Health: More Than Diet and Exercise
I remember health class in high school. It was the best. I would sit in the back of the class and make immature jokes during sex ed with my friends. The best part was that at the end of the day you were basically guaranteed an “A” in the class. It was great! Unfortunately, if you asked me after any of those classes what “being healthy” meant, I would have been at a loss. As a fitness professional, I feel that I am supposed to be a beacon of truth and knowledge about the best health information out there for my clients and anyone who takes my advice. In order to do that, I need to know what being healthy is all about, right? So I’m trying to define it, and it’s hard.
I really wish that being healthy were as easy as eating well and exercising regularly. However, it is most certainly not. In fact, I know a lot of people who eat well and exercise regularly who are NOT healthy. Many people who you THINK are healthy actually have eating disorders, body image issues (this affects both men and women), and struggle with depression.
Now, you might be saying that all of those issues are mental, and health is more about the body, but that’s actually wrong. Please consider that psychiatric disorders (depression being the biggest one) are the leading cause of disease and disability in the U.S., more than cardiovascular disease and cancer. In fact, individuals who suffer with depression are four times as likely to suffer a heart attack than those who don’t. Have you ever heard of broken heart syndrome? Typically after the loss of a loved one, patients can become so depressed that their heart will stop beating. Even something as mechanical as lower back pain can be as much about mental health as physical.
Anxiety disorders affect about 18% of the U.S. population. That’s 40 million people who aren’t healthy. Anxiety raises stress levels, which can raise blood pressure and cholesterol, and that leads to heart disease. Stress can increase the speed of aging (see before and after pictures of every U.S. president). Keep in mind that I haven’t even gotten into complex mental health disorders, like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, which can completely control your life.
So, why do we only talk about diet and exercise? Well, to be honest, it’s a lot easier to go to the gym than to face the fears that give you anxiety. It’s not fun to talk about depression because it’s, well, depressing. However, if you want to be healthy, you need to take care of yourself MENTALLY. I’m not saying that exercise and diet don’t contribute to good health. They do. They can even help with anxiety and depression. But they are only a small piece of the puzzle. If you are scared to step outside of your apartment every day, you are not living a healthy life. I don’t care how many salads you eat or how many miles you run per week, you are not living a healthy life.
During my junior year in college I was suffering from depression, even though I didn’t know it at the time. All of a sudden I started getting dizzy. I felt nauseous. I couldn’t eat. I had big, dark circles under my eyes. I was scared of everything. This lasted for two weeks as doctors ran multiple tests on me for the major diseases. I actually had to leave school to go home to see my general practitioner. He diagnosed me with depression and anxiety in about 5 minutes after explaining that all of my tests for physical diseases came back negative. I was stunned. How could depression have made me so ill?
Here we are, at the root of the problem. It seems that in a frantic effort to become healthy, we have tried to split the body and mind apart and blame poor health on the body. There’s a slight problem with that approach: the mind and the body are not separable. They work together. They are in the same being. In order to be healthy, everything has to be working well. You need to feel good. You need to have energy. You need positive relationships with friends and family. You need to feel important. All of this stuff is really hard to deal with, which is why people will tell you to just eat a salad and work out three times per week. It’s easier than trying to get someone to deal with the things that aren’t easy to fix.
So, what is health? Honestly, it’s up to you. Some people would rather be stressed out and run a Fortune 500 company than sit on a beach and meditate. That’s fine, but remember this: when you think about health, think about everything. Health is not about the body or mind, it’s about both. If you think that you want to live a healthier life, start with the mind, because it seems to be where the source of well-being is for most people.