What comes to mind when you think of a healthy lifestyle? Do you imagine a restrictive diet and a rigid exercise routine?
Eating less, exercising more and losing weight are typically recommended when someone wants to get “healthy.” However, I believe this practice is too narrow and even damaging.
During my first years in college, I embraced this strategy. Excited to have complete control over what I ate and how much I exercised, I truly thought I was on a path to a healthy lifestyle. Then everything started to fall apart.
Food and Nutrition
My diet at the dorm cafeteria was limited to “good” foods like fruit, salad and chicken. I avoided the “bad” foods like carbs, fats, snacks and desserts.
Occasionally, I would eat at a restaurant with my family or boyfriend. While I tried to eat “good” there too, I often found myself indulging in breadsticks or a burrito. Not only would this lead to me feeling extremely guilty and vowing not to eat the next meal, but it would also lead to intense stomach pain and cramps.
I thought this pain was either punishment for overindulging or that I had some sort of food allergy.
However, later I learned the eating-out was not the issue. It was the barely eating the rest of the time that was causing stress to my body.
While discussing my eating habits with a nutritionist, I discovered I had been undereating and that I was not meeting my body’s needs. I had to completely re-learn how to nourish my body. As I began to eat more and restrict less, my stomach pain disappeared.
As a nurse, I know having a general knowledge of nutrition is important. Eating a variety of fruits, vegetable, carbs, proteins and fat is important for energizing our bodies and enabling proper functioning.
Learning more about the food we choose to put into our bodies can be beneficial.
However, I believe it can also be valuable to care less about the specific food and instead focus on how it makes our body feel.
Our society tells us to look to extrinsic diet and food rules to guide what our bodies need rather than looking internally at what feels good, gives energy and is enjoyable. I learned to rebuild my trust in my own internal hunger and fullness signals and to nourish my body in a respectful way.
As I have mentioned before, the book “Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works” by Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole discusses this process and the science supporting it. This book changed my life and I can’t recommend it enough.
Another important fact I learned in this book is how restriction causes binges.
When we diet, our bodies do not understand why they are being starved and deprived so they will increase hunger signals and slow metabolism. Eventually our body will fight to get its needs meet and
this can lead to a person binging or feeling “out of control” around food. In reality, it isn’t a lack of willpower that causes a binge it is a deep physiological and psychological need.
Exercise and Movement
Exercise has also been made into something we externally monitor rather than intrinsically feel.
During my disordered eating days, I forced myself to spend hours at the gym whether I wanted to or not. I would run long distances not because I enjoyed it but because I felt guilty for eating ice cream. If I was not able to squeeze a work out into my busy schedule, I would feel overwhelmed, anxious and depressed.
I had to learn to let go of exercising because it was what I “should” do. Now I exercise because I can feel the benefit.
Often, external fitness goals are the motivation for exercise instead of moving because it feels good. For example, someone might run for 3 miles, elliptical for 30 minutes or do 20 push-ups. While there is nothing wrong about having a structured workout, this mindset might be limiting the options.
Our bodies benefit from all different kinds of movement especially when it something we actually enjoy!
If going to the gym sounds boring or even scary, there is freedom to try something else that might feel safer and/or more fun. Exercise does not need to be something intense and uncomfortable. Instead, it can be fun and empowering.
There are many options for movement at various intensities. Our culture tells us if exercise isn’t strenuous or if we aren’t “pushing” ourselves, then it isn’t worth it. However, any movement can help stabilize mood and increase energy and that is definitely worthwhile.
Personally, I love kickboxing! During the class, I feel strong and powerful and afterwards I have more energy and a better mood. This has nothing to do with the calories burned and everything to do with the natural benefits of moving my body.
Stress- Personal and Systemic
The last lifestyle factor I want to discuss is stress.
The times in my life with the most overwhelm and anxiety are the times that I needed to add new strategies to my toolkit. During nursing school, I started counseling. After my second son was born, I went back to counseling and after my third kid, I started taking antidepressants.
Modern culture values hard work and pushing through. However, sometimes these things can actually make us sicker. In times of stress, we need to allow for rest, support and possibly adding new practices to our health toolkit.
Stress, especially from circumstances that have high responsibility without the ability to make changes, can be extremely detrimental to a person’s health. (Bacon, Aphramor, “Body Respect).
Health is often viewed as something that operates purely at an individual level. We assume a person’s health depends solely on the choices they make. This is not true. Systemic failures that cause those with
less privilege and less resources to live in constant stress have a huge impact on health. We all need to work together to acknowledge and fix those failures.
I am not an expert in this area but I believe any conversation about health would be incomplete without mentioning the impact of chronic stress on marginalized persons and communities.
This concept is discussed in detail in the book “Body Respect: What conventional health books get wrong, leave out, and just plan fail to understand about weight” by Lindo Bacon PhD and Lucy Aphramor PhD, RD. I highly recommend reading this book to better understand the impact of chronic stress.
So, what comes to mind when I think of a healthy lifestyle?
Rather than a restrictive diet and a rigid exercise routine, now I imagine a diverse health toolkit. One that includes practices like eating intuitively, moving joyfully and a variety of strategies to manage stress.
On a systemic level, there needs to be changes to remove chronic stressors and empower healthier communities. On a personal level, we can support and honor our own bodies by listening to our internal cues in regards to food, movement and stress management.
Health is nuanced, intricate and messy. If embracing a healthy lifestyle is something on your “to-do” list, I would encourage an open mind when you consider diet, exercise and managing stress. There is not one simple formula that works for everyone. Rather it is important to respect and listen your body and build a toolkit which meets your body’s unique needs.
Thanks for reading.
Resources and Recommended Reading
1. “Intuitive Eating: A Revolutionary Program that Works” by Elyse Resch and Evelyn Tribole
2. “Body Respect: What conventional health books get wrong, leave out, and just plan fail to understand about weight” by Linda (Lindo) Bacon PhD and Lucy Aphramor PhD, RD.