Written by Chokey Tsering (semconscioushealth.com)
Covid has got a lot of us re-examining the way we live. In the abrupt, strange stillness of lockdown, our values and habits came into sharper focus. We now see how the structures and routines of life can sometimes distract us from what’s meaningful. This introspection has prompted a greater priority on mental health and self-care: meditation and mindfulness practice have spiked during the pandemic and Canadians are leaving their jobs in droves, unsatisfied, burned out and wanting more out of their livelihoods. Continuing this momentum of change can lead us to a more expansive understanding of what it means to be well, ditching entrenched myths about health once and for all.
Many of us take for granted that the reasons we want to improve our health come from a good place. We gloss over the extent to which our personal stories, culture and society, which includes our friendships, family and the media, shape and reinforce our core beliefs about health, and in turn, our relationship with our bodies. Some of these ‘truths’ undermine our efforts and keep us stuck in a demoralizing pattern of failed diets, weight fluctuations and poor body image.
The clarity gleaned from life in lockdown and the continued Covid climate offers a chance to change this for good. It requires shedding a different kind of weight: implicit beliefs that hold us back from lasting health. To achieve this, instead of focusing on how we will reach our health goals - the meal plans, the fitness regimens, and the power foods - we need to spell out what health means to us and the reasons why we want it.
There are no metrics to this process, no bite-size data to feed into sexy apps. It’s a personal and honest exploration that will bring us closer to our authentic self, our truth-sayer. So, whether your goal is to shed the pandemic weight, tweak your diet or launch a self-care overhaul, keeping in mind some pivotal points along the way will not only help you stay on track but forge a different route to health that may transform and empower you.
Take ‘nutrition’ out of the equation
This probably sounds like terrible advice but it’s worth considering. Nutrition and health, aside from their obvious importance, are loaded words. We underestimate how profoundly language evokes emotions and other visceral reactions. How ‘health’ is communicated is no exception. It’s obscured in body image, food angst and a host of other complex emotions. By getting some distance from the language of health, both in our speech and from the messages around us, we can start to recognize how we react to certain words and how they make us feel.
Food is just food
We give a lot of power to food. Eating for health can easily spiral into ‘healthy eating’ - behaviour that places food and nutrition centre stage. Food restriction, a hallmark of disordered eating, is normalized today, even applauded, as a “healthy lifestyle”, but it’s not. Disordered eating can severely impact a person’s mental, physical, and social health, leading to gastrointestinal issues, depression, and social isolation. Food is sustenance and nourishment - physical, emotional and mental. It’s not a weapon.
Don’t delay happiness
A lot of the rhetoric about getting healthy centres on self-improvement and looking and feeling your best, but this may encourage the implicit belief that we aren’t good enough. Approaching any endeavour from a place of lack sets us up for failure. If instead we pursued change with the conviction that fundamentally we are worthy and capable, then any setback or obstacle we encounter along the way will not shake our basic sense of self which is what we need to adapt, persevere and accomplish long term goals. Working on a positive body image and self-acceptance can lead to significant beneficial changes in our health and lifestyle – not the other way around.
We think with our eyes
Visual economics reigns, especially today with the prevalence of social media. More than any other sense, sight guides our judgement and decisions. What we reflexively believe is the ideal body type is reinforced by our constant exposure to visual representations of health, fitness and beauty. In spite of all the body positivity messages floating about today, a good deal of what we view as ‘healthy’ is still tied to what we think health should look like. Consider other measuring sticks: how we feel in our bodies, how we move, how much energy, clarity and even laughter we experience throughout our days….
Riding the wellness wave
A new trend in health and diet programs is an emphasis on lifestyle and mindset change. While some may offer innovative strategies, they can also be outgrowths of savvy marketing that spout popular wellness lingo but still echo antiquated values, like shrinking our bodies. When considering a new diet or health program, be mindful of references, explicit or implied, to weight loss, portion-control and the caloric content of foods. While they’re not inherently harmful, they typically signify a weight-centric notion of health that sustains our deep-set fears and inadequacies - the very antithesis to self-awareness and long-term change.
Let’s get real about poundage
Yes, obesity can make you sick, it can even kill, and if you have a valid medical reason for controlling your weight, honour it and follow the advice of your health professional. It’s interesting to note, however, that chronologically our knowledge of the medical dangers of weight gain is actually new compared to our penchant for thinness. In other words, our cultural glorification of leanness long preceded the scientific rationale we draw on today to legitimate weight management and control. Scientific authority is cited to justify what is primarily an aesthetic concern for many.
The pandemic has galvanized a common, existential crisis of sorts, rousing a renewed and widespread concern for our physical and mental health. Looking critically at the underlying beliefs, motivations and influences that drive our personal health practices, which are embedded in the routines of life pre-Covid, will help us redefine health so that, rather than being an end in itself, it becomes a means to a happier, more meaningful life.