Updated: Feb 22, 2022
“The most powerful thing you can do to improve your health is to learn to listen to your own body and stop listening to everyone else.” - Dr. Michael Ruscio
Anyone else out there as confused as I have been by the diversity and conflicting health information available? Some groups claim a lower carbohydrate, higher fat diet is best for optimal health, whereas other studies have shown higher carb is where it’s at. Some say high intensity interval training is the way to get fit, where others advocate for low intensity cardio.
How is it possible to have conflicting evidence to achieve the exact same result?
What should we believe?
Often we end up freezing, not knowing what direction to move as we struggle with information overload.
How can we move towards a healthier lifestyle and feel confident in what we decide?
Well let me see if I can provide a bit of guidance. I think the answer lies in learning to listen to our body!
I started with the basics, and stopped overcomplicating things. I found trusted professionals that actually LISTENED to help guide my decision making. I believe we know our bodies better than anyone else. Yes, others might have a wealth of knowledge, but they don’t know it intimately like we do.
The old adage of 'If you listen to your body when it whispers, you won't have to hear it scream' rings true in that our body is designed to flourish. More often than not, it will give us cues when things aren't well that we shouldn’t ignore.
But how do we do that?
Well, like I said...
Start with the basics:
Many of our current ailments come from a lack of engaging in the top 5 healthy behaviors:
Maintaining a normal body weight
Healthy alcohol consumption
Getting adequate sleep
However, only 6% of Americans engage in these 5 behaviors regularly (1). This means we have the power to prevent or reverse many diseases, and live a healthy, flourishing lifestyle, simply by adopting healthier habits. It doesn't sound hard right?
Eat nourishing foods, have a healthy relationship with alcohol, move your body, sleep well, manage your stress, enjoy life and fill it with meaningful relationships.
So now that you can see how simple the basics can be, let’s jump in!
1. Strive to nourish your body
'Let thy food be thy medicine and thy medicine be thy food'
The first step is to focus on good, nutrient dense foods by incorporating fresh, whole and unprocessed foods into your diet. In Michael Pollands book, ‘In Defense of Food’, he presents a guide to help identify real food. His eater’s manifesto “Eat Food. Not Too Much. Mostly Plants” always sticks with me and brings me back to the basics.
Yes, there is so much more you can consider, but, if we focus on this simple concept we would be making significant progress towards eating a well-balanced, healthy diet that nourishes the body.
A couple simple tips he highlights to help are as follows:
Shop the perimeters of the grocery store where all the fresh produce, meats and dairies are.
Only eat foods your great-grandma would recognize as food. In other words those potato chips that include ingredients such as ‘monosodium glutamate, dextrose, disodium inosinate, disodium guanylate’ might not fall into the ‘real food’ category.
Focus on eating a wide variety of colors and foods that are rich in nutrients to support a healthy body.
2. Create a rhythm of movement & exercise
We are designed to move, sweat, and feel alive.
If our body constantly aches, feels exhausted and lethargic, how is our mind supposed to thrive?
Marcus Tullius Cicero states that "It is exercise alone that supports the spirits, and keeps the mind in vigor." How true I have found this to be.
For me, there is no better place to re-energize than getting lost in the forest on a trail run with the sun streaming through the trees. I come back refreshed and a completely different person than when I left.
Beyond the benefits to our physical body, movement, especially in nature, has many benefits to our mental health, helping to reduce anxiety/depression, improve self-esteem and cognitive function (2).
The key is it doesn't have to be complex! Start small and simple.
Maybe it looks like getting out for an evening walk, taking the stairs, going for a quick jog, or performing a minute of jumping jacks, squats and a plank first thing in the morning.
Start where you are at, not where you want to be; then try adding one thing to move more each day.
Remember, our body, brain and spirit will thank us for creating a daily habit of movement. As you start to move more, I encourage you to pay attention to how you feel afterwards.
Does this help energize you and clear your mind? Make you feel alive?
If so, let that be motivation to keep up the habit, knowing you feel better once your body is in motion!
3. Sleep Well
Sleep deprivation is all too common these days. Yet, it is so important to both our physical and mental health!
How are we supposed to lead a full life IF we walk around dead tired, living off caffeine?!
The Center for Disease Control reports that inadequate sleep is associated with numerous chronic diseases and conditions including diabetes, heart disease, obesity and depression (4).
I don’t know about you, but this knowledge is a pretty big motivator for me to take any steps possible to decrease my risk of developing chronic disease. Further, knowing I have the added benefit of being able to enjoy my life because I have prioritized sleep makes me question why we wouldn’t pursue this?!
I understand sleep can be more complicated than simply going to bed, but taking a holistic approach and focusing on movement, nourishing food and our mental well-being will all feed into our ability to sleep well.
Funny how the body is so interconnected!
Some simple strategies you can implement to help you achieve better sleep include:
Turning down the lights at the end of the evening.
Avoiding blue-light or screens about 1-2 hours prior to your desired bed time.
Keeping your bedroom cool (ideally at or below 18C or 70F).
Creating a wind-down routine that puts aside the worries of the day. Try writing down anything you need to remember the following day so your brain can let go of it.
4. Seek joy and connection
The topic of joy and connection is one I find the most challenging!
It is all-too-easy to get wrapped up in accomplishments, striving and feeling the need to use our time 'wisely' to help us get ahead. Our self-worth is often tied to our accomplishments and net worth, contributing to the ever-increasing struggles with anxiety & depression.
It is becoming increasingly rare to seek out an activity or relationship because of the pure enjoyment and joy it brings.
Dr. Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist and researcher explains that play is actually very important as it shapes our brains. It is what helps us empathize, navigate complex social groups, and is the foundation for creativity and innovation, further helping us to energize our souls (3). I don't know about you, but I could use some more creativity, innovation and soul invigoration!
Try making a list of activities that bring joy. What do you really love to do? Who do you love to do it with? Then schedule it in! The rest of your life will thank you for seeking joy and connection.
5. Renew your Mind
"If you realized how powerful your thoughts are, you would never think a negative thought" - Peace Pilgrim
Finally, but far from least important, is the concept of paying attention to our thought process and what we allow our mind to think about.
I've come to realize that what we think about is so important that I've written a whole post on it, so I won't dive into too much detail here. However, we could do all the 'right things' as mentioned above, but if our mind is full of garbage, perpetuating cycles of negativity and speaking poorly to ourselves we could negate all the work we are doing in other areas of our life.
Dr. Caroline Leaf, a neuroscientist, explains that 'As we think, we change the physical nature of our brain. As we consciously direct our thinking, we can wire out toxic thought patterns of thinking and replace them with healthy thoughts. New thought networks grow. We increase our intelligence and bring healing to our brains, minds, and physical bodies' (4).
What we think about doesn't just affect the brain but trickles down to the rest of our body!
As you start down this journey to health and healing, remember:
Don’t overwhelm yourself! Start with one thing. Once you feel confident in that change, and it no longer feels overwhelming, add another small focus. Before you know it you will have worked your way through many changes just by starting with one and creating forward momentum.
Surround yourself with great people. Remember, ‘bad company corrupts good character’. If we create a positive environment, with encouraging people, this will keep us on track as things get tough. We need one another. Life is better when we have beautiful and encouraging relationships to lean on.
Balance is key. Yes there may be a time and place to be really strict with ourselves, but if you ‘slip up’ or opt to indulge in a treat with friends, that is okay. You may be choosing to honour a different set of values like close relationships and fun which feed your soul. This can sometimes be more beneficial to our health than always having the ‘perfect’ diet.
What works for one person, doesn’t work for everyone. We are all unique. Our bodies respond differently. Trust your process and stay true to your journey, without comparing it to others.
Our health journeys can be hard, frustrating and isolating at times, but there is a path out there that works for you. It’s a matter of partnering with the right people and finding what that is. Then starting the journey by taking the first step.
If you are looking to partner with someone who can support you on this journey, reach out. You do not have to do this alone.
At the end of the day one of the most important things we can do is learn to listen to our body.
It hosts a wealth of wisdom and often knows what works best; we need to pause long enough, quiet the external noise, and tune into what it’s telling us. If given the right circumstances and setting I think our bodies have an amazing ability to heal.
I’m reminded of nature’s ability to return to its natural state in the absence of human meddling. In the documentary ‘DamNation’, they show when a giant hydropower dam is removed from a water system, the streams recover, fish return and the ecosystem naturally bounces back. I believe this concept applies to our bodies as well.
We need to remove the damaging, toxic substances and figure out what is needed to promote healing.
Then, trust your body.
Trust that given the opportunity and time, it will heal.
Liu et al, 2016; Center for Disease Control.
Sharma, A., Madaan, V., & Petty, F.D. (2006). Exercise for mental health. The Primary Care Companion to the Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 8 (2).
Brown, S & Vaughan, C. (2009). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. New York: Penguin Group.
Leaf, C. (2013). Switch on your brain: The key to peak happiness, thinking and health. Grand rapids, MI: Baker Books.