Look great, feel great, be healthy. In today’s culture, is it really possible to balance all three? Perhaps. But digesting the conflicting messages that are fed to us on a daily basis is often quite challenging and overwhelming.
I joined a health club a few months after my college graduation. My goal was to take up a new hobby and get in shape. Knowing that the health benefits of regular exercise were numerous, I viewed working out as an enjoyable way to take care of my body and overall well-being. I received positive reinforcement from my friends, the trainers at the gym, television ads, and magazine articles with messages that fitness was an ideal that everyone should aspire to.
Having always been happy with my physical appearance, it had never occurred to me to lose weight until I started to read so-called “health” magazines which equated good nutrition with low fat, low calories meals. Additionally, a personal trainer at my health club informed me that weight loss would be necessary to reach an “healthy” body fat percentage. I began to notice how many of my friends and co-workers were conscious of what they ate in effort to control their weight. I therefore began my pursuit of weight loss. The American Dream: lose weight, feel great! Even though I was already at a healthy weight, the preponderance of these messages made me believe that fitness and weight loss were symbols of determination, control, and ultimately success.
Perhaps this association of health and fitness with the achievement of goals is where the line becomes blurred. Being fit and healthy in and of itself is undoubtedly a positive and worthwhile pursuit. However, adhering to the rigid tenets of nutrition and fitness requires a permanent lifestyle change and ongoing commitment. When I started exercising frequently and modifying my eating habits, most of peers were impressed with my willpower and dedication. Instead of going out to a bar on a Friday night for an evening of beer and buffalo wings, I would be lifting weights, running on a treadmill and then eating a salad alone in my apartment. As the pounds came off and I developed muscle tone, nearly everyone around me praised me for my success, further encouraging me to keep up my regime.
Is there anything wrong with this picture? Seemingly, no. Wasn’t I living proof that looking great, feeling great and being healthy was well worth the effort? Didn’t I enact the ultimate success story of making a permanent lifestyle change in my eating and exercise habits? I represented perfection in nearly every aspect. I had a beautiful new body, both slim and toned. I felt extremely successful, empowered and confident. Pursuing health and fitness gave me a complete makeover- both inside and out.
But somewhere along the way, something deeper was lost. Eating and exercising in the manner in which most fitness professionals recommend requires daily sacrifice. If you make your body your priority, other aspects of your life become minimized by default. Spending a Sunday afternoon eating pizza, drinking beer and watching football with your friends becomes counterproductive to your goals. And while you still may engage in that activity, a “health” mindset prevents you from enjoying the experience to the fullest. Cake and ice cream at birthday celebrations becomes a guilty pleasure, unless you choose to avoid the situation entirely by opting for a workout at the gym instead. While many people praised me for skipping dinners out with my friends so I could attend my aerobics class, I would have probably gained more from an evening of fun and companionship than from the hour of cardio.
Aren’t healthy people supposed to be happier? Yes, and this is where the media and our culture blur the line between adopting healthy habits and glorifying the “fitness” ideal. It’s quite challenging to make a few permanent changes in your diet for the sake of health without becoming results-driven. We Americans like to see measurable outcomes to our efforts, and have little faith that changing a few things in our lifestyle will make a difference unless we see it reflected on the scale, in our heart rate, cholesterol levels, etc.
A seasoned personal trainer at my gym recently approached me to enroll in a specialized class to build core strength. I told him that while I thought the class would be beneficial, I wasn’t ready to commit the time or money for it. He said something to the affect of: “It’s amazing that people will blow fifty to one hundred dollars on a night out at the bars looking for love in all the wrong places, but can’t commit that same time and money to their own personal health”. His response angered me beyond belief (having already sacrificed so much of my personal life to become the model of fitness), but on second thought, he did have a point. It truly is important to make a commitment to take care of your body. Yet how do you balance an active social life with a rigorous fitness and nutrition program?
The trainer continued by affirming that “you can lose your house, you can lose your job, you can lose your spouse and your friends, but what is the one thing that will always be with you no matter what?” My response: self-esteem. No matter what happens in life you can always rely on self-love to pull you through. The trainer shook his head and corrected me: “your body”. According to his philosophy, your body should take precedence over all these uncontrollable aspects of your life.
While I would agree that your home, your job, your friends and family can be here today and gone tomorrow, it’s most important to enjoy them while they are a part of your life, before it’s too late. A focus on your body as the “one thing” that will always be there robs you of an appreciation of the world you live in.
My view, however, isn’t quite as easy to adapt. Strong self-esteem and appreciating life one day at a time isn’t as dependable as knowing that your body will always be with you no matter what. For a long time I found it much easier and much more appealing to focus only on heath and fitness because it was entirely within my control, whereas my job, my friends, and my relationships were not. Furthermore, taking care of your body is extremely important for longevity and well-being. Is there any way to reconcile the two viewpoints and live a truly balanced life? Where taking care of your physical health and fitness is as important as enjoying an active social life? It’s a challenge, and attaining that balance in and of itself can be as mentally draining as being an extremist.
I’ve learned that the only way to reconcile this issue is to be true to your own needs and wants on a daily basis. Instead of prescribing yourself a plan on how to live your life, allow yourself to make decisions as they arise. Give yourself the freedom to eat and exercise however you’d like, and if nutrition is really important to you, you’ll make healthy choices most of the time, but never feel like certain foods are off-limits. Learn to distinguish your personal needs and goals from those that health and fitness professionals prescribe. If fitness is truly important to you, you’ll make an overall effort to engage in exercise, but not feel compelled to follow a program.
The many conflicting messages about what’s healthy and what’s not, (ex: bananas have too many carbs and should be avoided vs. bananas are a good source of potassium and are essential to an active lifestyle) suggests that adhering to nutrition “rules” is not only mentally taxing, but may not even lead to improved health. The health and fitness information we receive is often as unreliable as those other areas of our life which can change at any moment. Not to say that fitness professionals and intuitionalists are worthless-but simply that we must, as individuals, assess our own preferences and needs above any prescribed formula for true physical and mental well-being.