I've been enjoying having a bit more time to read and learn over the last few weeks of self-employment! Book or article recommendations are always welcome by the way, but in this post I wanted to talk about some of my recent findings. A couple of books have really helped to challenge the way I think about my own approach to wellbeing and health, and I wanted to share some of the most powerful points in a post with the hope that it might help you too.
I've previously written briefly about the evolutionary history of our species to explain why movement and diet are so fundamental to our wellbeing and health (sounds more dry than it actually is I promise). I am increasingly being convinced of just how true this is. In the current day and age, the medical profession is regarded as the fix for any and all of our problems. GPs see lonely people, stressed people, old people, depressed people, unhealthy people, as well as sick people. We expect doctors to fix us, whatever our problem is, and whatever has caused the problem in the first place. I think it's partly because as an increasingly secular culture, we are so sceptical and/or scared of solutions or lifestyles that are outside the norm - things like alternative medicines, meditation, mindfulness, even vegetarian or vegan diets to a certain extent. The prospect of going to the doctor for an health issue that's causing a lot of distress only to be told to go away and eat better foods and move more feels frustrating, potentially embarrassing, if not downright upsetting. In his book 'Fit for Purpose', GP Dr Richard Pile says:
'I have prescribed antidepressants and painkillers to people whose physical and mental pain is fundamentally due to loneliness, poverty, lack of purpose, and dissatisfaction with life . . . I have reluctantly agreed to refer people with multiple, mysterious symptoms to multiple, mystified hospital specialists, because I either don't have the courage to be honest with them out the likely root causes for their malaise, or they are unwilling to contemplate this being something that medicine can't fix.'
I think the last line is the crux - are we unwilling to contemplate that the cause of our health problems might be something we have the power to change ourselves? I'm not, in any way, trying to suggest that people shouldn't be going to the doctor when they feel unwell, or that depression or loneliness or any other mental health problems aren't serious or require treatment. Or that illnesses that are directly caused by our lifestyles aren't worth treating or are 'self-inflicted'. It's not a problem caused by the individual, but a wider issue within society as a whole. We've been conditioned to expect medical fixes at all ages and for all problems. We wait years on waiting lists due to the incredible demand for services and treatments, putting life on hold in the meantime, or watching health issues exacerbating all the while. Many of these treatments are necessary and effective, however I do think it's important to understand that we are straying so far from our natural state of existence that our lifestyles are either directly causing, or at least contributing, to our poor health and wellbeing. Some of us are not in the position to change our environments or our habits due to inequality, lack of education or support, or poverty. I suspect that the majority of us (by which I mean the people reading this blog) do, however, have more capacity to make some changes if we want to.
Let's talk about exercise. Or rather, movement. How regularly are you moving your body? Is it once or twice an hour when you get up from behind your computer to go and make a cup of tea? Is it a whizz to the gym before or after work for an hour to try and mitigate the effect of 9 hours sitting down, probably with pretty poor posture, working at a screen? Perhaps you are more active - your job might require you to be on your feet all day, you might have young children (enough said), you may have already arrived at the conclusion that being active and moving around a lot is an important aspect for keeping on top of your physical and mental health. Maybe you've got a dog! Some people bemoan the fact that their dog requires 2 walks a day; in fact it's enough to put some people off getting a dog in the first place ('Dogs that need the least exercise' has 140 million search results on Google). But it's easy to accept and understand the reason why our canine pals need exercise - it's fundamental to their physical and mental health, keeping them stimulated, reducing behavioural problems or anxiety, keeping their bodies in shape and strong. Why is there so much reluctance and laziness when it comes to treating ourselves with the same logic? You can probably already see where I'm going with this, but I want to get you thinking about whether you're really looking after your own body in the best way possible?
In their book 'The Pioppi Diet', award winning cardiologist Dr Aseem Malhotra and Donal O'Neill, a former international athlete, explain why a Mediterranean diet has kept the residents of Pioppi, a small fishing village in Italy, one of the oldest, healthiest, and happiest populations in the world, and how anyone could adopt a few guiding principles to simulate the health effects of living in Pioppi. One of the opening points that I found particularly interesting was an re-translation of the word 'diet'. Increasingly, people are understanding that diets are not effective but, as the Italian Mayor of Pioppi explained, the original greek word diaita has been misunderstood: 'Diaita means lifestyle and within that we include many things - the landscape, the sea, quality of life, culture, the work, and many other things.' Science doesn't measure what it can't measure and whilst billions of pounds are invested in research and treatments of illnesses, little is invested in investigating healthy people until long-term population trends emerge and 'science then scurries to understand retrospectively how these people are consistently winning the longevity Olympics.' It goes back to that point at the beginning made by Dr Pile; we rely on science and modern medicine to provide us with convenient solutions to our physical and mental problems, ignoring the power we have within ourselves to give our bodies what we, deep down, know they need.
The title of this post is Surviving or Thriving. I'm quite a deep thinker. I am always pondering big questions, thinking about the world, debating topics with friends, but I'm aware that lots of people are more grounded in their day to day life, work, family and friends. Are you surviving or thriving though? Specifically in relation to exercise and general wellbeing? Perhaps you're smashing your career, feeling good about your relationships, but you're aware that you're not looking after yourself as much as you should be. I don't advocate dieting to any of my clients for the simple fact that restricting food intake, becoming obsessive about food, living life by rules or numbers, and generally becoming fixated on losing weight is altogether a miserable existence and won't achieve sustainable weight-loss. However, there are things that all of us can add into our diets or daily routines to improve our health and wellbeing (note the word 'add', not to take anything away or cut out). Be honest with yourself and take responsibility for little changes that you can make. For some people who are restricted by income, resources, time, or other things going on in life, these additions may be absolutely tiny at the moment. That's okay! It's not about doing things perfectly all the time, but understanding what agency you have to improve your quality of life and your level of wellbeing is such an important thing to figure out.
If you are now thinking about things you could change or add into your routines, perhaps the idea of seeking out inconvenience might be a good place to start. We're SO conditioned to look for the most convenient option with regards to travel, food, shopping, activity, exercise, etc. Practically every aspect of our lives are streamlined to be as convenient and efficient as possible. However, it's the elements of inconvenience that get us moving, appreciative of the world around us, getting us out of our tunnel vision and potentially interacting more frequently with other people, allowing us space and time to think and be more present in the moment, etc. For example, you could take a longer walk on your way to your destination. Drive and park slightly further away - it might even be cheaper. Take the stairs instead of the lift and notice how it makes your body feel to move. If it's hard work, maybe that is something to take note of...! Ultimately, if you're moving more or connecting more (with people in real life), that's only going to improve your health and wellbeing.
With the NHS on its knees because of Covid and GPs still run off their feet, it does seem like a particularly pertinent time to start thinking about ways that we, as individuals, and as a wider society, can start making much needed changes to improve our health. Poor health isn't a choice, rather it's a consequence of various different factors all coming together. There's no point blaming the individual as most of these factors are out of our control (things like income, geographical inequality, stress, genetics, mental health, etc). However, a doctor cannot be held responsible for fixing all of these things when a patient presents with Type 2 Diabetes or heart disease. The doctor can prescribe medicine or lifestyle changes, but it comes down to us, as the individual to implement the advice as best we can. I spent about 10 years waiting for the right medical professional to 'fix' my eating disorder until I realised that I would be waiting forever... Ultimately I am the only one with the power to override the negative thoughts and feelings and make healthy choices. I could be told time and time again how to try and think, given various different treatments/medication, offered different types of support, but it came down to realising that I would have to take responsibility for making the right choices every day whilst using the tools that I'd been given to help. I'm not saying it's a simple or easy thing to do, just that it's the only thing to do if you want to thrive, not just survive!