The Truth About Health

You will never hear me discount the benefits of physical activity and good nutrition, but physical maintenance alone isn’t health. You can get all the physical activity in the world and eat nothing but nutritious foods, but if you’re consistently unfulfilled in other areas, health will eventually suffer. I think we need to continue the discussion about the difficulty in balancing these facets of life while addressing the negative impacts that may arise from aggressively prioritizing physicality.

I have seen this and done it myself where I get sucked into this false idea of health. I direct far too much focus and attention on my workouts and food choices to the point where I’m ignoring other areas of life – or not enjoying them as much as I should be. That’s. Not. The. Point. No, an active lifestyle isn’t always easy and we have to push ourselves to get off our duffs and move sometimes when we really don’t want to, or choose the home-cooked meal over the takeout, but it isn’t supposed to be all-consuming either. Nothing should be.

I also think there are many people fulfilled and satisfied in areas of their life outside of the physical, but struggle with the lack of fulfillment in that one piece overshadowing wonderfully healthy things going on in the rest of the pie.

We need to celebrate health successes in these other areas just as much as we do the physical. We should celebrate the courage to quit a job and pursue a dream. We should support and celebrate the courage to change environment when it’s not healthy. We should celebrate emotional breakthroughs, successes in financial security, and deepening connections to self and higher self. Can the benefits from physical maintenance help us achieve these other things through increased confidence and self-efficacy? Absolutely. But it’s not the only way to be healthy. And it’s not the end-all be-all by itself. It’s not just about the physical body. Yes, the physical does matter, but it is not everything.

There have been a number of studies on individuals and cultures who live the longest. This article from Time is a fun read if you want to know a bit about a few of the longest living cultures (Sardinia, Italy; Okinawa, Japan; Nicoya, Costa Rica; Loma Linda, CA, USA; Ikaria, Greece). The three things they all have in common are nutrition, some level of physical activity, and happiness. This third component cannot be ignored. Their happiness is typically rooted in community, familial closeness, prioritizing rest and reflection, and/or connection to a higher purpose. These areas have nothing to do with the physical piece of the pie, yet you won’t see a culture on this list who prioritizes physical maintenance alone.

This Time article is a great illustration of the definition of health and wellness I provided. There are a few versions of a wellness spectrum, but I really like the one depicted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). It’s comprised of eight sections: emotional, environmental, financial, intellectual, occupational, physical, social, and spiritual. It is easy to see the correlations between the pieces of the pie and the behaviors these other cultures have attributed to their longevity.

This is all well and good, but let’s be honest: if we are trying to create healthier habits, it’s not always going to be easy, and it will likely result in a degree of stress. I’ve realized through experience that there is a difference between stress caused by creating new habits to find what works versus stress caused by trying to make something work for your life that just… doesn’t. Generally speaking, if striving to maintain one area of the pie is causing excessive, consistent undue stress, it may be time to re-evaluate how to tend to that piece of the pie moving forward.

Let me give a quick example from my experience. Nutrition is obviously important, and so is planning ahead, but I used to beat my head against the wall trying to plan exact meals in advance without ever really wanting to eat them when the time came. It caused me more stress to plan and make meals I ultimately didn’t want to be eating. I had to find the right way for me to ensure I have easy access to nutritious food choices, but in a way that doesn’t cause consistent, unnecessary stress. It took a bit, but I now know how to plan and prep in a way that works for me. I know the things I’m willing to invest time in prepping in the kitchen, and I know the things that I am willing to pay a bit more for the convenience of (like precut vegetables, etc.). I’m not saying that we get to just ignore nutrition because it can be stressful, but what I am saying is that there is no one way to do it. There is only the way that works for you and your lifestyle.

To be clear: there will be temporary things we have to do or go through that will require more attention at the expense of other areas, but these things should be short-lived with very clear end-goals like studying for an important upcoming exam or getting ready for a big event. Perhaps this extends for something like an illness, loss of a loved one. That’s okay, and it is understandable that things in life will be wonky and unbalanced in times like those, but hopefully those times are much more the exception than the rule. Those are the times we just have to rely on our support systems and allow ourselves more grace than usual.

You know, I love being a certified personal trainer, but the ultimate goal has been certified health coaching because I am so passionate about the whole pie. I know that it is not just attention to the physical body that makes us happy, that fulfills us. I want to be able to support people in finding fulfillment in as many pieces of that pie, and to think that can be achieved through nutrition and activity alone would be unrealistic.

Please share any thoughts below if you want to continue the conversation.

Wishing everyone a well-rounded week full of grit and grace.

I’ll be back next Sunday with a new topic. I know stress has become sort of a buzzword in fitness/health/wellness, but I would argue stress has the single largest impact on our overall health because of its ability to seep into every other aspect of life, like that new asphalt-in-the-summer smell that you just can’t get away from. Because here’s the thing about stress: it can be the root cause of many issues, OR other issues can be the root cause of stress, both of which create cycles that are really hard to break. This is a tangent I could continue down for awhile, but I won’t! I think I’ll do next week’s post on the physical implications stress has on our bodies to really illustrate this point, especially when it comes to hormones. Hormones control so much of our physical being and are greatly impacted by stress. What if we could address hormonal balance through stress management? It’s not impossible. Stay tuned.

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