We often approach our physical health as though it were disconnected from other aspects of our life, and employ a quick-fix problem-solving approach to the issue of taking care of our bodies. Whilst this works up to a point, we have much to gain by taking a more holistic view and considering the connections between our bodies and our minds when we're planning our fitness regimes.
The quick-fix approach
You could be forgiven for thinking that our health and fitness are just a matter of ticking the right boxes. A bit of cardio for your heart, some resistance training to tone up those muscles, maybe a bit of nutritional advice to optimise your diet, and the job is done: Healthy heart? Tick. Lean, toned body? Tick. Long, active life? Tick.
Newspaper headlines don't help with this. Every week, it seems that there is a new form of exercise or a new diet that will provide The Answer. Quickly. And with very little effort on your part.
Even the government – which, one hopes, is less interested in extolling money for the latest wonder-cure and instead has our best interests at heart – is guilty of this approach. We have government health initiatives about leading an active life, quitting smoking, eating our “5-a-day” and so on. Tick, tick, tick.
There is nothing wrong with any of these ideas per se. Of course cardiovascular exercise, strength training and eating a healthy diet are all good ideas. The problem is that they're rarely joined up into a holistic programme that takes the whole of the individual into account. It's much easier to focus on just one aspect of your life that you want to fix than to take everything about yourself and the way you live your life into consideration. But unless we do take a holistic approach, chances are that our efforts at leading a healthy life will be unsuccessful.
Taking a holistic approach means considering the individual as a natural system that is more than the sum of its parts. In the context of leading a healthy life, attention needs to be paid to physical, emotional and social factors operating in an interconnected way. Fitness needs to be understood as an integration of the mind, body and spirit; a way of life rather than something to be ticked off your weekly to-do list. When you consider and meet all of your needs in a holistic way, things like weight loss and a toned body become side effects of living life well, rather than objectives in their own right.
Of course, considering your fitness in this way takes a little more effort than simply resolving to lose a stone (as if that weren't effort enough!). Here are some ideas to help you take a more holistic approach to your fitness regime:
Get wise to the interconnections
Our physical and mental health are inextricably linked. Just knowing this and being aware of how the links work can help to give a broader perspective. Being physically active is linked to better cognitive function, fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety, improved self esteem and a greater capacity for dealing with stress. The causal direction goes both ways: Exercising helps your mental health, and good mental health means that you're more likely to have the motivation and energy to exercise. So when you're planning your fitness programme, consider how it is meeting your mind's as well as your body's needs.
Find a form of exercise that you love
Your heart and waistline will thank you for doing half an hour on the treadmill four times a week, no question about it. But are you meeting your mind's needs? Perhaps you are – perhaps you find the repetition has a soothing, stress-busting quality and that chatting to the person on the treadmill next to yours is providing enjoyable social contact. If that's the case, great – honour this and appreciate what those treadmill sessions are doing for your mind as well as your body. But if it's a chore and you're gritting your teeth to get it done, chances are you'd be better off doing something else. Shop around, try out different forms of exercise classes, sports and activities, until you find something that you enjoy in its own right rather than doing it as a means to an end.
Make exercise an integral part of your life
If you struggle to find a form of exercise that you really enjoy, an alternative option is to build activity into your everyday life, so that it becomes a sort of side effect of doing other things. Cycling or walking to work (or wherever else you need to go) is the most obvious way of doing this. Another possibility is finding a hobby that isn't primarily fitness-related but comes with fitness benefits, such as dancing, singing or joining a walking group, which all have the added benefit of meeting the need for social contact as well.
Taking a holistic approach to our health and well-being doesn't need to be difficult or complicated. It's not so much about making enormous changes to your life as it is about doing what you're already doing with greater awareness.
Yeah this all sounds great, but who actually has the time?
Find a form of excercise that you love - so true! The gym used to be a massive chore, but I now do a dance class which I love, and suddenly I can't wait to get back to the gym. I still do a bit of resistance work too, but the dance class is what keeps me motivated.