PERSON OF THE WEEK: During the rise and fall of the subprime market, Jason Cholewa worked as a loan officer for several mortgage banking companies, including Ascella, MortgageOpia and Countrywide. Needless to say, it was a very stressful time to be a loan officer – perhaps too stressful, as Cholewa left the industry to focus his career on promoting health and wellness.
Today, Cholewa runs his own personal training business – B.R. Physical Performance, located in Windsor, Conn. – and he is an adjunct professor of human biology at Springfield College in Springfield, Mass. However, he has not forgotten his former mortgage banking peers and the stress they face amid the continued turmoil in the real estate finance market. MortgageOrb spoke with Cholewa about how lenders and servicers can maintain their health in today's emotionally stressful professional environment.
Q: You worked as a loan officer during the turbulence of the subprime market. What kind of physical stress did that environment have on you, and how did you deal with it?
Cholewa: I can recall that one of the most unsettling times of my life was having several subprime loans in processing. As someone who needs to feel in control of his situation, this was a time when I felt helpless. There was so much that was out of my control. Would the title come back clear? Would the borrower try to take out more credit against instructions? Would they make payments up until the loan closed? That led to stress and anxiety.Â
There were nights I couldn't fall asleep, and there were nights I would wake up at 2:00 a.m. thinking about these issues. In fact, this stress had some pretty nasty effects on my mental health and physical well-being, and it manifested into increased cholesterol and hypertension.Â
I did not handle the stress well at the time. However, after years of research and new stress that I have from working on my Ph.D., I have found a few methods to be beneficial both in reducing stress and improving well-being. These methods have worked well for me and for my clients who hold demanding, high-profile positions. They are listed below, in no particular order:
Nightly meditation. Cortisol and adrenalin are the two major hormones involved in the fight-or-flight response to stress. They increase in the morning to liberate energy and increase heart rate to ‘wake us up,’ and then decrease in the evening to allow for sleep. Chronic elevation of these hormones is implicated in a number of negative health effects associated with stress, such as heart disease and body-fat redistribution.
Meditation has been shown to reduce mental stress and the physiological markers of stress (cortisol and adrenalin) in healthy men and women involved in high-stress jobs. The most studied version is the Integrated Amrita Meditation Technique, which consists of energizing exercises (yogic postures) for up to eight minutes, a brief period of relaxation for two minutes, and 13 minutes of meditation. Practicing this simple routine prior to bed every evening should increase sleep quality, energy during the day, and may even improve weight loss.
Exercise. It's pretty well accepted that regular physical exercise can reduce cognitive stress.Â Exercise releases endorphins that act on opioid receptors in the brain to reduce sensations of pain and anxiety, and increase sensations of euphoria. Further, higher-motor-skill activities (i.e., team sports, racquetball, agility training), the mind is occupied by the task at hand, thereby reducing thoughts associated with work.Â Â
Recently, it was found that regular physical activity was associated with lower stress-related psychological morbidity. Thus, exercise is especially important for people working demanding jobs. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends 150 minutes per week of moderate to vigorous physical activity. Thus, at least 30 minutes a day should be devoted to exercise.
l-Theanine supplementation. Theanine is an amino acid that is isolated from green tea.Â Theanine acts in the brain by blocking the binding of l-glutamate to receptors in the brain, thus yielding potentially anxiolytic effects (anti-anxiety). 200 mg of theanine on an empty stomach has been shown to reduce psychological and physical stress in healthy subjects – and when combined with 50 mg of caffeine (approximately a small coffee), it improves the performance of cognitively demanding tasks. My suggestion is to supplement with l-theanine and swap coffee consumption for green tea.
Q: The mortgage banking industry is still a very stressful place to work. What professional advice can you offer to mortgage banking companies so they can ensure that their employees do not succumb to occupational stress?
Cholewa: This is a great question, and it ties into a major issue in our society: sedentary lifestyles, obesity and disease. Expectations for healthcare coverage by employees seem to be increasing; however, both the employee and the company should be involved in promoting the health of the individual.
Exercise releases chemicals in the body that are essential for health – much like the multivitamin many take each morning. In my professional opinion (and that of many other exercise physiologists), exercise is perhaps the single greatest preventative medicine available. More so, exercise is relatively inexpensive (if not free) compared the treatments due to complications from a sedentary lifestyle.Â
So, we could go so far as to say that by promoting employee physical activity, companies may actually be able to ensure healthier employees who miss less work, have less doctor visits and ultimately save the company money. To add to benefits of corporate exercise plans, studies have shown that group exercise increases cohesion. Thus, providing employees with the opportunity to exercise in groups will enhance social bonding and team building, and should result in an increase in teamwork in the office.Â
A few easy ways to accomplish this are to partner with local health clubs that offer group exercise classes and provide simple incentives for employees who exercise together. Since the mortgage industry is competitive by nature, forming corporate teams to participate in sports (soccer, basketball, softball) is another simple way to promote group activity.
Q: Many mortgage bankers put in long hours in an office environment and may not have the time or ability to get in a regular gym workout. What exercises do you recommend for the desk jockeys who put in these long hours?
Cholewa: Sitting is horrible for your health. A large amount of time spent sitting is associated with the increased risk of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. In fact, spending six or more hours per day in a seated position significantly increases the risk for cardiovascular and non-cardiovascular related mortality.Â
So what can you do? There are a few simple measures you can take. First, don't stay sedentary for extended periods of time: breaking up sedentary time has positive effects on metabolic properties.
Simply put, walking for two minutes straight every 45 to 60 minutes will help to reduce waist size, body weight, plasma triglycerides and plasma glucose (i.e., reduce risk of diabetes).
Next, we know that tight hip flexors and weak core muscles can lead to lower-back pain. Stretching the hip flexors and strengthening the core musculature are vital to improving back health, and an integral part of the programs I design for clients with sedentary jobs. Simple lung-hip flexor stretches are effective at lengthening the hip flexors and reducing pain if performed consistently every evening. Each stretch should be held for 30 to 60 seconds, and sets of two to three should be performed.
Additionally, core-strengthening exercises that do involve hip flexion should be performed. The crux of these exercises are bridges (also known as planks).
Finally, because vigorous physical activity is associated with reduced risks of metabolic and cardiovascular disease associated with sitting, I highly suggest a structured resistance and cardiovascular training program. Two to three days a week of resistance training working all the major muscle groups using free weights will increase improvements in core strength, as well as increase bone mineral density (reduce the risk of osteoporosis and bone breaks), insulin sensitivity (decreased risk of diabetes), as well as increased feelings of well-being.
Q: Of course, there is the question of proper nutrition. What kind of dietary tips can you offer for the desk-bound loan officers to boost energy without boosting pounds?
Cholewa: We have heard this phrase throughout the generations: ‘Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.’ It turns out it is. Eating breakfast, specifically a high-fiber/protein breakfast, is associated with increased nutrient partitioning later in the day.Â
In other words, when you eat breakfast, your body is better able to process lunch: You are more likely to store carbohydrates in muscles for future energy and use fats for fuel, versus storing fats and carbohydrates in adipose (fat) cells. My recommendations for breakfast: cage-free eggs and sprouted wheat toast for breakfast; cottage cheese or Greek yogurt and berries; or oatmeal (unsweetened) with fruits and a protein supplement.
My next suggestion to improve energy while maintaining – or even decreasing – weight is to maintain blood-sugar levels. Accomplishing this requires more frequent feedings, or snacking.Â
But what you choose to snack on is key. Avoid starches and processed foods – no pretzels, crackers, baked snacks, etc. These foods are generally processed, high-glycemic, and void of most nutrients.Â
Also, avoid anything with a label that reads ‘enriched wheat flour’ or ‘partially hydrogenated oils.’ As my wife once put it so simply, if you can't hunt it or gather it, then don't eat it. Snack on nuts, vegetables, berries, fruits and hard cheeses. Assuming that you work a normal nine-to-five day, you should be having a snack mid-morning and again mid-afternoon.
Finally, stay hydrated. Studies show a relationship between hydration status and cognition in demanding work environments. Even a 1% decrease in bodyweight due to dehydration can impair cognitive performance. Try to consume eight ounces of water every hour.
Additionally, time your consumption of caffeinated beverages wisely: Adrenalin and cortisol are already elevated in the morning, yielding greater feelings of wakefulness. Wait until mid-afternoon, when a decrease in circulating adrenalin based on circadian rhythms increases the urge for sleep. Or, better yet, go for a walk when you start to feel sleepy.