In September 2017, I was invited to give a brief presentation at an annual women’s luncheon for the American Heart Association. The theme of the event was Mind Your Heart, and I called my presentation Mindful Health. I was grateful, excited, and somewhat terrified to participate in this event. Luckily my excitement and passion related to all matters of health helped me to overcome my moments of public speaking angst.
From what I was told, past events had been more focused on educating women on the signs and symptoms of heart disease, and they wanted to shift gears towards stress management, empowerment, and behavior change. As a Health and Wellness Coach with an almost obsessive interest in neuroscience and behavior change, I was like “heck yeah, let’s do this.”
However, despite my genuine zest for the topic, it took me a little while to get clear on what I wanted to share. I asked myself- What would be clear and impactful? Relatable and empowering? How can I get to the heart of the matter?
I started by reflecting on what I believe health to be and what I think we can do to cultivate a greater sense of well-being. I guess you could say I got pretty mindful of my message. Now I am going to attempt to share a version of that message with you.
But, before I go any further, I want to offer you the opportunity to contemplate:
What does health mean to you?
I am deeply saddened that so many people struggle with their health. America, with all of its resources, is one of the unhealthiest countries in the world. Why??? The major chronic health conditions and diseases in this country are considered lifestyle diseases, put simply, they are quite preventable. What is maddening to me is that we spend ungodly amounts of money on healthcare- something like $2.7 trillion/yr- with only a minuscule amount targeted towards preventative care. The "there's a pill for every ill" approach clearly isn't working. It may not be what we want to hear, but we are personally responsible for our own health.
Health to me is a right and a responsibility. Health is innate in all of us, but in these modern, high stress, technologically advanced, convenience-oriented times; it is certainly not a guarantee. It is reflective of our habits and choices. It is not a fad diet, but what you consume is critical. You can not buy health, but money, energy, and time invested in the right ways can support you in your pursuit of it.
I am in absolute agreement with the World Health Organizations assertion that "health is not merely the absence of disease." Truthfully, I haven't always felt this way. At points in my life, I believed health was merely a product of ‘diet and exercise,' neglecting the many other aspects, i.e., emotional, intellectual, social, occupational, environmental, and spiritual. I also had distorted beliefs about body image and weight being main determinants of health- we will call these the college years, arguably the most unhealthy years of my life. Thankfully, at some point, this shifted, and I adopted a much more encompassing perspective of health.
Like many wellness models, I now believe- scratch that- I know, health is much more than meeting the physical activity recommendations and eating a balanced, nutritious diet. Please don't misunderstand, of course, these factors play a critical role, but in my mind, they don't tell the whole story.
In my opinion, which I base on my health journey, professional experience and my insatiable appetite for research related to this topic- Health is a quality of being, that is a product of our MINDSET and LIFESTYLE. You'll notice the outer ring in the above slide, I call these the components and characteristics of optimal health, though I am not going to elaborate much on these now. I do want to talk about mindset and lifestyle and how to be MINDFUL when it comes to your health.
Let’s explore the MINDSET piece of the equation.
Our feelings, thoughts and even the language we use, impact our health for the better or worse. Unhealthy thoughts have adverse health consequences and vice versa. The good old mind-body connection that is what we are talking about here. A healthy mindset involves having a relationship with yourself that is loving, kind, and accepting. Acceptance that is unconditional is the name of the game, and part of how you learn to cope with hard emotions in a way that doesn't cause you further harm. A mindset that is geared towards greater well-being and success is one that embraces challenges as opportunities for growth. Having a flexible and balanced mind is also more conducive to health, this means being able to find the space between "all or nothing" thinking or being "past or future" focused. I feel like I could go on and on and on, but at the risk of your eyes glazing over, I’ll move on.
Let's look at the other element- LIFESTYLE.
Rather than get straight to the more obvious lifestyle factors, I feel that I must stress the importance of effectively and healthily managing stress. A survey conducted by the American Psychological Association found "about 70% of Americans rate their stress level as 8 or more on a 10-point scale and only 30% of Americans believe they effectively manage stress." We no longer live in a world that our greatest stress is hunting for food or being hunted by a sabertooth tiger. We do, however, live in a world with an abundance of both real and perceived stressors and it's hijacking us physiologically, psychologically, and physically. Bottomline: elevated stress levels have real consequences, from decreased immunity and mental health issues, to weight gain.
What are the major sources of stress in your life?
How do you cope with stress?
Of course, we all know by this point, exercise and diet are sort of a thing when it comes to health. So I would like to offer a more attractive approach in hopes to lessen the eye-rolling effect that can sometimes happen with just mentioning these two lifestyle factors. What I think is important is that we all find some type(s) of MOVEMENT that we enjoy. Enjoyment is key to sustaining or developing a consistent routine. Finding joy in moving your body will help you take it from something that feels like a "have to" to a "want to." To me it isn't as much about the type or the intensity or any of that, it is about finding the activities with stick-to-it-tive-ness. Engage in whatever helps you clear your mind, reduces stress, makes you feel better about yourself and provides an able body for living well.
What type of movement brings you joy?
What are the noticeable benefits of regular activity that you experience?
Regarding diet (what you eat), I don't think there is a one size fits all approach to this either- but being that our guts are the powerhouse of our immune system and that food choices affect our cognitive abilities and emotional states- what we eat is uber significant. And While there is no one "diet," I think everyone should follow- whole, real, nourishing foods are ideal for everyone, and we would all do well to reduce or eliminate processed ‘foods.' Let's forget calorie counting and other obsessive aspects of "dieting" that have damaged our relationship with food. I believe it is more critical and there is higher health value in becoming aware and understanding of how your body responds to various foods , from there it's a matter of being honest about their place in your diet.
Comfort food, I'm sure you have heard of it? It is a real thing and so is emotional eating, for many people(myself included) food has become a way of coping with things we don't like to feel. Here's the thing, and I know this first hand- red wine and cake might make you happy, but this pleasure response only last a few moments, most likely followed by guilt and shame. The compounded effect of using food in this way damages your well-being. Eat cake when you are celebrating a birthday or when you are happy and want to indulge in something sweet and tasty, not because you are unhappy. Or at the very least drink red wine with your sons' construction hat on because you are silly and sassy, not sad and looking for an escape.
Without a broad exploration of each, other components of lifestyle I believe are essential: quality sleep, meaningful relationships with others and an intimate relationship with yourself, work-life balance, mental health, spirituality, and environmental risk reduction. Stay tuned for a deeper dive into some of these topics!
So what is MINDFUL HEALTH? And how do we become more mindful of our health?
A mindful approach to health stems from the concept of mindfulness. Just like the many effects stress has on our bodies and minds, so does a practice of mindfulness, but beneficially! The list of benefits is lengthy, so rather than go through that, I want to focus on how to apply it to your well-being.
The starting point for behavior change is AWARENESS! Becoming more conscious of and responsible for the choices that we make is essential if we hope to adopt new thoughts and habits that support achieving greater well-being. When you bring awareness to how you think and react, to how you talk to yourself, to how situations and other people influence you; you can take pause and start to generate healthier responses and choices.
If we can identify the cues for our behaviors (habits), both for the patterns that keep us healthy and the ones that negatively impact our health, we become drivers of our health. Learning what internal and external things cue behaviors, and taking ownership of yourself as the sole person responsible for your health and happiness is a must. It isn't just about recognizing habits that you need to change. If you have a good pulse on what triggers you to engage in behaviors that support your health- you can use your current or past success as leverage in times when you are experiencing greater challenge with "staying on track."
Okay so this has been a little long-winded, but I am sure we can all agree, it is valuable and worth a lengthier discussion.
Just to reiterate. Health is a product of many different things; it is not something that is a one size fits all approach. Take the time to get to know yourself, know what you value and what gives your life a sense of purpose. Figure out what works for you regarding nutrition, exercise, sleep, stress management techniques, professional satisfaction, hobbies or other sources of enjoyment. Then go out and live big, be bold, nurture and nourish yourself, because really; no one else is going to do it for you. Your health is yours and yours alone.