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‘Cabin Fever’ May Nudge Us to Suck at Something New

The COVID-19 pandemic poses many challenges, such as staying away from our work environment and being quarantined at home. For each of us, finding safe approaches to procure the necessities at the grocery store or the pharmacy can prove to be an uphill battle. Remotely navigating through job-related commitments also requires mental gymnastics. Unfortunately, others have been furloughed or no longer have jobs due to the limitation of travel and social distancing required for retail interactions. With these challenges, we search for ways to stay healthy – physically, emotionally, and hopefully, intellectually.

Given this short-term reality, I would like to share the following experience that has allowed me to cope with this new upside-down life. It can be challenging to stay both active and positive, especially while being indoors and practicing responsible social distancing.

Biking Outside – Prior to COVID-19

Early in the morning during the Spring, Summer and early Fall, I cycle between 22 to 30 miles each outing. Depending on the time the sun rises, my desire is to beat the traffic on the streets and impressive bike paths found in central Iowa.

For me, cycling in the morning is a sacred experience. This non-interrupted time allows me to plan out the day and hopefully solve problems – usually ‘marinating’ the facts that I know (or should know). Nature, it seems, serves as my inexpensive ‘office.’ Yes, cycling is a form of exercise, but really, it is about lubricating my mental well-being! My preference is to be on my own schedule. Because of this, I ride alone, pedaling as hard as I wish (or can!). I also must admit that I hate crowds!

But as we know, during the winter months, Iowa can be a challenging place to ride a bike. When it’s time to put away the bike, I will spend more time on the elliptical or walk outside. Running is no longer an option due to back issues.

Indoor Bike Trainers

This winter, two friends mentioned to me separately that I should consider purchasing a bike trainer that replaces my bike’s back wheel allowing me to bike indoors during the winter months. I did so in mid-January. And because of the COVID-19 challenges, I am so happy I did!

The equipment setup is actually quite simple:

  • Remove the rear wheel of the bike, attach the ‘smart’ bike trainer to the bike and chain.
  • Connect your bike trainer (via Bluetooth) to an indoor cycling software app which is loaded onto your preferred laptop, iPad or a smart TV. The software will simulate an assortment of road events around the world that a rider can choose while riding with local and international cyclists.
  • Put an appropriate table in front of your bike for your laptop, water bottle(s), etc.
  • Place a mat under the bike to catch your perspiration – the rides can be intense!
  • Have a fan to stay cool – it’s really a must!

One can choose to enter a ‘virtual’ race with others, or simply take a leisurely ride in New York’s Central Park or some other designated location around the world (found on the software app). The app that I use, Zwift, does a great job providing me with vital workout statistics, such as miles ridden, ride time, level of pedaling, and a host of other data.

The ‘Community’ Experience

With other ‘virtual’ riders before the beginning of a race.

Even though I am riding alone in my basement, I pedal with hundreds (and thousands) of other cycling enthusiasts who happen to be biking at the same time – regardless of where they live around the world. Riders can communicate with each other by using their phone app that allow for encouraging comments or by using a ‘thumbs up’ button on the app.  This sense of connection with others can be as much as you want it to be. Given the COVID-19 pandemic, one can still ride with others and yet maintain their social distance!

I share this experience because it does provide a sense of ‘community’ with others who desire to stay active and yearn to have some form of ‘safe’ interaction with the outside world. Since Americans and others around the world have been quarantined the past few weeks, the number of people biking on Zwift (and other apps) has significantly increased.

For me, this new exercise experience has been an excellent opportunity to release the tension that comes from the uncertainty of the stress and anxiety-filled COVID-19 environment. Truth be known, I’ve learned that my biking skills are not as accomplished as I once thought. There are many wickedly-good athletic individuals who can, through great endurance, pedal circles around this bike rider – regardless of age and gender! Put another way, virtual biking can potentially humble one’s self-perception of his/her cycling abilities.

During this period of virtual cycling, I have quickly learned that it’s ok to suck at something new…and actually feel good about it!

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Finally, working from home can have unintentional negative side effects, as I indicated in a 2018 blog.  To help combat some drawbacks, the Healthiest State Initiative has a nice site for those who wish to stay healthy and active while working from home.

Here’s to your continued health and safety!

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Top 15 Non-Insurance Benefits Employees Desire

Top 15 Non-Insurance Benefits Desired by EmployeesThe Iowa Healthiest State Initiative’s (HSI) vision is to become the healthiest state in the nation. In 2017, based on separate national indexes that provide different measures, Iowa is ranked #15 by the America Health’s Rankings®, and #21 by the Gallup-Healthways Well-Being Index®. The pursuit of this vision is both difficult and no doubt never-ending, but well worth the effort.

According to benefits provider, Unum, who recently surveyed 1,227 working adults in the U.S., the most coveted employee benefits is time spent away from the office. When presenting survey participants with 15 perks that are non-insurance and retirement related, participants were asked to choose their top five options. Ranked by popularity, the results are:

  1. Paid Family Leave* – 58%
  2. Flexible/remote work options* – 55%
  3. Professional development* – 39%
  4. Sabbatical leave* – 38%
  5. Gym membership or onsite fitness center* – 36%
  6. Student loan repayment – 35%
  7. Onsite healthy snacks* – 28%
  8. ID theft prevention – 28%
  9. Financial planning resources – 27%
  10. Fitness goals incentives* – 18%
  11. Public transit assistance – 16%
  12. Pet insurance – 15%
  13. Pet friendly offices – 15%
  14. Health coaching* – 14%
  15. Dedicated volunteer hours* – 12%

Many of the above benefits that employees appear to value, particularly those with an asterisk (*) beside them, fit nicely with the mission as outlined by HSI:

Improving the physical, social and emotional well-being of Iowans.

As the labor market continues to tighten in Iowa and around the country, employers are constantly looking for meaningful ways to attract (and retain) qualified employees. Accordingly, I’m planning to include some of these miscellaneous (but highly-valued benefits) in the 2019 Iowa Employer Benefits Study©.  Specifically, we wish to poll employers on whether they offer various paid and unpaid leave benefits, work/life benefits, wellness and other general perks. Largely dependent on the robustness of any given employment marketplace, the availability of employee benefits tend to be more localized.

Additionally, HSI’s mission and goals fit nicely with the workplace culture that Iowa employers must continue to assess. If employers are expecting to attract and retain healthy and productive employees, there is no time like the present to begin aligning the interests and desires of their employees with the overall benefits package they provide.

The culture of any organization is very often reflective of the benefits and compensation provided to its employees. Appropriately aligning this desired culture with workplace benefits will continue to distinguish forward-thinking employers.

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Hey Iowa, Nice Job Being a ‘Least-Stressed’ State!

More and more often, other states are catching on to the great things we have going on in the Hawkeye State1! Our state and communities continue to receive many national accolades from various publications, many of which are quite flattering, such as:

A recent national benchmark ranking, coming from WalletHub, suggests that Iowa is the fourth LEAST-stressed state when compared to all other states (including the District of Columbia). Iowa’s placement follows only (in order), Minnesota, North Dakota and Utah. For comparison purposes, Iowa was the third least-stressed state in 2017 (Minnesota and North Dakota were No. #1 and No. #2, respectively). There appears to be something magical about the upper Midwest.

To determine the rankings, WalletHub compared the 50 states (and D.C.) across four dimensions (and 38 relevant metrics). The four dimensions were:

  1. Work-related stress (7 metrics)
  2. Money-related stress (10 metrics)
  3. Family-related stress (6 metrics)
  4. Health- & safety-related stress (15 metrics)

As we know, stress is related to both external and internal factors that affect each of us. Sometimes we are unaware of how stress can impact our health. External factors may include our job, relationships with others, our home, other physical environmental situations, challenges, difficulties, and expectations we are confronted with on a daily basis. How we respond to, and deal with, the external stress-inducing factors affects our nutritional status, emotional well-being, overall health and fitness levels, and the amount of sleep we get. Each of us deal with stress differently, but if we are not careful, it can wreak havoc on our personal (and professional) lives.

For each of the four dimensions mentioned above, the state of Iowa ranked as having the 16th least work-related stress, sixth least money-related stress, fifth least family-related stress, and third least health- & safety-related stress. Metrics that relate to the work-related dimension, the lowest scoring of the four dimensions, include:

  • Average hours worked per week
  • Average commute time
  • Average leisure time spent per day
  • Job security
  • Unemployment rate
  • Underemployment rate
  • Income growth rate

The economy can have a big influence on this particular dimension. Iowa has a very low unemployment rate (2.9% in 2017), a factor that causes employers to struggle with finding qualified workers in jobs difficult to fill. According to the Iowa Workforce Development, the weekly wage increase in 2016 was below two percent (2017 data will be available very soon), showing that wages are depressed.

Iowa Healthiest State Initiative

To help Iowa avoid resting on its’ laurels, a wonderful ‘movement’ occurring in Iowa is the Iowa Healthiest State Initiative (HSI). Executive Director Jami Haberl, and her team are working to make a meaningful difference in how Iowa communities and employers can improve the daily lives of how we live, work and play. One HSI approach attempts to address the stresses we face in our environments, and will annually monitor this stress through our resiliency. Resiliency is an often-used term that describes the ability to overcome challenges of all kinds – such as trauma, tragedy, personal crises, everyday problems – and our ability to bounce back stronger, wiser and healthier. If you are not aware of the HSI resources, please check them out here.

Receiving national accolades are wonderful, but these don’t just happen out of sheer luck. It takes hard (and smart!) work and perseverance, coupled with the belief that implementing new initiatives and approaches to positively impact our communities and those living in it will be best for all of Iowa. 

As the saying goes, “Prepare and prevent, not repair and repent.”

Let’s keep it up, Iowa!

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1Sorry Cyclone fans, but the official state nickname for Iowa is ‘The Hawkeye State.’  Honestly, I’m trying to be as impartial as possible!