If you’ve ever read an article about health, you’ve probably heard before that exercise isn’t everything - we can’t make up for our poor nutrition habits by simply running harder and longer. Our health is more holistic than that - the way we eat, and even how much we sleep, are factors we need to consider when striving after our health goals. And while that’s all good and true, it’s not the end of the story. You could spend the rest of your life sleeping 8 hours every night, exercising for 30 minutes every day, and eating as healthily as possible, and you’d watch your health plummet before your eyes. Here are two main reasons why:
Our Bodies Are Made To Experience Pleasure
Hopefully this doesn’t take too much convincing, because it’s incredible just how easily stimulated we are as humans. We salivate over certain sugary and salty foods; we’re awestruck by sights like grand mountains or colorful sunsets. We delight in simple experiences a big hug or the sun on our skin, and we’re soothed by smells like vanilla, lavender, or cedar. Even noise stimulates us - before we even know how to speak, we can get lost in a rhythm and tune.
And none of this is coincidence - every one of these things is tied to our brain’s production of feel-good chemicals called dopamine, endorphin, serotonin, and oxytocin. That’s important, because without these chemicals, we’ll end up on some serious medications and lose years of life while we’re at it. It’s also a clear sign that we’re meant to have these experiences - unless you believe our bodies are designed as cruel punishment systems, that is.
If our body is clearly communicating to us, “Hey! I like that! It tastes good!” and we reply day after day, “Too bad. You don’t get any.” - how can we expect our body to get along with us? Over time, we will lose motivation, we will feel depressed, and we will end up losing whatever progress we had made along the way. Ask around and see how many people you know who stuck to a New Year’s resolution by telling themselves, “Suck it up. Deal with it.” Unsurprisingly, this mindset wears thin quickly. It’s when we genuinely enjoy a life change we’ve made that we stick to it!
Sustainability is key when it comes to health goals, because if you can’t keep up what you’re doing, you won’t keep up the progress you’ve made. And if your health plan is all work and no play, I guarantee you, you won’t keep it up. Our bodies are hard-wired for pleasure, and if our diet doesn’t have a healthy dose of pleasure-inducing foods and experiences, we can guarantee our health will decline in the long run. The reason is, simply put, we’re not machines. Health is not an exact formula because neither are we as humans, which brings me to point #2.
We Are More Than A Body
Not to be too existential, but we’re foolish to pursue physical health in isolation, because we know that the physical is just one dimension of our being. We have a mind, a consciousness - which is not at all synonymous with our brain. We have emotions, a will, and so on.
Of course, you already knew these things existed. What we need to know is that they are every bit as relevant to our health equation as sleep and diet. I won’t cite all the studies, but research for yourself and you will find, for example, that laughter has clear health benefits, and stress is clearly harmful for our health. The levels of our happiness, fulfillment, motivation, and will to live are also correlated with our physical health.
The point is, we are connected. Make no mistake - we cannot separate our physical health from our mental, emotional, and spiritual reality. They are not different goals at all, which is precisely why a truly holistic health regiment must incorporate more than just the physical.
So, What Can We Do?
I won’t attempt a complete guide on holistic health, but as a helpful next step, try this little exercise:
… okay, no pun intended there …
Now, with those lists underway, evaluate: how does this compare to what you currently do with your free time and what you actually eat on your cheat days? Are you spending your time off doing the things you enjoy the most, or are you filling it with entertainment and people that you don’t even like that much? When you have dessert, is it the dessert you love, or just the cold donut that someone brought into the office?
As you identify inconsistencies, work to correct them. Stop settling for ‘pretty good’ and begin to look for ways to incorporate your favorite things into your life on a regular basis. Maybe even consider using them as incentives to do the things you don’t like as much (like eating vegetables, or budgeting). But regardless - do them! The sweet spot (wow.. so many puns all of the sudden..) is to enjoy these things in moderation. No matter how we cut it, we’re going to need self-discipline to live healthily. So, instead of disciplining yourself to cut out all unhealthy foods (and ruin your health in the process), focus your discipline on not having too much.
See how your health goes up, your joy and empowerment goes up, and your readiness to make more positive changes goes up, as you start intentionally doing and eating the things your body loves. It’s time to take 'guilty' out of pleasure! :)
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