Dairy-free. Gluten-free. Vegan. Paleo. High Intensity Interval Training, lifting to fatigue, high reps with low weight, low reps with high weight, steady state cardio, fat-burning zone…
No wonder so many of us are confused.
Health as defined by our good friends at Merriam-Webster is “the condition of being sound in body, mind, or spirit; especially freedom from physical disease or pain.” An alternate definition reads, “flourishing condition; well-being.” And yet another tells us that health is synonymous with fitness, heartiness, robustness, soundness, verdure, wellness, wholeness, and wholesomeness.
Note that nowhere does it mention a specific diet or exercise regime. Nowhere does it say that health is defined by the type of exercise you complete, the space you leave between meals, the portion size on your plate. And yet we’ve somehow come to believe this notion that one size does fit all, that there is some secret to achieving the healthy body you were meant to have.
I once read that when adopting a newer, healthier lifestyle (whether that means losing extra inches, lowering inflammation in your body, gaining muscle, or raising your body weight to a level at which it can function with energy and ease), it takes something like four weeks for you to feel a difference, eight for your friends to take notice…and twelve for acquaintance and strangers to start asking questions. Ok, so I might have read it on the almighty scientific journal that is Pinterest – but I like the idea it portrays of slow and steady change. Over the last few months I’ve lost a very small yet noticeable amount of weight, and now all the sudden it feels as if everyone is asking how they can follow suit. What is your secret? What are you doing? Even though it’s a very minor loss and took some time to show externally, there is something different to those around me, and all the sudden everyone wants in on the action.
What’s more, no one believes me – or thinks I’m telling the complete truth – when I let them know my “secret:” I’m happy. Interestingly enough, hearing that my subtle external changes are due to happiness is not the answer they want to hear.
When it comes to healthy habits and wellness, one size never fits all. And yet we treat it as such: going Paleo simply because it worked for a friend, taking up Pilates because the woman at the gym with the body type you covet swears by reformer sessions every other day. There is new debate as to whether non-Celiac gluten allergies are a fallacy or not, and it’s causing quite the stir. People who went gluten-free because they were told it was healthy are now looking for the next trendy cause of distress and working wheat back into their lives. Some are finding no difference. Some are feeling the pain, and feeling it deeply.
Webster and Co. had it right when they said that health is the condition of being sound in body, mind, spirt, free of physical disease and in a flourishing condition.” But health is so much more. Mainly, it’s about happiness. It’s about respect. It’s about love. Love of your body, love of your organs and bones, love of the unique person you are. To achieve a state of true health requires you to notice – really notice – the way your body and mind react to what you feed it, what you do with it, and how you treat it. Healthy habits are developed by listening to your body’s cues and soft cries of joy or pain, then proactively working toward the positive. It’s amazing how many people will stay on restrictive diets, eat certain superfoods, or log a specific amount of time every day working out simply because it’s what they’ve been told is “correct.” Yet when it comes to your own health and wellness, only you are the expert of your own body.
For these reasons and more, you’ll never see an article on The Chalkboard that states “To look like X, do Y.” Our team feels a personal and professional responsibility to cancel this kind of work out of our editorial repertoire. We can make suggestions, we can give you some new options, and we absolutely adore shedding light on new practices or findings that intrigue us! But every body is different, and if we tell you that you must do X to look exactly like Y, we’re making false promises. Your body is your own, and it can only be the best, healthiest version of itself…not a carbon copy of anyone else’s physique.
Of course, there is more to happiness, respect, and love than just the idea of sunshine and butterflies. With happiness, respect and love come awareness – and with awareness, we learn that certain practices either help us or hinder us on our journey. The extra serving you once reached for now seems trivial and a distraction from all you’re feeling in the moment. The food that makes your stomach tie in painful knots, you’re no longer willing to sacrifice that feeling of joy over the feeling of sluggish, painful imbalance. The exercise you loathe isn’t worth the hours of slaving away when you find a form of fitness that enhances the rest of your life and gets your creative juices flowing. The decisions you make when you act from love instead of loathing are the ones that stick with you in the long run.
Just to be clear, in no way am I suggesting to give up on a specific program you’ve been prescribed by a health practitioner, personal trainer, or other professional. But if you’ve adopted a plan or habits simply because of the external view you have of them as “healthy,” I encourage you to dig deeper. Have you made these choices because you’ve heard you should – or because they make you feel good? What makes you come alive? What small changes can you make right now to ensure the life you lead on the outside is a glance into how you feel on the inside? If a green juice a day make you feel vibrant, fantastic! If a bit of grass-fed meat makes you bounce with energy and helps your system function smoothly, go for it! When it comes to health, there is no black, no white, and nothing is off limits as long as it helps you flourish.
As I said, the changes in my body are slight – yet even though I thought I only felt a difference on the inside, they’re apparently noticeable to others. I come from a long line of “health” advocates and chronic dieters: whenever I’ve been uncomfortable in my own skin, I’ve been told to cut portions, or eat at specific intervals during the day, or less meals and greater quantities, or start running longer distances at shorter speeds or shorter distances at faster speeds. Or stop running altogether. Health had become so confusing, and the “facts” all contradicted one another. And now, finally, I am slowly seeing the kind of progress I’ve wanted for so long. Yet strangely enough, I’m not following any plan. Moreover, it pales in comparison to how I feel when I am not ordering lunch, when I am not working out, when I am not thinking about what is right and what is wrong.
Health is not about diagrams or pie charts. It’s not about a rulebook or an outline or even a label. Health is about eating for your best self, moving for your best self, thinking for your best self, and acting as only your best self knows how. Health is about learning to listen to your body and honoring what it has to say. Need help tuning in? Take a peek at our guide to seven other ways to get your best body ever. Once you begin to define health on your own terms, your habits merely become supporting evidence of all you have to be happy about – all you have to love.