I’m a clinical social worker and mental health researcher. And yet, I still often feel overwhelmed by the amount of health information constantly being thrown at us — not to mention all the marketing.
As CrossFit gyms pop up in every neighborhood and another ad for protein shakes lands in my inbox, I’ve found myself struggling to escape the intense cultural focus on weight and fitness.
Let me clarify: Sure, I think it’s important to live a healthy lifestyle. But I can’t help noticing that the media’s opinion of what’s “healthy” and “unhealthy” changes daily.
And as a result of constantly being slammed with mixed messages, we’re often left simply feeling bad about ourselves, overanalyzing our diets and comparing ourselves to the person next to us in spin class.
Unfortunately, I have personally and professionally seen beautiful and talented people take the mission for health too far, going down a path to obsessive-compulsive behaviors, anxiety, depression and eating disorders.
And that makes me wonder: Why do we give so much power to our culture's definition of healthy?
After all, the image of “health” can vary greatly from one company or magazine to the next, whether the ideal is incredibly skinny or muscular and fit. Either way, it's an unattainable, expensive product of perfection.
And so as a woman in her late 20s and a busy doctoral student on a budget, I’ve learned I need to block out all the noise, and instead come up with my own expectations for health.
That means reaching personal fitness goals while being kind to my body — and not feeling like I have to shell out three figures for a fancy gym membership. It also means defining my expectations not on what our media shows, but on what can help me become a happy daughter, friend and partner.
In my journey to redefine "health," I came away with five key take-aways. I hope that by sharing them, others can find their own way to a more balanced idea of health, too.
1. Know your body.
Rule number one: Do and eat what makes your body feel its best. That means forgetting about the latest exercise craze, cleanse, or elimination diet. Practice what makes you feel strong, active, and happy. If you have a good thing going, why mess with it?
This also means that if something isn’t right, be open to receiving help from a specialist. Everyone needs help sometimes, whether it’s meal planning from a dietitian or exploring body image concerns with a therapist.
2. Know yourself.
Be honest with yourself. If you have a tendency to overeat on ice cream after a hard day, don’t set yourself up for feeling guilty. Go get fro-yo with a friend instead. Or, if you find yourself overexercising as a coping mechanism, quit attending that spin class that encourages that type of lifestyle. Everyone has some sort of tendency that can spiral out of control.
We are all more likely to choose less-than-productive behaviors on days when we feel not so positive about ourselves. Making this connection is an important first step. Step two means finding an alternative with some healthy “self love,” like snuggling with your pets or partner after a long day.
3. Find your support system.
As I've learned, being around people with healthy relationships to food can make a big difference in how you feel, too. For one, you can enjoy healthy cooking and checking out fitness classes with your loved ones. But you can also trust that if your own goals get out-of-hand, these same people with reel you back in.
A good friend reminds you that you are wonderful, deserve to treat yourself well, and can eat carbs every day.
On the other hand, be aware of friends or colleagues that seem to be struggling with eating or exercise. Unfortunately, we all know someone who fits this profile: the person who eats large quantities alone or refuses to eat more than three food groups or gets upset after missing one workout.
If possible, be supportive of ways for them to get help, such as identifying resources and providers through the National Eating Disorder Association (NEDA). Most people are initially guarded about having an eating or exercise issue — being patient, nonjudgmental and empathic is key!
4. Become an educated (skeptical) consumer.
Here’s the basic rule of thumb I’ve learned over the years: if something seems fishy, or too good to be true, it probably is.
Be mindful of a product’s claims or a gym’s mission: What are the real effects of that energy drink? Does this gym endorse a lifestyle that can be sustainable and balanced? Or do their ads only feature models with unrealistic body types? (Red alert).
Also, take the time to thoroughly research your dietitian, coach or instructor’s credentials and background to make sure not only that they're experts in their field, but that they’re also the right fit for you.
The same goes for trying new diets and lifestyles. Ask yourself: How will going vegan or gluten-free impact my body, my mind, and my wallet? How can I make buying fair-trade coffee and organic produce work for me? For example, I’d love to drink fresh-pressed juice every day and only buy soy-based candles. But I also know that I’m not a lesser person if my OJ is from concentrate.
5. Be patient ... and adapt.
Life events, transitions, and aging (ahh!) will always encourage us to constantly redefine what “health” is. Sometimes, we will have more time to exercise and cook meals, and sometimes we won’t.
Be patient and remember that taking care of yourself is not a race. Hey, maybe next year I’ll actually use my oven for more than storage space …
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