In one of the Peanuts cartoons, Charles M. Schulz has Charlie Brown say, “My mind and my body hate each other.” It’s a typically Charlie Brown-ish moment, and as a brain-focused non-athlete for most of my life, I related to it for a long time. The problem with this mind-body “argument” is that it really isn’t helpful. You don’t “have” a body, you are a body, and if you don’t take care of your body, that mind you use to crank out glorious prose won’t be much use to anyone, especially you.
All of this came into sharp focus this past year, when I helped my friend Dede (D2) write a class on lifestyle management for obesity patients at Florida Hospital. Without going into exceptional detail, the important overall message of the class was that four major factors play into an unhealthy body–nutrition, exercise, sleep, and stress–and if you aren’t paying attention to all of them, you’re going to end up with an unhealthy body (and thus an unhealthy mind). D2 and I tried to tie the classes together by cross-feeding the impacts of one factor on the others into each class. For example, if you’re under stress, you’re probably not sleeping well; lack of sleep can reduce your desire for exercise and can create metabolic changes that cause you to crave unhealthy foods. And so forth.
To use an engineering metaphor, your body is a system, or really a system-of-systems. Something that you’re doing (or that’s being done to you) in one part of your body can and will eventually affect the others. As a result of some behaviors–overloading on soda, smoking, eating a lot of junk food, not exercising, etc.–you can end up with several problems, which being overweight can make worse, such as diabetes, heart disease, back problems, and even depression.
Again, without reciting the full 13-week class, I’d just like to offer some general thoughts on the four areas of the class that I applied to my own life–perhaps you’ll find them useful as you maintain your own “system of systems.”
The best things you can do for your diet are to mind your portion sizes and to reduce your intake of restaurant foods and processed foods at home. American restaurants, in particular, have become infamous for distorting their portion sizes out of all sense of reality. The thing with processed foods (most of the things you find “in a box”) is that they have a lot of preservatives and not a lot of nutrition in them. You need to focus on eating “natural” foods. And by that I mean vegetables, not processed vegetables; actual chicken/fish/dairy, not substitutes, whole grain instead of white bread. Focus on the foods on the perimeter of your grocery store–the bakery, produce, etc.–rather than a lot of the long-shelf-life stuff in the aisles.
Seriously, do some sort of physical activity that gets you moving. I walk a lot because I’m not particularly graceful at team sports or even on a bicycle, but I’ve also been going to a gym for nine years. (Oh yeah, you need to do this in conjunction with eating less/better foods–otherwise, you’re not going to accomplish a whole lot.) If walking doesn’t work for you, try yoga. Or Pilates. Or you can wash your hands of Pilates and try something else. But the most important thing is to get moving–like 30 minutes a day. Once you’ve started that habit, you can move into more aggressive activities like weightlifting or “cardio” (which is a code word for jumping around and sweating at speed for a good stretch). I go to my local YMCA, where they have trainers to help you set goals, suggest exercises that might work for you, and help you set fitness goals.
This one surprised me, but this past summer I started losing energy by mid-afternoon and seriously needed a nap–anything from 20 to 45 minutes or more. A few things were happening, as it turns out, but one of them was sleep apnea, which was brought on by being overweight and stressed out. Lack of sleep was also affecting my mood. My shift to better eating and more exercise helped with the weight, and those oh-so-sexy Breathe Right strips helped me breathe better while I sleep. Result: no more energy crashes, not as many naps, and a better mood. Far be it for me to argue with my own body.
You know better than anyone what’s causing stress in your life. Maybe it’s your work situation, maybe it’s finances, maybe it’s personal matters. In addition to not being fun, stress, too, can cause you to gain weight through a variety of metabolic changes that take too long to explain here. Whatever things are causing you stress, you need to take action to fix them or recover from them. In addition to bringing yourself up from things that are dragging you down, it helps to do things that uplift you and make you feel relaxed and happy–preferably something that doesn’t involve food or drink. If massage doesn’t work for you, maybe a hobby will work or reading or praying/meditating or just hanging out with friends or family (unless they’re the ones causing you stress!). Me, I pick up my Annual Pass and go walking around Walt Disney World. To each his/her own.
I won’t tell you that after taking action on all of the above that I am now an Adonis with six-pack abs and 7% body fat (as I told my trainer at the Y, “I’d settle for a couple of cans”). Quite frankly I think it’s an accomplishment that after six months I no longer leave the Y feeling or looking like I’m going to die. I’ve cut out some major junk out of my diet (no more Diet Dr. Pepper or hot wings, alas), made a determined habit of exercising, found constructive ways to clear stress from my mind, and managed to get through most of my days without the need to crash for a nap.
And, again, I think the “systems approach” to health is important because it helps me take a balanced approach. It’s not just a matter of going to the gym every day and working out like a crazy man to “fix” everything. It’s a slow, steady, lifestyle change that encompasses what I eat, what I do with my body, how I rest, and how I relax. In short, it’s about taking care of the whole person, mind and body.