Good health, at core, is less a destination than life-enhancing journey. But if there is any clear path toward the promised land of healthy living, it begins not on any treadmill or diet plan, but on the fertile ground of our own thoughts, assumptions and beliefs.
So, you’ve resolved to adopt a healthy way of life. You’ve decided to commit yourself to an exercise routine, to stock your fridge with fresh fruits, vegetables and other whole foods and to take a daily multivitamin supplement. You’ve decided to lay off the soda, drink more water, get more sleep and stop making excuses. We say, bravo!
But before you dash off into the blinding dawn of the new-and-improved you, let us offer a word of advice: While you’re busy changing your life, don’t forget to change your mind.
It’s not that your virtuous, practical endeavors aren’t valuable in and of themselves, but that they are much like the individual plants and trees within a larger, more vibrant landscape – one that represents a complete, integrated approach to a healthy way of life. Each component of that landscape matters, because each represents a tangible piece of your bigger health picture. What you may not be able to see at first glance, though, is that all of those plants are ultimately rooted in the landscape by acres of mental topsoil: thoughts, attitudes and perspectives that can make or break your efforts toward healthier living.
Now, the soil in a landscape typically doesn’t get a lot of attention. It’s just sort of there – and largely invisible under plant cover. But the point of all that good, fertile dirt is that it supports, connects and nourishes everything that’s growing out of it. Without it, all those plants would be history. And the landscape would be bleak, indeed.
In exploring and evaluating your own health landscape, it may be easiest, at first, to appreciate the importance of this tree or that flowering shrub – to get your head around refining a specific habit or choice. However, when it comes right down to it, you’re probably going to have to pay some attention to the mental ground you’re standing on, too. And that may require you to do a little digging.
In many cases, to really get the lay of the land, to find what’s growing where in our lives and why, we have to consciously choose to see what was all but invisible to us before – such as the social forces and psychological influences we’ve never bothered to question.
We put this article together to help you make your own big picture of health clearer, to help you identify ways you can make your mental soil healthier and to make the process of mapping your way through that landscape a good deal easier.
Some of the ideas and suggestions gathered here might be useful and applicable to you right now. Others might take a while to sink in. Take your time and trust your instincts about which areas are most important for you to explore first. Remember, there’s no single “right way” to health, and no idealized destination you have to reach. The important thing is that you find your way, and your own happy, healthy acre of ground.
Owning Up to Obstacles
There’s a reason that so many people are having such a hard time getting and staying healthy right now – or, rather, there’s an astonishing array of reasons. Some roadblocks are cultural, social, commercial, collective. Others are personal, internal, individual. But even the most motivated, health-oriented among us are impeded by some of them, at least some of the time. Here are just a few:
1. Please, Don’t Get Up
A sedentary lifestyle is perhaps the leading cause of disease in America. Too many of us spend most of the day on our duffs, sitting in traffic on the way to work, slouching in front of a computer at the office and lolling in front of the TV at home. We choose passive entertainments (movies and video games, for instance) rather than active ones (ice skating, Frisbee golf). And most household tasks that once required physical labor have been largely automated.
Holistic health and fitness expert Paul Chek, author of How to Eat, Move and Be Healthy! (C.H.E.K Institute, 2004), remembers his father sweating over a push mower and his mother washing laundry by hand during his childhood. “Yard work and housework were work back then,” Chek says. Today, he notes, many of us do little more than press appliance buttons, or we hire others to do our physical labor for us.
2. A Healthy-Food Famine
Have you tried finding a healthy snack in a convenience store or vending machine lately? Good luck. The least nutritious foods are generally the most accessible, while fresh, whole foods (the kind naturally bursting with the nutrients, water and fiber your body needs to stay healthy) typically require a special trip to the supermarket, co-op or natural-foods store. And then they might require washing, chopping, refrigeration or (gasp!) maybe even cooking.
Whereas people once ate seasonal foods that they farmed or gathered themselves and then prepared by hand, today most of us rely on the food industry – food manufacturers, grocery-store chains and restaurants – to put food in front of us. All too often, that food comes in nutrient-poor, giant-sized servings available all year long, wherever we happen to be. Unhealthy foods are always easy to find, easy to consume. And the food marketers spend plenty of money to make sure we keep consuming.
“To satisfy stockholders, food companies must convince people to eat more of their products instead of those of their competitors,” notes author and nutritionist Marion Nestle, PhD, in her book Food Politics (University of California Press, 2002). She explains how the food industry uses powerful advertising and government lobbying to make sure that their products remain front-and-center on grocery-store shelves. Meanwhile, well-paid public-relations experts dismiss nutritionists’ criticisms of junk foods and paint all attempts to limit their promotion as “attacks on consumer choice.”
3. Fix Me Up, Doc
During the course of the past century, advances in pharmaceuticals, technology and medical knowledge have improved longevity and disease treatments. But they’ve also put doctors and pharmaceutical companies – and not us – in charge of taking care of our bodies.
Feeling a little sluggish? Call your physician! Got a symptom? Take a drug! As a society, we’re eager enough to embrace dramatic interventions after diseases have taken hold, but we’re far less motivated to undertake preventative measures that might eliminate or reduce risks before problems arise.
Instead of monitoring our daily stress and fatigue and taking time out for a nap, for example, we push ourselves far beyond our limits, end up with some sort of cold or infection, and then rely on costly drugs to keep us functioning. Insurance companies will foot the bill for bariatric surgeries (a.k.a. stomach stapling) to treat obesity; they’ll supply motorized mobility carts for those whose bodies become too heavy for their bones and joints to support. But they’re slow to fund programs that promote healthy eating and exercise.
Like most of us, writer and health advocate John Robbins grew up believing that health comes from the doctor, the drugstore and the hospital. “But over the years,” he writes in Reclaiming Our Health (HJ Kramer, 1998), “I have come to realize that while doctors and medical technology have an important role to play in health care, they do not hold the ultimate secrets to health. Taken together, factors such as the food we eat, whether and how we exercise, the way we give voice to our feelings, the attitudes we hold, and the quality of the environment in which we live are far more important to the quality of health we experience than even the most sophisticated medical technologies.”
4. Health: Half a Definition
Fused with our belief that medical professionals are the true keepers of our health is another misguided notion: that “good health” is defined by the absence of symptoms, rather than by the presence of vitality. That’s wrongheaded, says Pamela Peeke, MD, author of Body for Life for Women (Rodale, 2005). “We need to go beyond avoiding and preventing disease and instead reach for something higher, a sense of energy, vitality and life,” she says.
Good health, Peeke says, is more than the sum of favorable physical factors like low cholesterol and nice muscle tone. “If you’re in good health, you should pop out of bed with a smile on your face,” she says. “You should be able to eat a meal and really savor the flavors, or take a walk with a friend and fully revel in the conversation. But for doctors, measuring such a thing is difficult: How do you grade ‘vitality’?” Just as important, how does one go about diagnosing and treating an absence of vitality without resorting to medical means? These are simply not questions that most disease-minded medical professionals are trained to answer with much subtlety.
5. Social Support That’s Not
Your family and friends might love you dearly, but they could still be some of the biggest impediments to your pursuit of a healthy way of life. “If you’re overweight and you’re a smoker, chances are good that your friends are overweight and they’re smokers, too,” explains Christiane Northrup, MD, author of Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom (Bantam, 1998).
Our life activities and choices typically revolve around other people, she explains: family, friends, coworkers, spouses, kids. So trying to change your habits may require some readjustment of your social environment, too. There’s a possibility that your spouse may resent the fact that you’re going to bed earlier; your friends may heckle you for drinking less beer.
“Here in Maine, where I live,” says Northrup, “we have a saying that when one crab climbs over the edge of a bucket to look at what’s outside, the others will drag it back down.” Usually, she adds, those “crabs” are the people who know you best – and the ones with the most influence over you. They may not mean you harm, but that won’t prevent them from derailing your health and fitness plan faster than you can say “seafood gumbo.”
6. Apathy Kills Action
If you’re feeling unhappy, unmotivated or generally uninvested in your life, it will be challenging to adopt a health-centric mindset, and tougher still to find the energy for developing healthy new habits. At one time or another, nearly all of us have found ourselves wandering, a bit lost, in a “why bother?” desert or a “poor me” peat bog. But without a prevailing sense of direction, or the skills to reframe our view of reality, it’s easy to stay stuck for far too long – and too easy to settle for less happiness than we deserve.
When we’re down in the dumps, we’re more easily drawn into self-destructive and self-sabotaging behaviors, and we’re more easily dissuaded from our own best interests. Of course, optimistic thinking and an upbeat attitude alone won’t make you lean and strong, but by reducing your stress, they will help you stay healthier in general. And your healthy efforts are far more likely to succeed if you can at least picture your own future happiness and invest some committed energy in that vision.
Pick Your Perspective
Even if you can’t shift the attitudes of the medical establishment, the food industry or the people around you, you can still change your own mindset. In fact, mustering a positive, hopeful attitude is the first step in building the road that will take you from where you are to where you want to be.
A clear understanding of your own intentions can sometimes be your most powerful motivator in achieving a healthy way of life. “To get patients thinking positively,” says Northrup, “I ask them to imagine what their life would look like if anything at all were possible, quickly, easily and now.” Once that vision is clear – to lose 10 pounds and keep it off, to dance, to run a marathon – she urges them to keep that as a touchstone as they move onto the road ahead.
“Expect to hear from your doubting Thomas,” Northrup counsels. “Say to him, ‘Good to hear from you again. Thanks for sharing.’ And then take another step forward toward your goals.”
With that persevering attitude in place, you’re ready to take on the remaining mental shifts:
1. Change Your Food ‘Tude
Sometimes we eat for entertainment or to deal with emotions. At other times, we deny ourselves food in the hopes we’ll shed a few pounds before that week on the beach or that upcoming high school reunion. Either way, however, those views of food aren’t particularly healthy.
Health-minded folks think of food as essential fuel for the body: Food is the source of the protein, carbs, fat, vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals and fiber you need to keep your body working properly. The macro- and micro-nutrients found in food facilitate digestion, regulate your blood-sugar and hormone levels, support your immune system, and keep your skin, hair and nails looking healthy. Good nutrition also gives you the energy and vitality to pursue all your fitness efforts and to ensure that your body responds to them optimally.
A healthy approach to eating centers less on weight loss and more on the feelings of energy and satisfaction that come with a well-rounded, nutritious diet. “Most diets focus on one number: pounds lost,” write Michael Roizen, MD, and Mehmet Oz, MD, in You: The Owner’s Manual (HarperCollins, 2005). “Many people are obsessed about being overweight, about fitting into jeans, about impressing the casting director[but] we’re concerned about making you feel better, helping you live younger, and slowing the effects of aging. We feel it’s more important to regulate other numbers and feelings in your life – things like your blood pressure, your cholesterol and inflammation numbers, and your energy level.”
2. Merge Entertainment and Activity
Reduce the hours you devote to passive entertainments, such as watching TV, and replace them with active, participatory ones. If possible, get outdoors for at least a little while each day, even when winter or not-so-nice weather require you to bundle up. It’ll provide fresh air and open up new possibilities: You never know what sort of cloud formation, astronomical event or other natural marvel you’ll encounter while out-of-doors.
Eve A. Wood, MD, author of Medicine, Mind and Meaning (In One Press, 2004), suggests including a friend in your plans for a bike ride or a visit to a Pilates class. Instead of going to a movie, toss a Frisbee or rent a canoe with your buddy for a couple of hours. “You’re more apt to do the activity if you involve a friend, because there’s another dimension of pleasure in the experience,” Wood says. “You’re connecting.” Combining entertainment and daily physical activity will also lessen the time crunch you might otherwise feel in your schedule, because it saves you from always having to schedule separate slots for recreation and workout activities.
The most important thing, though, is that you get away from any assumptions you have about exercise and activity being hard or uncomfortable. It really can, and ought to be, fun. Your physical activity should be something you want to do: walking, badminton, gardening. “It doesn’t have to be a structured, regimented fitness protocol,” says Steven G. Aldana, PhD, author of The Culprit & The Cure (Maple Mountain Press, 2005). “In fact, it’ll probably be more sustainable if your program plan is not overly structured.”
3. Claim Your Birthright to a Healthy Body
Let’s be clear: Unless you’re the subject of some weird scientific experiment gone awry, you’re probably living in the very body you were born with. It’s aged a bit, sure, and gone through a few wringers, perhaps. But it has somehow found a way to survive all the mishaps and abuse you’ve subjected it to. And buried there, beneath the surface scuffs (and perhaps a little extra padding), a brilliant health-promoting system persists intact: gigantic data banks of body intelligence, an outrageously complex electrical and metabolic system, and an astonishing chemical lab designed to start returning you to your best possible health from the very moment you quit throwing wrenches into the machinery.
Seriously, your body is your friend. It wants to be healthy. But it’s also pleading with you like the desperate, frustrated, title character in Jerry Maguire: “Help me help you!” it’s saying. And if you do, it will be only too happy to get busy repairing years worth of damage.
It’s true: You may never achieve the willowy profile of a supermodel or the cardiovascular endurance of Lance Armstrong, but there’s no reason why you can’t have the very best body that’s at your disposal. In health, as in all aspects of our lives, each of us can choose to live either at the high end or the low end of our potential. So imagine yourself as you might realistically look and feel at your own personal best. If nothing else, the pride that comes with living the healthiest life you can live will inspire you to stand straighter and to hold your head high.
4. Patient, Heal Thyself
There’s certainly a place for medical professionals and other healers in our lives. But when it comes to monitoring and upholding your health on a daily basis, there’s virtually no expert who can do it as well as you can. So take regular inventory of your bodily and energetic fluctuations. Take an active interest in your health and the things that alter it: If you’re feeling rundown, examine the circumstances that got you there. Have you been getting enough sleep? Are you eating right? Are you under stress at work? What health-supporting things aren’t you doing that you know you should be?
There’s increasing evidence that a healthy lifestyle can reduce your vulnerability to virtually all the most common killers. And if you’re recovering from a bout with illness, appropriate nutrition and activity can speed your healing.
Chart Your Course
Now you have a sense of where you need to go. But how do you get there? Start right where you are. Know that very few people succeed in changing their entire way of life overnight. And what you are going for is sustainable change – the kind that lasts.
1. Take Inventory
What healthy habits have you already developed? What are some good-to-do things that lie within reach? Among the habits you might cultivate, which ones would yield the biggest payoffs in your pursuit of a healthy way of life? Pick one of those items (perhaps the easiest to achieve) and then make a list of the resources, information and support you might need to move forward with it. (For more suggestions on developing an action plan, see “Resolutions Workshop.”)
2. Narrow the Scope of Your Ambitions
“Most people do too much at once,” says Northrup. “They decide that they’re going to lose 10 pounds, get strong, get flexible, earn a million dollars a year and declutter their closets in the first week of January.”
Instead, commit to making just one or two changes, and put your energy into those efforts. Replace soda with water, or if that seems too tough, limit yourself to just one serving of soda, along with an extra glass of water, each day. Stop watching your least favorite TV show and start doing just 20 minutes of activity during that time every week. Get to sleep a half-hour earlier. Take the stairs at work. Start parking at the far end of the lot. Eat just one additional serving of green vegetables a day.
What’s miraculous about little changes like these is how attempting them and actually succeeding can spontaneously catalyze more and bigger changes. Go for the small wins to begin with, and see where that gets you.
3. Face Your Resistance – and Learn From It
Everybody stumbles. Everybody gets stuck. So don’t beat yourself up when it happens to you. And don’t set yourself up for failure by swearing to “always” this and “never” that. “If you swear that you’re never going to eat X, then the minute you eat a bite of it, you’re done,” explains trainer Gunnar Peterson, author of G-Force: The Ultimate Guide to Your Best Body Ever (HarperCollins, 2005). Instead, if you wind up skipping a workout or botching an eating plan, he advises, “Just figure out what happened, learn from the experience, then move on.”
It’s most useful, he notes, to see each and every slip-up, every unwelcome surprise, as a learning opportunity. In situations where you find yourself stumbling, try to take stock of what’s really going on: How did you end up eating those fries? How did you end up not going to the gym? What can you do differently to avoid that problem in the future?
Also be on the lookout for emotional resistance (fear of change, for example), and be aware that your resistance may very well show up in disguise. Do you always get exhausted or “come down with something” just when you were planning to go to the gym? Are there triggers that always seem to deflate or distract you? Circumstances “beyond your control” that really aren’t? Take a closer look at those things. Ask some probing questions. Getting intimate with your resistance may be the best way to move beyond it.
4. End Vicious Cycles
If you are low-energy, stressed or depressed, it’s important to recognize that this is often part of a vicious cycle – one worth breaking sooner rather than later. The less you move and the more poorly you eat, the worse you’ll feel emotionally. The worse you feel, the less you’ll move, and very likely, the more poorly you’ll eat. And so it goes, round and round, heading steadily for the drain.
Stress, in particular, can lead to a downward spiral in health. An excess of stress-induced cortisol breaks your body down, depletes your immunity, increases your chances of weight gain and depresses your mood even further. It also leads to increased risk of hypertension, high cholesterol and heart disease, as well as increased susceptibility to allergies, infections and, some believe, cancer. In short, stress can lead to health problems that only result in more stress.
So, even if you aren’t feeling particularly great about yourself and your life, even if it seems like there are just so many other things calling for your attention right now, even if you don’t feel like setting foot inside a sneaker or a health-food store, do something positive for yourself anyway. Make at least one small overture in the direction of bettering your health. When that cycle reverses course, you’ll be glad you did.
5. Bask in the Glow
As you begin to make small changes to your life, habits and attitudes, you will begin to experience the rewards. You’ll feel it in your body and your mind. Chances are good that your entire system will respond with more energy, clarity and vitality, more motivation for even more positive changes. Once you see the direct impacts, it will become a no-brainer to do more good stuff. But don’t let that stop you from taking time to thoroughly enjoy and celebrate how far you’ve already come.
There’s a real value in pausing to acknowledge what you’ve already accomplished. Once you begin to integrate the experience of your success, that success will become a lasting part of your identity.
“You’ll start to have a psychological shift,” Aldana says. “You’ll hear yourself saying, ‘This is something I’m committed to doing for me.’ As a result, you’ll become more disciplined, your self-esteem will improve, and you’ll likely see social rewards as well, because you’re happier and more confident.”
ONE LAST THING: Keep in mind that even the most fertile soil won’t produce steady crops without proper maintenance. So if a healthy new habit doesn’t appear to be taking root, stop and ask yourself why that might be. Then stop and ask if you might like something else better. Because if you don’t like what you’re doing, it probably won’t last.
As Aldana points out, “This is not some diet that you go on and go off. This is a permanent change in the way you live your life. Lots of people ask, ‘How long do I have to do this?’ And the correct response is, ‘How long do you want the benefits?'”
The benefits of a healthy way of life are worth hanging on to for the duration, of course. So if the road to better living isn’t bringing the fruits of happiness, pleasure and satisfaction into your life, take another look at that landscape. Reorient yourself. Retill your soil – and then plant again.
Illustration by Christopher O’Leary