saw exercise as an added extra into my day, so I never had time for it. I couldn't see how I could fit it in without adding stress." An obvious answer would be the sort of personal trainer who kept at you to make sure you reached your goals. But Wood isn't a sporty person, hates that "pumping weights, loud music, sweaty bodies gym stuff". Besides, she reckoned she needed a programme involving diet, relaxation and stress management as well as just exercise.

A possible solution, Wood learnt from a friend, was "wellness coaching" or its company equivalent "corporate wellness". Employing someone to evaluate your health, set a programme to improve it, and keep you to that programme. A cross between a nurse, a personal trainer and your mother.

Wellness coaching is pretty new in New Zealand, but it's been around for a while in the US and even Australia. A quick Google search will find you dozens of Kellys, Lynns and Cheryls ready to "optimise your wellness" and "heal your energy". Corporate wellness companies will evaluate employees, set individual programmes, run seminars on anything from heart problems to stress management, or give advice on how eating patterns can affect performance.

To her surprise, Wood found it worked. She chose Karen Beard from The Body Corporate in Auckland, worked out a regime of daily walks, weekly yoga, sensible eating, a bit of natural medication and relaxation. For three years, she went to Beard twice a week to make sure she stuck to the regime.

For example, the answer to the exercise problem was simple, Wood says. "Instead of getting onto my computer first thing, I'd go for a walk. I found I functioned better. I could achieve the same result from my day, even though I'd lost half an hour. We talked about diet, she tested my heart rate and did regular assessments. She showed me I had to be consciously thinking about my health and planning each day. Most importantly, I found out what worked for me rather than just rushing off and doing what everyone else was doing."

Substitute teacher

Too poor, busy or self-conscious to have your own wellness coach? Here, according to The Body Corporate's Karen Beard, are 10 things your coach would be badgering you about if you had one. Nag thyself.

1. How effectively am I working? You might need to work long hours, but by taking a bit of time out each day to do "some wellness stuff" - meditation, yoga, therapeutic massage, a walk - you could be working more effectively, Beard says.

2. Am I taking breaks? Don't have breakfast in your car or eat at your computer. Overseas studies show you don't digest food properly if you are concentrating on other things. Which means once you stop eating, instead of your energy being available for thinking, it's still busy digesting. Post-lunch lethargy, anyone?

3. Am I eating right? Most people don't eat enough protein, Beard says. Unlike carbohydrates and sugars that give you a short energy boost and then a deficit (great if you need to run from that predator but not so useful for sustained thinking), proteins give you sustained energy. And it doesn't have to mean steak for breakfast. Try eggs on toast or baked beans. Later, snack on tinned tuna, some cottage cheese or even a protein bar. For most people in sedentary jobs, carbohydrates make up 80% of their food intake. It should be nearer 30%, Beard says.

4. Am I sleeping well? Don't eat carbohydrates in the evening - it's that energy boost again, just when you want to be calming down. Have a good quality protein dinner with lots of vegetables. Don't exercise just before bed; it mucks up your metabolism. And keep the television out of the bedroom. You should be winding down before bed and (despite what you think about some New Zealand television) it's a stimulant. If nothing works, try meditation.

5. How can I fit exercise in? The secret is to cut corners. Think of it as simply trying to get at least one hour of movement into each day. Walk to your meeting, or park further away and walk the last bit. Don't always go to the sandwich bar next door for lunch. Make exercise enjoyable - walk along the waterfront with a friend before going for coffee.

6. Am I stressed? Coping with stress can be as simple as taking time out to do stuff for yourself, getting some exercise or spending more time with family. Get advice about whether vitamin or mineral supplements might help, and which ones. Use Prozac as a last resort, and never as a way of dealing with any underlying problems.

7. Am I a sitting duck? Over 50% of New Zealanders are over their ideal body weight, leading to potential high blood pressure, cardiovascular problems, diabetes and more. Then there's smoking, drinking and so on. Think about your risk profile.

8. Am I heading for divorce? People are working longer and taking on more work than it's possible to do, Beard says. "They get into the trap of saying 'I'll spend time on my relationships when I finish working harder to get myself out of this hole' but it never happens. Delegate at work, then find strategies to see your partner and family. Some people make a date each week to meet up and go out, so they actually get around to it."

9. Is business travel ruining my life? Make time at the end of business trips for your personal life. Do you really need to go straight into the office from the airport? If you get back late at night, take the next morning off . While you are away, try to avoid scheduling back-to-back meetings. Take time during the day for meals, a walk or even a yoga class.

10. Can I cope? Stress isn't always due to negative things. Getting married or starting a new job can be stressful, particularly if several things are happening at once. When dealing with stress or trauma, remember to keep the basic wellness stuff going - don't drop proper eating, exercise or relaxation. If they are beneficial when you aren't facing something difficult, they are infinitely more so when you are.

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