Health, fitness and well-being are words that are often used interchangeably but more often than not fail to reflect the differences inherent in each person. Exercise, stress and diet are three components of wellbeing that are often grossly misunderstood not only by the general public but by fitness professionals themselves. Companies wanting to sell products that supposedly enhance our well-being have largely driven our concept of health and of what it takes to achieve maximal health. Let’s take diet for example; the current trend is that we should eat foods such as raw green vegetables, drink plenty of water and try to eat less calories than we expend, usually supplemented with a fancy antioxidant that does what no other supplement currently does on the market. Exercise guidelines encourage us to exercise at least every day and in particular cardiovascular exercise is touted as the exercise that will help you lose weight and prevent heart disease. Why is this unhealthy?
This approach may work with a number of people initially, especially with those who have been liberal with eating and drinking and exposure to limited exercise. The long term effect is an increasing number people who have a cold nose, hands and feet, low body temperature (below 36 degrees when the norm should be 37), poor energy, sleep, libido, digestive function, as well as mood swings usually dominated by poor adrenal regulation; and, ultimately, thyroid regulation. In fact one of the many flaws with the current recommendations with exercise guidelines is that it is most likely poor thyroid function that will contribute to elevated cholesterol levels (which is a protective response) and potential cardiovascular events, not a lack of exercise.
Too much of a good thing?
Excessive exercise and malnutrition can also play havoc with the adrenal glands. Fatigue can also be linked to hypocortisolemia. Under and over production of the stress/anti-inflammatory hormone cortisol is well documented. Ever felt that fatigue early in the morning and inability to get out of bed? ‘But I eat a healthy diet and exercise regularly’ you say? The adrenals are responsible for getting our butt moving and are synergistic with other key glands, such as the thyroid, and have an impact on digestion, healing, blood sugar regulation and many other functions. The common approach to too much or too little cortisol production is adaptogenic herbs, such as Ashwaganda, Rhodiola and many others. However balancing stress responses with appropriate nutrition and a well-designed exercise and rest program can alleviate these issues without rattling as your walk down the street with your daily dose of supplements.
Food for thought
Nutrition and eating to support your own body function was inherently about consuming enough calories to keep us alive throughout history. Our body is geared towards consuming calories and exercise based upon energy being available. Today’s culture is about working more and eating less but it just isn’t working for everyone. If the so-called Paleo approach was right, do you think we would have been scurrying around for a head of broccoli and calorie-poor foods, or looking for food that would have given us more bang for the buck like a wild boar and liberal use of fruits and calorie dense foods? The human genome hasn’t changed that much, so the way we function as organisms will not change radically for some time either.
The big question
So what is the right approach? Well there really is no ideal approach; it’s what works for you. Exercise and nutrition are stressors and have the potential to be positive or negative but how does it affect you? Ask yourself these questions and you should have the answer to either continuing or cessation with your current methodologies.
- Do I feel fatigued?
- Do I sleep well?
- Good bowel movement once or twice per day?
- What’s my libido like?
- Is my skin clear
- Do I keep getting injured?
- Have I lost weight with my plan if that’s what is needed?
You probably already know the answers to these questions; any program that supports energetic processes doesn’t create injury and improves repair processes, such as sleep, is always what we want and you are bound to be doing that right? Unfortunately we mistake the buzz and excitement, release of stress hormones and pumped up music of the group exercise classes, destructive boot camps, cross fit and other over exercise methodologies as healthy. When clients come to me in a state of injury and fatigue they often say to me ‘but I don’t feel like I am doing anything unless I am wringing with sweat and red in the face.’ The fact that their movement is compromised, posture and energy are poor, and re-training the thought process on what is health and balance is the first part of the rehabilitation program. The problem is that we still don’t know what optimal health is; we just work along patterns that appear to be healthy.
Burn baby burn
One of the common misconceptions of health is that you need low levels of body fat and a six-pack to be healthy. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Many people who engage in excessive exercise regimes often take vast amounts of antioxidants in an attempt to combat the wear and tear of these programs. An observation to be made in the future is will these people live longer than people who engage in a more balanced lifestyle? Many people who lived into their hundreds did not engage in excessive exercise routines and some of these never even drank water on its own, simply drinking tea and juices. The advice that comes from many professionals becomes flawed as we try to apply modern blanket nutrition approaches to the masses. Don’t get me wrong, certain foods can bring about changes to certain conditions and we certainly need water on some level, but for many the modern healthy diet isn’t doing everyone the good it should.
The environmental factor
One other thing not discussed by many leading health and fitness bodies is the concept of environmental issues on the body. Your environment has the capacity to make or break any fitness or nutrition program. Toxins are ubiquitous and there is not one environment in the world that hasn’t been touched by PCBs, dioxins and PETs amongst hundreds of thousands of other chemicals. Food, water and the air we breathe may have a more significant impact on our ability to stay healthy. Your nutrition and exercise plan may become a sideshow to the inflammatory genes that are expressed when exposed to these estrogenic issues to both male and females. Obesity and diabetes are now being linked to these issues.
Is more exercise and fewer calories a good idea to those that have less capacity to deal with these toxins than others? Probably not.
A balancing act
That’s not to say that you can’t assist your body towards balance, they key point here is to be aware that your environment may be responsible for many areas that you haven’t achieved with exercise and food. Manage your environment by decreasing infamous chemicals, found in perfumes, GM foods and even wireless technology can lead to great success with less exercise and less calorie restriction.
Ultimately life is about balance and finding your balance may not be the same as another person. Breathing correctly, flexibility, stability and strength may be what your body needs the most. Spending countless hours doing repetitive cardiovascular exercises, restricting calories or pushing your body to get down to low levels of body fat is not how your body perceives balance. Finding your own ideal diet may take time but in the end, time is on your side.