Sitting down to answer the question, “What does health mean to me?” was actually a lot more confronting than I first appreciated.
I’ve not always been healthy. Or to put it another way, I’ve not always had the best definition of healthy.
In my teens, “healthy” meant eating as little as possible and exercising as much as my body could handle. Health, or my definition of it, was a punishment. It was a reflection of whether I felt I had my life under control, or not.
Initially, this fixation is what drew me to study sports medicine and then to continue on to get my Master’s in nutrition.
Throughout my studies, however, I learned that health is more than just calories in and out. I learned about nutrients, the strength of the human body, and how we fuel our brain.
By my 20s, I had put this newfound knowledge into place and had a much better relationship with food and exercise. However, I still saw health in silos.
I had to eat well.
I had to exercise appropriately.
I had to drink water.
I was still working crazy hours, in stressful jobs, with very little downtime. I was allergic to the word “no” and I felt guilty if I wasn’t the first one in the door and the last one out.
I might have looked “healthy” but I was on a collision course with a breakdown.
I was in my early 20s when I had my first panic attack. I was in an airplane at the end of a stressful few months at work, heading to a pointless professional development exercise which I probably should have canceled to go on an island vacation instead.
I woke up from a nap on my flight and could no longer see or hear. I managed to find the call button for the air staff, but could hardly explain what was going on because I couldn’t hear what they were saying, or my own voice.
The helpful attendant pulled me up out of my seat. I vaguely remember hitting my head as I collapsed; she hadn’t been ready for me to fall. Then I woke up on oxygen in the galley.
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Throughout my 20s, I had a handful of other similar experiences: on planes, in work meetings, at doctor appointments — anywhere that I felt I wasn’t able to escape from if I needed to. Not without making a scene anyway.
Then it all came to a crux when I had our first child at 29. I developed preeclampsia, most likely due to an existing autoimmune condition and work stress. It got so bad that my daughter was delivered by emergency C-section at 37 weeks.
Hospitals were a real trigger for me. (After all, feeling sick and being stuck somewhere which is not home is very anxiety-producing for even the most relaxed of people!) So, I discharged myself 3 days after birth with my blood pressure still precariously high.
I was back again, via the emergency room, the next day. My blood pressure was 180/140 and I was dangerously unwell.
This time I spent 2 weeks in hospital with my baby in a cot next to my bed. I cried day and night for those 2 weeks. I was scared, alone, a new mom, and still very unwell.
When I was finally discharged, I was released back home along with my newborn and with my anxiety. I had been warned about postnatal depression, but no one had really mentioned postnatal anxiety.
Because of my anxiety, I basically isolated myself and my daughter for the first 6 months. Playgroups were germ breeding grounds and even driving made me have visions of a car plowing into our side at an intersection.
Finally, I sought help from my family doctor. She was wonderful and her support probably changed the course of my life and my health through my 30s.
Which brings me to the point of this article! (Thanks for sticking with me!)
What would I say are the key parts to health and wellbeing?
Well, with my undergrad in sports and exercise, my postgrad in nutrition, and my qualifications as positive psychology practitioner, combined with all those life experiences I’ve just shared with you, I feel I’m in a pretty unique place to discuss health!
And I have 6 key things that — based on all of these things — I believe are integral to wellbeing.
1. Eat in Moderation, Mostly Plants, and What You Enjoy
There are so many diets out there today it is no wonder people get confused about what is healthy. The problem with “diets” is that the focus is on weight loss, sometimes with buzzwords like “energy” or “detox” thrown in there.
Here is a crazy thought: any diet can help you lose weight. ANY. DIET. Because, by definition, a diet restricts the foods you eat.
When I was in recovery, I had many other girls come and go through the doors of the clinic. They all had different rules about food. Not eating before a certain time, or after a certain time, no sugar, no fat, no meat, no carbs, etc., etc. They all lost weight.
When someone tells me they’re hardly eating and cannot understand why they’re still putting on weight, my brain automatically tells me there is something not right. Either they have an underlying condition or they’re lying… (and if you ever watch “Secret Eaters UK”, you’ll get a good idea which camp most people fall into.)
My point is: diets are all a crock. All of them.
And when it boils down to it, we shouldn’t be eating with the goal of weight loss.
We should be eating to gain some enjoyment out of what we are consuming and to live long enough to keep enjoying it.
Just like with everything else in my life, it took me a while to reach where I am today with my nutrition. After years of restricting, my professional stance was that everything in moderation was fine. We are omnivores and need food from all food groups to survive.
Now, you cannot fault me technically. However, the science of nutrition changed in leaps and bounds over the decade of my 20s. In my early 30s, I had to face the fact that there was mounting evidence that we were eating too much meat. Coming from a small country where farming was the lifeblood, this was a tough pill to swallow.
However, my husband, two kids, and I are now all mostly vegans. I say “mostly” because veganism has a very “cult-like” image. And the term usually encompasses more than just the foods a person eats. But when I say “vegan”, I mean non-dairy-consuming vegetarians who sometimes eat locally sourced fish.
To recap, my first key to health is to eat in moderation, mostly plants, but mainly what you enjoy.
There are plenty of articles on Nutrishatives where you can learn how food affects your body.
Learn More About Meatless Diets!
2. Be Active Every Day
I’ve not always been the most active person. As a kid, I firmly believed that I was not at all sporty. I was fat, squatty, and much more at home with a pile of books.
In my teens, I went the other way. I’d wake up before anyone else to walk 2 km, then 5 km, then (at the height of my exercise obsession) running 10 km every day.
As I said earlier, exercise was a punishment for me, not an enjoyable activity.
And whilst most people don’t take it to that extreme, I think many will share my feelings of working out being punishment.
Now I see exercise very differently. I see it as a celebration of my strength. I see it as timeout. It can be a quiet time of reflection or fun socialization.
I mix it up every week. Some days are a long run on my own, taking in the gorgeous mountain scenery enveloping my home town. Other days are a fun dance class with friends or a HIIT class with a few giggles but lots of hard work.
But whether it be an obstacle course with the kids, a walk through our garden, a 10 km run, or getting my boogie on with some friends, I try to be active in some way every day.
Now, I do have rules about when I’m sick. I heard them from a trainer friend once and I loved them.
- if your bug only has you sick from the neck up then — if you feel up to it — by all means, yes! Exercise.
- if it is from the neck down, then no. Rest, relax, get better.
(For clarification, neck up is a headache, normal low-grade cold, etc. Neck down would be injuries, chest infections, stomach bug, etc.)
3. Be Grateful
This is probably one of the odder tricks that I’ve come across for overall health and wellbeing. It is called “practicing gratitude” and it is all about showing appreciation for things that happen during your day.
These can be little things, like getting a great parking spot, having time to go for a walk, or the muffin you like still being available in the cafe at lunchtime. Or they could be big things, like getting a promotion, booking a healthy family vacation, or having family in your life.
There are multiple ways you can work practicing gratitude into your life.
- at dinner time, each person in your family can say one thing they are grateful for that day
- at bedtime, you can write down 3 things that happened that day you are grateful for (as a bonus mention what you did to contribute to those 3 good things)
- during your shower or while you’re brushing your teeth or washing the dishes, you can list in your head as many things as you can think of which you are grateful for
Saying what you’re grateful for helps rewire your brain to see the good things that happen in your life.
And this is important because we are programmed to see the negative. It’s a survival mechanism. If a shadow could be a lion or a rabbit, it was more important we think it is a lion and run, just in case.
Gratitude helps to rewire our brains so that, in our modern world, we are not continuously jumping away from imaginary lions.
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Ok, I used to hate the idea of meditation just as much as the next person. The idea of sitting in silence whilst thoughts rushed through my head for 10, 15, or 30 minutes or more, filled me with dread.
However, once I realized that meditation is not about silence, it really helped me relax and enjoy it much more.
Let me explain it as best I can.
Our days are very busy and noisy. We have radio, television, computers, cell phones, people, and businesses fighting for our attention. Kids and partners need our time. Work and personal tasks need to be done. Our brains are constantly occupied with the next noisy thing.
Meditation is an opportunity to move away from the busy-ness. Give yourself time to listen to your thoughts. Give yourself time to unpick them, understand them, show them care, or find a resolution.
Guided meditations are a great way to have an experienced person take you through a meditation designed for what you need. What I mean by this is that a meditation can be about getting energy, forgiveness, sorting through trauma, happiness, mindfulness, etc.
There are many different forms of meditation and ways to do them. Find one that works for you and just practice, either first thing in the morning, during that afternoon slump, or before bed. Whatever works for you.
5. Think Big Picture
Our health is intertwined with the health of the environment. It is shortsighted to think the state of the world’s health is none of your business.
This, again, comes from personal experience. I have never been much of an environmental vigilante. I have unwittingly taken the “I’m only one person, what can I do?” mentality.
However, possibly thanks to the rise of the internet and Facebook, I’ve started to realize that we can make a difference as one person. (Possibly having kids and wanting to leave a healthy world for them has played a role in this, too.)
But I now view the world, and my part in it, with a much wider lens than I used to.
Here are the little things I try to do:
- turn the tap off when I’m brushing my teeth
- eat plant-based
- source food as locally as possible and grow what I can (I’m no gardener) to help make my diet sustainable
- only have one car for our family
- bike or walk where practical
- pick up trash when I’m walking around our town
- buy as few packaged items as possible
6. You Do You
This is by far the most important thing and it feeds into much of what I’ve said. The healthiest thing you can possibly do in your life is to do what makes you happy. Just do what brings you joy.
Don’t do something because others want you to do it. Don’t act a certain way, follow certain rules, etc. simply because that is what you think is expected of you.
Unless you are Buddist, this is the only life you have. Don’t waste it on other people’s drama and hang-ups.
My husband and I married 8 years ago against his family’s advice. We are still going strong two kids later.
We adopted when people said it wouldn’t work. We left our jobs and started our own businesses. We’ve moved to three different countries despite family opposition.
We love our lives. We enjoy nearly every moment of our days. We get to do what makes us feel happy and free and alive.
This is us doing us. You need to do you!
Because me doing what makes me wake up happy and full of life each day has been the best thing for my wellbeing ever.