This is not going to be about a healthy holiday cookie recipe or the latest data on exercise physiology. It’s about internal factors, and those other elements of health and wellness that often get lost in the shuffle.
After all, it’s the Saturday before Christmas, and right now you have things to do, parties to attend, gifts to buy, perhaps even travel plans to finalize. It’s okay to shut down for a while, turn off your Paleo-powerlifitng self, and focus on connecting with friends and family.
As one of our experts recently pointed out, time off from training can be a good thing. Many folks come back reinvigorated and recharged and perform better than before. And if you happen to ingest some gluten along the way, that’s okay too. Your exaggerated fears of immediately morphing into a bloated sugarplum fairy are just that, exaggerated fears.
So in the wake of the holidays, relax. Everything is going to be okay.
And in the spirit of reflection and contemplation that often accompanies this time of year, how about we challenge our brain muscles a bit and ask ourselves this: when it comes to exercise and dietary protocols, why do we do what we do?
On the surface, that may seem terribly simple; you have a routine you adopted from a magazine, you’re reading a particular diet book, or you have a friend or partner who’s vegan or into yoga or cycling or whatever - those can all be social factors or pressures to follow a particular program or pattern.
But push it a step further: why exactly are you doing the workout you’re doing today? Why 700 burpees, or three sets of 10 reps, or that seven mile run? Is there a purpose and intent behind it, or is it just busywork?
From a physiological standpoint, we adapt and get better at those things that we rehearse and practice. If you want to be a runner, you’ll have to run. If you want to get stronger, you have to lift or move things. But even those basic tenets have limits and points of diminishing returns. More is not always better. Unless, of course, your only goal or quantifiable factor is quantity - more miles, more reps, more jumping jacks. But that certainly doesn’t ensure quality (and may actually impede it) and usually doesn’t line up directly with one’s goals or purpose.
So, what about performance and vanity? Those can be great motivators for doing what we do. For the average/causal exerciser (and that’s most of us) vanity seems to be the overriding factor, and usually comes in the form of ‘I don’t want to be fat.’ Weight loss is still the number one New Year’s resolution, and the search for a leaner body has fueled a thriving diet book, infomercial, and supplement industry, to name a few.
Improved performance is also a worthy pursuit, and may have the most linear, easily traceable roots when it comes to doing what we do. If you want to bench press 500 pounds, well then, you’re weekly program probably has a designated bench day or two, along with specific auxiliary and supplemental moves to ensure your success.
And then there’s general health. Some people workout or go on a daily walk because their doctor suggested it would help stabilize their blood pressure. Others adopt special diets to keep cholesterol levels in check (although there’s research to the contrary), or because certain foods may boost their immunity or help protect them from a range of maladies.
Finally, let’s not forget fun and enjoyment. Sometimes charging down a hill on a mountain bike is just plain fun. Same goes for hitting the perfect shot, mastering a new move, or dining on a fresh, tasty meal; those all have elements of fun and joy, and too often we lose track of those factors in our sometimes stodgy quest for wellness.
So what about you? Where do you draw the line and from where are your movement and dietary choices derived?
When I first started to exercise, it was because I hated myself. I hated the fat, obese life I had, what it represented, and how others treated me as a result of my appearance. Once I built up a mild base of conditioning, I took up running, because runners were skinny and that’s desperately what I wanted. That was also the motivating factor for dramatically changing my diet and eating what I did.
As I hit different plateaus, my motivations and reasons for doing what I did also changed. I learned to really like running. I liked the social aspect of it, the fact that it connected me with nature, and gave me a chance to be alone with my thoughts and meditate on any issues or problems going on in my life. It actually made me kind of happy and I generally smiled while I was on the road, which seems in sharp contrast to most runners I see now - some of whom look so panged, I mentally beg them to please just stop and walk a bit.
Then things changed again. My interest in running and multisport events was replaced by an interest in balance and strength and movement. Those elements and workouts were appealing because they were novel and offered a new challenge for a body that was still learning and evolving.
Perhaps it’s age or perspective (and hopefully a little bit of wisdom) but for me, things seem so much bigger now. It’s not about how much I can lift, how far I can run, or the latest workout trend. It’s about the future. And genuinely doing the things I enjoy. It’s about the next 50 or 60 or 70 years of my life, and regulating the things I do now so that I’m functional, mobile and pain free indefinitely.
That aside, it’s also important to remember that health and wellness is so much more than the things we eat and the workouts we do. Those are just the elements that are commonly perpetuated, marketed and sold. But it’s bigger than that.
What about sleep, or stress, or sex? General happiness and a sense of purpose? Relationships and a rich social life? Some of those may veer off into the emotional or mental realm, but all are connected to general health. And having any of those unfulfilled or out of whack can directly or indirectly have an impact on your physical health, and vice-versa.
Obsessive overeating or undereating, chronically overexercising or doing nothing at all are all markers and activities that often have mental or emotional triggers. They are the physical manifestation of something else; not necessarily isolated actions.
So, in lieu of a missed workout, or a perfectly balanced organic meal, let’s take a minute during the holiday break to think big picture, really big picture. Let’s ask ourselves some key questions about why we do what we do, and let’s expand our definition of health and wellness so that it more completely encompasses our lives.
Do you like your program? Does it make you happy? Give your life joy and dimension? Does it in some way make you a better person, and in that help you reach your higher purpose or goal?
Asking those and other key questions and ruminating on the answers may just give you some unique insight, and help you decide what components of your health and wellness program you want to work on and carry forward in the new year.
Tom Trevino is a writer and wellness coach based out of San Antonio. His weekly column covers anything and everything related to health and wellness. He holds a B.A. from the University of Texas at San Antonio, with certification and training from the Cooper Institute. He has a fondness for dogs, NPR, the New York Times, and anything on two wheels. When he’s not writing, training, or cooking, you can find him wandering the aisles of Central Market.