Maybe it's meant to be inspirational, but frankly, being "influenced" by influencers is just exhausting. The "what I eat in a day" and the "5 MUST-do exercises to stay young"- it's too much. Even the idea of "wellness" and "self-care" itself can feel like additional stress for the average person if you're not careful.
Of course, social media and media are themselves expressions of the extreme. "Just live a balanced, healthy life" isn't exactly a sexy marketing message. Instead, as media consumers, we only have access to black and white thinking. This black and white thinking ("you must get 20 minutes of cardio a day" or "why are you doing cardio when strength training is the only thing to keep you young!") can feel overwhelming, confusing, and anxiety-provoking as we search for THE ANSWER.
Instead, I invite you to join me in the gray space, the space between the extremes. Not the gray of a dreariness, but the cool gray of a neutral approach to health. An approach that we don't have to overthink is the gray of getting to a palace of health that is so innate that it's just who you are.
There are two ways to live in the gray when it comes to food: breathing and thinking, two things you're (hopefully) already doing. Let's start with breathing. Too often, when our eating habits aren't as good as we know they can be (e.g., getting too much takeout, skipping meals, or skimping on fruits and vegetables), it's because we feel like there isn't even enough time to breathe, let alone get a decent meal on the table.
During these periods in our lives, even the simplest of choices, like slowing down at mealtime, can make a big difference in overall well-being. Take a deep breath. Turn off the distractions and simply focus on the food in front of you. Enjoy it, really taste your food. Think of this as an oasis in your day. Okay, so maybe the food on your plate isn't the healthiest, but how lucky are you to have sustenance? How fortunate you are to have access to food that fuels you. Exhale any guilt about the foods you're eating. It can be calming to stop stigmatizing all our choices all the time.
There's something about this slowing down and breathing and releasing. It takes practice. That's the other big thing that is missed when we're assaulted with "health" messages; the solutions that are being served up seem like you just do it once, and things magically fall into place. That's nonsense. Being able to erase a negative stigma around food, or movement, which we will get to in a little bit, will take some practice, and the benefits will ebb and flow. Likewise, becoming more mindful about what you put in your body is a practice. (This 7-minute meditation is a good start for this practice.) All we're doing is working on consistency. These little micro-habits, like slowing down when we're eating, are doing for our overall health what braces do for our teeth. They both work slowly, and sometimes there's some growing pain, but it's worth it in the end.
When you're able to carve out a little more space, it's time for some thinking and planning—thinking and planning to get nutrients like vitamins and minerals, not thinking and planning about calories.
The simplest way to eat more healthfully is to add more food. Really. Add a banana at breakfast. Add green beans at lunch. Add a salad or some baby carrots at supper time and have an apple or two while watching TV at night. By adding a variety of simple fruits and vegetables, you're nourishing your brain, liver, cardiovascular system, and immune system with tons of vitamins and minerals. When you can do this thinking and planning, simply get the rainbow of fruits and vegetables on your plate first, then fill in the rest with other food you love.
If it hurts, don't do it. If your knees are junk, being a runner isn't for you. If you don't like getting wet, swimming isn't for you. But there is probably something that your body can do that you enjoy, for many people that's walking, but it can be anything!
What stops us from getting into the exercise groove is the idea of all or nothing. Again, this is an example of living in that black and white because many of us see exercise solely as a way to burn calories or "pay" for that brownie at lunch. No wonder it's challenging to stick to an exercise habit! Nobody wants to do something that feels like a chore when we don't want to.
Here's where you come back to the gray, baby.
Come back to that middle ground where you think of ways to move your body that you enjoy. There is much evidence that being fit is way more important than hitting some magic number on the scale.
Yeah, there's a cost to exercising. It's time that we spend not doing something else. Maybe the cost is getting up early or a shorter lunch break. The trick is to make the cost worth it. So, move the way you like, not how you think you're supposed to move. Don't want to be around people at a sweaty gym? Don't join a gym. Download an app, recruit friends, or go it alone. There's also a cost to being sedentary, a very high cost; not moving at all will eventually hurt. Too much sitting and streaming, driving, and scrolling means we have no physical outlet for stress. Our bodies love to move. The best exercise is the one you can do again tomorrow.
You've probably heard of mindfulness and meditation and maybe even attempted it once or twice. If you've tried to meditate only to feel uncomfortable and stupid and that it's hard to do, believe it or not, that was a success. I can hear you laughing because who wants to do something uncomfortable and stupid and hard? No one. But hear me out on why this is so great for you.
As really smart primates, we love to be intellectually stimulated- that's pretty much what makes us human. We can be stimulated by friends, TV, nature, books, social media, work- you get the picture.
The problem we're facing is that we are in the golden age of fast food for the brain. Scrolling and streaming are delicious to the brain. Those succulent drips of dopamine are french fries for our minds. Delicious? Yes. Damaging if over consumed? Yes. To clean out this dopamine and decrease our need for the next "hit" by endlessly streaming or finding the next best meme, we need to be able to step away and be okay with doing nothing. (We're in the gray again!)
This is where meditation can help. It's not sitting on a mountain. It's not being perfect and never having emotions. It's intentionally checking in. It's intentionally thinking about one thing. I have to confess I still do not consider myself a great meditator, but I am 100% sure that the few minutes I give myself every day to either do a body scan or simply feel my breath in my nostrils has enriched all the other parts of my life. When I find myself stressed with a deadline, or if I am running late, I can calm myself (just enough) by falling back on my breathing.
Again - meditation is another way to be kind to yourself and step away from the extremes of the black and white wellness culture. All you're doing is giving yourself a moment to pay attention. To slow down. It's a simple habit you can start to give yourself a bit more space and time in a cluttered and challenging world.
Here I am telling you to tune out the noise, while simultaneously, one could argue, adding to the noise by telling you what to eat, how to move, and how to slow the mind, here's the secret. You already know all this. You know adding fruits and vegetables is great for you; you know you feel better when you move, and you know that making some space to be intentional can enrich all your experiences.
Consider this your invitation to just do a little. Health is not an all-or-nothing approach. And none of it should make you feel "less than" or more stressed. This advice gives you a helping hand in supporting your health and wellness. So, join me in the gray where we're living it up, meditating, eating more veggies that we love, and walking the dog just for fun.
You’ve got this.