Physical wellness is a very broad term. At its most basic, it means practicing healthful habits such as eating a well-balanced diet, engaging in regular physical activity, and getting plenty of rest. We’ve all heard that we need to take care of our bodies, and we can do so by taking some relatively simple steps. Yet more and more people are skipping out on healthful habits in favor of a roller-coaster cycle that involves vacillating between complete neglect and overly-rigid high standards. Why do so many of us have a hard time practicing regular physical wellness? How can we get on the track toward better overall health?
The answers to these questions are very closely linked to our emotional wellness. Our actions begin as thoughts, and, if our attitudes on diet, exercise and rest are based on negative beliefs, our behaviors are going to reflect that. In order to change our behavior and begin taking care of our physical wellness in a healthy way, we have to look at what we believe about physical wellness and where our emotional wellness is either helping us along or hindering even our best efforts.
The Vicious Cycle
First, it’s important to look at what many of us are doing to our bodies. Does this sound familiar? You decide to get in shape. You sign up for a gym membership, get some home exercise equipment, or buy a few workout videos. You pick up some fruits and vegetables at the grocery store. You’re on the right track.
On Monday you start your workout routine. You eat a few small, well-balanced meals. You drink plenty of water. By day three, though, you’re feeling tired and discouraged. You skip your workout. You eat a burger for lunch and some chocolate cake at dinner. Now you’re feeling so discouraged, you tell yourself you’ll wait until the next Monday and try again. That, or you give up completely.
This is a vicious cycle many of us are familiar with, and it’s only one of several eating and exercise cycles that can cause damage. It can really take a toll on our physical—and emotional—health. The thoughts and feelings driving this cycle are often unknown to us, but, if we want to create a physical wellness routine based on realistic goals, we’ve got to get to the bottom of what’s going on. If this cycle—or any other cycle of disordered eating and exercise behavior—takes over, it can seriously deteriorate your self-esteem and damage your body’s ability to function properly.
Sometimes we turn to fad diets. According to FamilyDoctor.org, a fad diet “is a weight loss plan or aid that promises dramatic results.” Fad diets may help someone shed pounds, but they’re unhealthy and rarely provide long-term success. Popular fad diets include the Atkins Diet, the South Beach Diet, and the Scarsdale Diet. They don’t provide a broad range of nutrients, often leading to deficiencies that can be dangerous, and, as soon as you quit the diet, the weight comes back immediately.
If you’re spending an undue amount of time counting calories, obsessing about your weight, and feeling dissatisfied with your body, you’re not concentrating on physical fitness. Instead, you’re concentrating your diet and exercise behaviors around cultural standards of appearance. Physical fitness doesn’t look a certain way. While someone who is physically fit may develop lean muscles or lose a few pounds in the process, each person’s body is unique. We live in a society where thinness is automatically equated with health, and this is a false assumption. A woman who is a size 12 or a man who doesn’t have a six-pack can still be healthy. The key is in the actions we take in regards to our health and how we feel in our bodies.
At their most extreme, unrealistic ideas about physical wellness can lead to three basic behavior patterns. Extreme under-eating, over-exercising, compulsive overeating, and complete lack of physical activity are all behavioral patterns that work against our physical wellness. They may lie at opposite ends of the wellness spectrum, and you may practice only one or a rotating cycle of all of these behaviors. Ultimately, realistic physical wellness doesn’t include any of these behaviors, but falls somewhere in the middle.
Love Yourself…Then Get Moving!
According to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), negative body image comes with these issues:
- Distorting the reality of your shape and size.
- Comparing your body negatively to the bodies of others and believing that your size and/or shape never measure up.
- Feeling a sense of shame or anxiety about your body.
- Feeling uncomfortable, self-conscious and awkward in your body.
Everyone experiences these issues to varying degrees. When negative body image factors are in play, our perception of what it means to be physically healthy can suffer.
Taking healthful action begins with a positive body image. This doesn’t mean that you believe you’re the sexiest hard body on the block. It means that you have a healthy respect and appreciation for your body. If you want to get off the roller-coaster of eating and exercise habits that fluctuate wildly from one extreme to another or sit at an unhealthy end of the spectrum, the first step is to work on your body image.
Positive body image is defined as:
- Seeing your body as it really is.
- Appreciating your natural body shape and size.
- Understanding that each person has their own natural appearance, and their appearance has little to do with their character or worth.
- Self-worth that focuses on acceptance of your uniqueness and a refusal to punish yourself of your body for not being “perfect.”
- Feeling comfortable and confident in your own skin.
Accepting and loving your body is the first step toward creating a healthful physical fitness routine. When you love something, you naturally want to take care of it. Letting go of unrealistic wellness goals that don’t support your unique appearance is key to getting on track with a more realistic view of physical wellness.
So, if beating yourself up for not having the “perfect” body and going to extremes with your diet and exercise habits isn’t leading the way to find physical wellness, where do you start? Start with the basics—moderate diet and exercise.
Proper diet includes various choices pulled from the major food groups. Proteins, fruits, vegetables, and healthful fats are the basis of a healthy diet. Yes, even fat fits into a well-balanced eating plan – in fact, fat is necessary for some bodily processes. The key is portions and proportions. Sugars should make up the smallest percentage of your daily diet, and fats should preferably come from the “good fats” group—monounsaturated fatty acids. These are found in olive oil, fish oil, and nuts. Food intake should be enough to keep you from feeling hungry without leaving you overly stuffed, and eating a little something every three to five hours is optimal for keeping blood sugar steady.
A mixed diet is important as well. When you eat a protein with a carbohydrate, for example a chicken breast with a sweet potato, you give your body the right combination of nutrients to avoid blood sugar fluctuations. Blood sugar crashes are the number one reason we get cranky and end up hankering for a big, fatty meal. To avoid this, mix it up with a variety of food types each time you eat.
Let’s not forget exercise. The word “exercise” may cause feelings of apprehension, but it doesn’t have to when you’ve got realistic fitness goals. If it’s been a long time since you’ve exercised, start slowly. Just 15 minutes a day of moderate exercises such as walking can increase your physical fitness. Once you’re comfortable with 15 minutes, go for 20. Ultimately, you want to do 30 to 45 minutes of moderate aerobic exercise between 3 and 4 times a week for optimum health benefit.
Make exercise a habit. Set a schedule and create a routine. Make sure your exercise regimen is one you enjoy. Exercise is good for your health, sure, but it can be fun as well. If you get bored easily, pick from a variety of exercise routines and change it up. Always stretch before you begin your aerobic activity, and cool down at the end.
Rest is also an important part of overall physical wellness. Did you know that it is the resting period between workouts that changes your body? While resting, your body is rebuilding your muscles for the next go around. Resting also allows your body to recover, giving you the energy you need the next time you get out to exercise.
The key to a healthy, realistic fitness goal is to shoot for something with which you’re comfortable. Listen to your body. Eat when you’re hungry; don’t eat when you’re not. Exercise 3 or 4 days a week; avoid being completely sedentary (sitting too much isn’t good for you!) or exercising without rest for hours a day. Rest when you’re tired. Drink plenty of water. If you follow these and leave the rest up to genetics, you’ll find your own level of physical wellness—and feel more comfortable in your own skin to boot.