“I Want To Be Healthy” is a phrase that has crossed the lips of millions of people. It is vocalized with a built-in resignation that reveals the impossibility it suggests. We have these images of “healthy”, these socially-promoted visions of healthy bodies, and yet that goal, that target weight, that manifest vibrancy seems perpetually out of reach. The list grows longer and longer: lose 50 pounds, walk every day, stop eating fast food, cook dinner every single night, buy a gym membership, quit smoking, eat breakfast, pack a lunch every day, buy organic, get a physical at the doctor’s office, get your teeth cleaned….too much, way too much. These demands on your time pile up around you, teetering overhead like hoarded guilty pleasures, stifling any inspiration you may have once had to change your life. How anyone expects to keep their momentum up under the weight of a list like that is unfathomable to me. And combine all that with the daily realities of many families today: trying to balance work and family, driving the kids to various school and athletic functions, shifting job priorities, the house chores, and suddenly the Be Healthy list is just plain impossible.
Being healthy still matters to most of us, nagging at the corners of our minds, but these expectations can’t fit into the small, unpredictable spaces in an already overfull life. The idea hangs around, slouching at the edges of our racing minds turning empowering thought into disempowering emotional realities. We start in with the self-deprecating internal dialogue: “Look at her. She’s so beautiful and healthy. I’ll never look like that”; and: “I used to be a great ball player. Now I can’t even help my kid out with his practice. I’ll never be in shape like that again”; and: “My clothes don’t fit so I’ll just go buy new ones. I will get used to accepting the reflection in the mirror. I know I will not ever be able to change”.
We have this way of using our unrealized potential against ourselves. In this twisted turn of intention we punish ourselves for not accomplishing this too-big goal. And after the guilty meal choices, the exhaustion in the face of exercise, the tight finances that prevent the addition of helpful resources, complaisance is the only salve. Accepting failure, becoming accustomed to feeling not-quite-well, we trudge through our days, carrying the excess weight of disappointment.
The problem with this in is the perpetual damage this kind of thinking does to the body. The build-up of stress in the body can lead to all kinds of damage, starting with small issues like headaches, neck and back tension, and a compromised immune system. And these symptoms can quickly lead to larger issues if left untended. The National Cancer Institute defines psychological stress this way: “Psychological stress refers to the emotional and physiological reactions experienced when an individual confronts a situation in which the demands go beyond their coping resources”. To me, this is profound. Being forced to face demands beyond my coping resources; this sounds exactly like the feeling I get when I start in with the negative self-talk about living a healthier lifestyle. Many of us want to be well, to feel strong, to know about our bodies and its workings, but we feel unprepared to begin this process.
I can offer you this: nothing can be accomplished from a place of self-deprecation. And once the too-big goal is broken up into manageable pieces, real and lasting change can occur. There are a million old sayings that suggest the same: don’t make mountains out of molehills, Rome wasn’t built in a day, every journey begins with a single step, etc. We can start small. We need to start small. Make one positive choice today, and stick with it all week. “Healthy” is not something to be gained or possessed, not some end-of-the-road prize. Healthy is a life practice and, as such, requires patience, discipline, focus, and realistic goals. No one can go out right now and change their entire diet, adapt their work and home responsibilities to make room for rest and reflection at regulated times, can begin a work-out regimen, and remove all toxic products from their sphere of existence.
The key for me was to start small and have patience. Good choices have a way of multiplying, if you give them the time to manifest change in your life. Something as simple as eating breakfast every day can make a huge difference in how you feel, but the results will take time to come into focus.
Try a few of these suggestions to begin your healthier life:
Try not to eat dinner after 6pm.
Drink more water.
Stretch ever morning for 5 minutes before you get in the shower.
Pack reasonable snack foods for your work day.
Drink alcohol only on the weekend.
Take your lunch break at work; no more “working lunches”; stop working for a short time, eat with intention, and perhaps take a small walk outside if the weather permits.
Laugh and smile as often as possible.
The decision to be healthier is a deeply personal one, rooted in our innate desire to be the best version of ourselves we can be. By starting small and building discipline around little successes, we can build momentum towards our ultimate goal. But we do this not for that goal, but for the path it takes us on: fall in love with this process, fall in love with yourself becoming stronger, becoming braver, becoming more open to the possibilities in your life. Given the chance, you will like what you see.