I Used to Think Health Was A Look
I used to think health was a look…
If a person didn't have a visible six pack, it meant they needed to work out harder and restrict calories. "Being healthy is easy," I thought, "all you need is the willpower to cut carbs to stay in caloric deficit, and work out every day." It worked for me. Or I thought it did. Mind you, I was also 20 years old. ;)
Flash forward four years later and I'm training for Kettlebell Sport like crazy, not eating enough, waking up at 4:30am to do a physical job, and having to earn enough money to support myself. Let's just say I had a lot of stress on my plate. Everything was fine, besides a missing period and a bit of fatigue. I looked great and everyone complimented me on my body.
It wasn't until several years later that I had to face the consequences of overstressing my body for years in the pursuit of aesthetics and high-level athletic performance. At first, I started gaining weight. Eventually, I could barely get up in the morning because I was so tired. I got sick and recovered just to get sick again two days later. I lost my voice, broke out in hives, and contracted an infection in my foot... sounds like the picture of health, right?
I felt completely out of control of my body. I didn't understand what was happening. Everything I had ever done was in the pursuit of fitness and health; how could I now be in a place where I was on the complete opposite side of the spectrum?
I stopped training to let my body heal. I began to realize that health is not as simple as working out x hours per week or eating x amount of calories. You may work out like crazy, be in a caloric deficit, and still not achieve the look you want. Or you may achieve your aesthetic goal and realize it doesn't make you happy. Goals are great and there's nothing wrong with wanting to look good, but pursuing them isn't a guarantee you will be healthy or happy.
In my case, the amount of stress I placed on my body was too much - and my health crumbled under the strain. It wasn't so much the training but the fact that I pushed through soreness and pain instead of heeding my body's signals to take rest days. I didn't think of other factors in my life as "stressors"; I didn't realize I needed to moderate the amount of exercise I did depending on what else was going on in my life.
I began to listen to my body when it came to exercise; if I felt like it and I had energy, I would work out. If I didn't feel like working out, whether I had energy or not, I wouldn't. It took time -- and it can still be a challenge -- to trust that my body knows what's best for it. All movement and exercise I do now is about enjoying my life and exploring my body's potential, NOT beating the shit out of my body just to feel sore or "burn calories."
The weight gain and aesthetic changes in my body definitely brought body image insecurities to the surface. They have showed me how to be more compassionate to myself and others. I had to come to terms with the fact that the bodyweight at which my body was healthy and fertile was not the bodyweight I liked best aesthetically. I had to question why I thought it was a bad thing to become bigger and gain body fat, despite the fact that it made me healthier.
Let's not forget how important mental health is. You could be the picture of physical fitness yet be completely miserable. Mental health is an entire topic in itself, but there are some simple things that have a huge impact on your mental state. A good support system; love and connection with others; good nutrition, gut health, and sleep hygiene; sunshine; feeling valued and purposeful; and getting out in nature have all shown to be instrumental in improving mental health.
There is so much more to health and fitness than a particular aesthetic. Health to me is about managing stress levels, feeling energized and happy in my daily life, having a positive relationship to movement, and retaining the ability to move when I'm 90 years old!
I’d love to hear from you in the comments! What is one thing you could do to improve your physical and/or mental health other than working out or changing your diet?