I couldn’t help noticing the food items in the cart ahead of me in the checkout line: ice cream, soda pop, cheese puffs, candy, and more. And I couldn’t help noticing the rather large man and woman standing behind their cart, checking out the fitness magazines on display. But mostly I couldn’t help smiling when I heard the woman say, “All this information on staying healthy is enough to make me sick.”
This scene at the supermarket reminds me that many people know what to do to stay healthy, but lack the necessary motivation to do it. The benefits are obvious:
- Looking and feeling younger.
- Lower health care costs and insurance premiums.
- Increased energy and productivity.
- Improved self esteem.
- Living longer.
- Living better.
The benefits may be obvious, but staying healthy also takes discipline and hard work. If it were easy, everyone would be healthier.
The woman at the grocery store was right: there is an overwhelming amount of information out there about staying healthy. Even so, more and more Americans are obese. More and more children don’t get enough exercise. And the costs of treating our unhealthy lifestyles are spiraling out of control.
In this article, I’d like to change the focus from “I ought to do this or that” to “I get to do this or that!” The healthiest people I know enjoy staying healthy. They see it as a privilege, not an obligation. They “just do it,” not because they have to, but because they want to.
So, instead of giving you a list of rules or commandments, let me suggest some guiding principles about healthy living. When it’s all said and done, health is about balance.
What is balance, anyway?
Think of a bicycle. There are two basic ways to balance it. One way is to put the kickstand down or lean the bike against a tree. But where’s the fun in that type of static balance? As physics experiments go, it’s trivial.
The other way is to balance the bicycle is to ride it, pedaling it forward, twisting and turning your way down the road. That’s dynamic balance, and it’s a much more meaningful illustration of the concept… and a lot more fun. It’s what the bike was made for. At any point you might be slightly off balance, but by moving forward and shifting your weight, you can stay on the bike. And the more you do it, the better you get at it.
The same is true of your health. You’re constantly balancing one thing against another. Half the time you’re a little off-center—working long hours, eating too much, not getting enough exercise—but to stay healthy, you eventually need to move the other direction by getting more rest, eating less, and exercising more. That’s the way you move forward.
Let me suggest to you a framework of triads (groups of three) that must be balanced in your life in order to stay healthy. I’m limiting this discussion to your internal balance—things you have direct control over—not balancing your external commitments like career and family. Those things will tend to sort themselves out if you have a healthy balance of Body, Mind, and Spirit.
Get back on that bicycle for a moment. Think of the bicycle itself, the parts and frame, as the body. Think of the rider who steers it as the mind. And think of the energy that moves it forward as the spirit. Obviously, there’s a lot of overlap between these three things, but for the purposes of discussion it helps to keep them separate.
When speaking of health, most people focus on the body. A healthy body has these three things in balance:
- Diet/nutrition (energy you take in)
- Exercise (energy you expend)
- Rest/recovery (time and space to re-energize)
But these same three things also apply to your mind and your spirit. Just as you feed your body (with good and not-so-good things), there are ways to feed your mind and your spirit. And just as you can exercise your body, there are ways to exercise your mind and spirit as well,. Same goes for rest. Just as you rest your body so that it can recover, you can also rest your mind and spirit. The important thing is finding a balance in all these areas that’s right for you.
One Step Further
Where this really gets cool is that diet, exercise, and rest can each be broken down into three components as well. It’s easiest to grasp this by looking at what your body needs, and then make the parallels to your mind and spirit.
There are three basic elements to a balanced diet:
- Carbohydrates (energy)
- Protein (growth)
- Fat (storage)
And three main components of a well rounded exercise program:
- Cardio/endurance training
- Strength training
You guessed it—there are also three main types of rest:
- Short-term (breaks/naps)
- Regular rest (nightly sleep)
- Long-term (Weekends, vacations, sabbaticals, and periods of hibernation)
Easy as 1-2-3
Now let’s put it all together with some examples of what I’m talking about. Again, it’s easiest to grasp this when talking about the body. After we do that, we can make a few parallel observations about keeping your mind and spirit healthy as well.
A healthy body needs a balance of several things:
Diet. Taking it in. Most foods are a mixture of:
- Carbohydrates (energy). Despite the low-carb craze, everybody needs at least some carbohydrates to sustain energy. Carbs are your body’s primary source of fuel. Carbs come primarily from plants: vegetables, grains, and starchy roots (like potatoes). They can be in the form of starch, sugar, or fiber. There are good carbs (e.g. fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains) and not-so-good carbs (refined sugars, processed white flour). The difference is that good carbs take longer to digest, and so release their energy more evenly. The key is to consume mostly good carbs.
- Protein (growth). Protein comes in the form of amino acids from plants and animals. It helps your body build, heal, and grow. You need an adequate amount of protein to build strong muscles, bones, skin, teeth, etc. The best proteins are lean proteins found in things like tuna, white chicken meat, lean ground beef, lentils, whey, soy, etc.
- Fat (storage). Fats supply the body’s major energy storage system. Think of it as an emergency energy reserve that your body taps into when needed (like if you have to skip meals, or are involved in excessive exercise). Fat also helps your body absorb certain vitamins and nutrients. Your body doesn’t need a lot of fat, and most people carry too much around, but every body needs some emergency energy supply. Saturated fats (like butter, margarine, whole milk, ice cream, coconut oil, palm oil, and lard, as well as the fat content of poultry skin and most red meat) raise cholesterol levels and can increase the risk of heart disease. Unsaturated fats (like those found in vegetable oil, canola oil, olive oil, nuts, avocadoes, salmon, tuna, white meat chicken, and lean ground beef) are much more healthy than the saturated kind.
Exercise. Burning it off.
- Endurance. When putting together a balanced exercise program, some amount of cardiovascular training (like walking, running, swimming, biking, rowing, or stair climbing) is necessary. Endurance exercise is good for your heart. Many health experts recommend 30-45 minutes of cardio at a time, at least three times a week.
- Strength. Working out with weights or machines. Calisthenics, yoga and Pilates exercises can also build strength. A good starting point is strength training 2-3 times per week for 45-60 minutes at a time.
- Flexibility. Flexibility and balance training have often been overlooked, but are growing in popularity through programs like yoga and Pilates. Stretching after cardio and strength training can also keep the muscles limber and minimize the risk of injury.
Rest. Recharging your batteries.
- Short-term rest. You can take short rest breaks throughout the day. It doesn’t have to be an actual nap; it could just be a short break from whatever it is you’re doing. Even so, cultures that practice a daily siesta might be on to something!
- Regular rest. Your body knows how much sleep it needs each night to feel refreshed. Most people need between six and eight hours a night. As a rule of thumb, you may need less sleep as you get older. The quality of your sleep is as important as the quantity.
- Long-term rest. Every so often, you need a longer rest, be it a weekend, a short vacation, or a lengthier sabbatical. As with other types of rest, the quality is as important as the quantity. Spending an entire vacation doing something stressful or that you don't enjoy isn’t really restful or healthy.
The mind matters!
Diet. What do you feed your mind?
- Energy. What are the “carbs” for your mind? What are your main sources of intellectual fuel? It might be books, or music, or films, or newspapers and magazines, or radio and television, or lectures, or classes and seminars. As with carbs, there are good and not-so-good ways to fuel your mind.
- Growth. How about your mental “protein?” This includes anything that helps you grow as a person. Some things, like books and classes might provide both energy and growth, just as some foods provide both carbs and protein.
- Storage. These essential “fats” for the mind might include things that you want to learn about purely for the enjoyment of it. You never know when something you learn about today might come in handy sometime in the future.
Exercise. What you do to put your mind to work.
- Endurance. You can exercise your mind in many ways. Think of endurance training as something that might be difficult to learn about early on, but gets easier with time and practice. What new skills are you practicing?
- Strength. Studies show that people who regularly do crossword puzzles are less likely to develop senility later in life. There are a number of things you can do to strengthen your mind. Like lively conversation! Debate! Puzzles! Another way to strengthen your intellect is to create something new. All people are creative to some degree. Like a muscle, your creativity needs to be used in order to grow.
- Flexibility. As with bodily stretching and flexibility training, mental flexibility training is often neglected. This type of training would include anything that helps you be more open-minded or that helps you use parts of your brain that don’t normally get used. It involves stretching your comfort zone a bit by looking at and thinking about things in new ways. Exposing yourself to new ideas. The more flexible your mind becomes, the more you’ll tap in to unknown sources of creativity.
Rest. Renewing your mind.
- Short-term rest. Think of short periods of rest for your mind as your periodic daydreams. It’s okay to let your mind wander from time to time, as long as you know how and when to bring it back. Short mental breaks can enhance your imagination.
- Regular rest. Your mind is still active while you sleep. Often, your dreams might be instructive to you in some way. Try to pay attention to the ones you remember. What can you learn from your dreams?
- Long-term rest. Your mind also needs to wrap itself around your long-term dreams. What are your goals? Your purpose in life? Why are you here? These are the really big questions. If your mind is always preoccupied with urgent daily matters, you may never address the matters that really matter.
I don’t mean this to be a religious discussion. Those of you with faith in a higher power or a supreme being may find this easier to grasp, but at the very least, think of your spirit as your essential life force. That which connects you to something outside and beyond yourself. That which keeps you moving forward.
Diet. Feeding the spirit.
- Energy. What energizes your spirit? What’s the primary source of your spiritual energy? What keeps you going? For some it’s the study of sacred texts. For some it’s worship. Others find it in nature. Or the arts. If you don’t know, ask yourself where you find beauty and truth—and start there.
- Growth. What helps your inner spirit grow? What does it mean to you to develop your spiritual muscles? What kinds of spiritual disciplines make you a stronger person? What negative habits might be hindering your progress?
- Storage. What can you do to strengthen your inner spiritual reserves? What can you tap into during a time of extreme crisis? What past “mountaintop” experiences can you draw from when needed?
Exercise. Working out your beliefs.
- Endurance. Spiritual endurance is often built as you learn to cope with hardship. How well do you handle adversity? What difficult events in your life have you survived? What lessons have you learned?
- Strength. You can develop your spiritual muscles through regular disciplines like prayer, study, meditation, worship, giving, and serving others.
- Flexibility. Spiritual flexibility, much like mental agility, comes through exposure to different spiritual ideas and concepts. What might it mean for you to step out of your spiritual comfort zone? This might include reading about or exposing yourself to different religious traditions. The more solid you are in your own beliefs, the more comfortable you’ll be in seeking to understand others. In all likelihood, refusing to understand others’ beliefs is a sign of spiritual immaturity.
Rest. Rest for your spirit involves finding empty spaces, or moments of silence within your busy life. Amazing things begin to happen when you get to that silent place within.
- Short-term rest. This might involve taking a short break several times a day just to reflect and listen, or to say a short prayer, recite a verse, or repeat an affirmation.
- Regular rest. You’ll benefit from a regular period of silence every day. I’m talking about rest for your spirit—not sleep. This could involve turning off the television or radio in order to listen to your thoughts, or to the voice within. It might mean going on a long walk by yourself, or an extended period of prayer or meditation. Not getting an adequate amount of daily silence may be the single biggest thing that throws Americans off balance.
- Long-term rest. Some traditions allow for day-long or longer spiritual retreats. Examples include long periods of silence, fasting, observing Lent, going on pilgrimage, or other extended times of spiritual renewal.
Admittedly, the concept of bodily health is the easiest to grasp, but mental and spiritual health are just as important. Reading all this is a fine way to pass the time, but if we don’t do anything about it, we’re sort of like those people in the supermarket line, looking at fitness magazines while their cart is loaded with unhealthy food.
If you’re really serious about improving your health, try this exercise: Grab three sheets of paper. Label them: Body, Mind, and Spirit. Draw a triangle on each piece of paper and label the corners: Diet, Exercise, and Rest. Now write down some of the ways you’ll get a healthy amount of each. Then start incorporating into your routine some of the things you’ve written, and see what happens!
Back to the bicycle analogy. There are many different types of bicycles and ways to ride them. Some people want to go slowly and enjoy the scenery. Others are more interested in speed or distance. Some stick to the well-marked paths; others prefer the thrill of an off-road adventure. Instead of trying what everyone else is doing, focus on finding a balanced physical, mental, and spiritual health program that works for you.
Finally, sometimes your bike hits a bump in the road. You turn too sharply, get a flat tire, lose control, maybe fall off your bike. Even the best riders fall off on occasion. If so, the best thing is to clean yourself up, patch your wounds… and get back on the bike as soon as you can.
Same goes for your health. If you have a setback or fall off your program, don’t view it as a complete failure. Clean up your act, lick your wounds, and get back on it. And most of all…
Enjoy the ride!