Feel good, be healthy and happy with yourself.
When I search the word “fitness” on Google, I get a list of gyms near me, links to articles recommending weight loss plans and exercises for “killer glutes” and a stream of photos depicting perfectly tan and toned people engaging in various athletic activities. Likewise, when I search “health” I return links to “20 Cheat Sheets For When You’re Trying To Eat A Little Healthier”, “The Healthiest Foods On Earth”, “Energizing Workout Moves” and even a story on the Republicans’ proposed health care bill.
The words “fitness” and “health”, as defined by Google’s algorithms and the way in which they’re regularly used online, appear to be focused on what we’re consuming and what we look like (and I suppose politics, to a minor degree). “Fitness” connotes strong biceps, washboard abs and heightened cardio capacity. “Health” signifies kale, quinoa and keifer. Nowhere on the first page of results when searching either term did I see any reference to the internal sources of fitness and health, an individual’s mental and emotional well being.
While looking good is one of the primary goals of eating clean and working-out regularly, associating health and fitness with appearance and consumption overlooks the ultimate purpose behind the desire to be active, eat healthy and look good; the desire to feel good and be happy with yourself. Exercising and nourishing your body wholesomely are of course key components to a healthy lifestyle, however if we ignore the mental, emotional and spiritual side, we lose a big piece of the picture. You can go to the gym five times a week and eat all of the broccoli you can stomach, but if you’re not taking care of your brain and emotions with the same rigor, something will always be off, and that balance we all strive for will be difficult to attain. Moreover, mental and emotional imbalances often manifest themselves as physical ailments (stomach issues, skin problems, restlessness, etc.) counteracting the hard work poured into exercising and eating right.
I’m not a doctor; I have no professional training in medicine, physiognomy, nutrition or psychology. These are insights I have gained from my community of medical professionals, psychologists and spiritual gurus, years as an athlete and health food junky and personal experience. I believe most people spanning the range of professional knowledge and training would agree with my observations above. That being said, the following is a list of activities, tactics and resources I have found to be extremely helpful in nurturing mental and emotional health. After years of working out religiously, eating spotlessly and being constantly confused and frustrated by constant illnesses, pains and a general sense of being “off”, these are some of the tools I discovered that allowed me to address my emotional ailments, take control of my mental and spiritual health and work towards inner peace and sense of pervasive health and true balance.
I cannot stress enough how transformative meditation is, especially for people who are very busy, Type A, or prone to stress and anxiety. Taking a few minutes everyday to be silent, and simply sit with yourself can make a huge difference in how you feel and think. Aside from in person, group meditation, my favorite meditation resource is Headspace. You can download the app on your phone. At $75 per year, it may seem pricy for an app, however it’s probably less than you send on coffee or cocktails every month and it’s a great investment in your own happiness.
2. Running or Walking
When my thoughts start whipping around my head erratically, and I feel like my mind is trying to go in 8 different directions at once, I put everything down, get my sneakers on, turn on some good tunes and go for a run or a walk. Nothing clears the mind like the endorphin boost from a good run.
3. “Feel the Feels”
A great therapist once gave me this advice, and it has stuck with me because of the difference it has made in my life. In life, it often seems like it’s hard to find a convenient time to have any significant emotions. Work, social gatherings, public places, and even home if you have roommates, can all be uninviting places to have any big feelings come up because they are environments in which certain behaviors and demeanors are expected. However, if we continually bury our feelings or try to avoid certain thoughts or emotions, they fester inside of us, and take a huge toll on our mental and physical health. So next time you’re going through a rough patch or a significant transition, or even simply having an emotional day, allow yourself the space to experience the emotions you’re feeling. Take a deep breath, acknowledge and accept it for what it is (maybe even say what it is you’re feeling out loud to yourself), cry if you must, and just let yourself feel the feels; we’re all human, you’re allowed.
Of all of the tactics and activities I use regularly to take care of my mental and emotional well-being, this is the most important. I’ve found that everything seems worse when you haven’t slept. Problems seem less resolved, work seems more difficult and with everything muddled in your brain, it’s easier to slip into a train of thought centered on self-criticism and doubt. In addition to feeling mentally unsound, lack of sleep can also manifest itself in a myriad of physical ways. Make sleep a priority.
5. Keep a Gratitude Journal
I adopted this habit after hearing about its benefits from the professor of one of my leadership classes in college. Studies show that keeping a gratitude journal and writing down 3-5 things that you’re grateful for every day retrains the brain to focus on the positive rather than the negative, allowing you to experience more of life with a sense of joy. The same tactic and few other useful tools for creating a happier, healthier mindset are discussed in this inspiring Ted Talk on the “The Happiness Advantage.”