We’ve all encountered people in our lives who seem to have an inner glow about them, an inner beauty that has nothing to do with youth, movie star good looks or an hour glass figure. We can’t quite put our finger on what it is that sets them apart, but they seem to be surrounded by an energy of vitality and wellness. While there is an abundance of pills, powders and potions on the market that all claim to hold the secret of perfect health
, the real secret behind that healthy glow can be found in one simple concept: balance. By maintaining a healthy balance between the opposing forces in our lives, we can achieve an optimal state of wellness that will accompany us throughout our lives.
Just as there are degrees of illness, there are degrees of wellness. Wellness is not something that merely happens to us, and it is much more than the absence of illness. It is the result of being conscious
of our physical and psychological needs, and making a commitment to provide for those needs to the fullest extent possible. When we sacrifice our balance, we compromise our potential to be well.
A majority of the factors that contribute both to wellness and illness can be broken down into four categories represented by the acronym, REDS: rest, exercise, diet and spirituality. The quality of our relationship with each of these four pillars of health directly affects the extent to which we are able to achieve wellness in our lives. Like a table with four legs, if one leg is weakened, then the stability of the whole table is compromised.
The miracle of nature has provided us with all the wisdom we need to achieve wellness. Our bodies are equipped with an array of signals that alert us when we are out of balance. The question is: are we aware enough to notice and acknowledge those signals when they appear, and to act accordingly to correct our imbalances? If we see ourselves only as passive victims of circumstance, then we are likely to travel an uphill path of illness and emptiness. If we see ourselves as active agents in maintaining our bodies and our health, then we have the power of infinite choices at our fingertips.
For example, if we believe that we simply catch a cold or get sick as a result of bad luck, then it is likely we have given up control of our ability to maintain wellness. However, if we are conscious of the way in which we lead our lives, and accept responsibility for what we consume, how we keep our bodies fit and the way we deal with stress, then we are in a place of being in control of our lives.
A keen awareness of the strengths and weaknesses of our relationships with the four pillars that determine wellness is the first step in living a life of vitality and health. Honestly assessing the extent to which we are committed to getting enough rest; consuming foods that are appropriate for our bodies; exercising in ways that are appropriate for our bodies and age; and connecting with our spirits by taking time to tune out the world and explore inwardly gives us a barometer by which we can gauge our quality of life. If we discover that we are not adequately committed to these practices of maintaining wellness, then we empower ourselves with the opportunity to consciously alter our path toward one of quality health.
In our workaholic culture with a pill for every symptom, and a supplement to balance every burger and fries, rest is often not the first thing we think of when it comes to staying healthy. It’s a case of not seeing the forest for the trees. But rest is arguably the most fundamental ingredient in maintaining optimal health. Without it, all of the other pillars lose their ability to benefit us.
Every system of our bodies is affected by the quality and amount of rest we get. The nervous system, brain metabolism and immune system all begin to break down significantly after only a few days of inadequate rest, resulting in myriad health concerns. Our abilities to solve simple problems, control our emotions and maintain good judgment are all impaired. Memory, attention span and reaction time are compromised. We experience a decrease in white blood cell and growth hormone production, elevating our susceptibility to illness and disease. Hormones like melatonin, testosterone, prolactin and growth hormone that are all fundamental to good health are all secreted mainly at night during deep sleep. Studies have shown that individuals who are sleep deprived perform as poorly or worse in cognitive tasks of coordination as those who are intoxicated. The worst part is that we are often unable to recognize these limitations when we are in a state of sleep deprivation.
Although the amount of sleep each body needs differs from person to person, most people require somewhere between six and ten hours of sleep each night to function well. Some signs that we are not getting enough rest include:
• Tiredness despite a full night’s sleep
• Moodiness or irritability
• Drowsiness throughout the day
• Difficulty maintaining concentration
• Falling asleep while reading or watching television
• Tendency to fall asleep anytime and anywhere
Of course, from time to time we may all suffer from occasional interruptions in our sleep patterns or habits. But long-term lack of adequate rest makes us susceptible to a host of health-related complications and conditions. Creating a life culture for ourselves in which rest is a priority alongside the ambition, drive and focus that often sublimate it is the first step toward a life of balance and health.
These are some simple behaviors that can have a positive effect on how well we sleep. Maintain a routine.
Establish a regular sleep routine, including going to bed at about the same time each night, and getting up around the same time every morning. Studies show that this helps to strengthen the body’s circadian rhythms – our internal, biological clock that de ermines how and when our body’s systems function and regenerate.Use your bed for sleep
. Make your bed a place of serenity, rest and sleep; not a place of study and work. Engage in strenuous exercise earlier in the day
. Vigorous exercise just before bed may make it harder to fall asleep. However, some light yoga and deep breathing may help you wind down and fall to sleep.
Create down time. Before bed, take fifteen minutes of non-stimulating down time. Read a book or meditate. Find something that helps you quiet your mind. Follow bedtime rituals.
Just like little kids get a bedtime story, find some ritual that tells you it is time for sleep. This might be a soak in the bath, picking out the next day’s clothes, or making a to-do list. Whatever it is, make sure this becomes part of a routine before bed.Watch what you ingest.
Drinking coffee or caffeinated drinks after mid-day may affect your ability to sleep. Alcohol might make you sleep less soundly as well. Try a cup of warm milk or chamomile tea instead. Also, make sure you don’t go to bed right after a heavy meal. Heavy digestion can hinder the body’s ability to reach deep states of sleep.
Write down your worries. If you find yourself lying awake ruminating and worrying, get up and write down everything that is racing in your mind. Then go back to bed. Avoid sleeping pills.
The effects of most sleeping pills are usually short-term and many forms of sleeping pills are addictive. Some are dangerous to mix with alcohol or other drugs. They may help you fall asleep faster, but may not provide the deep rest your body needs. Some also leave a hangover in the morning. Exercise
Regardless of our age, gender, size or body type, exercise is essential for a healthy mind and body. In our culture, exercise carries a lot of baggage with it. There is often a sense of guilt associated with a decision not to exercise. The idea of “no pain, no gain” that has been ingrained in our collective consciousness by the fitness boom of the 1980s is a turn-off to many. It causes others to place unrealistic or even dangerous expectations on themselves, resulting in exercising to the point of injury, or in avoiding it altogether in order to escape the shame and disappointment that they associate with failure.
Many also find the repetitive and often mindless methods of exercise they encounter in traditional gyms, such as running on a treadmill or doing sit ups to be unattractive and unengaging. This can be compounded when the motivation behind engaging in the exercise in the first place is an unrealistic or unattainable body image which they may resent to begin with.
This is one reason that practices like yoga and tai chi have become so popular in America. They provide an engaging practice with a variety of movements and approaches that have the possibility of the body beautiful as an attractive byproduct, rather than as their purpose for existing. These practices address the whole person through the physical practice, rather than focusing solely on the body’s structure. Goals like inner peace, spiritual exploration and fitness for the sake of fitness rather than for the sake of beauty are a few of the characteristics that are drawing more and more people away from the gym and into the yoga studio. The result is exercise with a purpose and a wide variety of benefits.
Whether it’s a half hour on the Stairmaster, a walk around the block, twenty laps in the pool or an hour and a half on a yoga mat, there is no doubt that some form of exercise can only improve the body’s health and the overall quality of our lives. These are some of the benefits that physical activity provides:
• Releasing endorphins that improve mood and provide energy
• Increasing respiratory capacity, physical endurance, and improving muscle tone
• Slowing down the aging process
• Releasing pent-up emotions such as tension and anger
• Increasing feelings of self-esteem and an improved self-concept
• Preventing conditions such as hypertension and depression
• Decreasing negative thinking
• Improving the quantity and quality of sleep
• Reducing the risk of illnesses
• Keeping weight under control
Choosing a form of exercise that we really enjoy is one of the most important components in successfully incorporating regular exercise into our lives. Creating healthy goals and maintaining realistic assessments of progress are also important in order to minimize the risks and maximize the gains! It takes inspiration to stay on an exercise program. Here are some tips for getting started and sticking with it.Exercise (or diet) with a partner.
If you make a commitment to exercise with someone else, you might be less likely to back out, and can help keep each other inspired.
Set up challenges.
Plan a hike, bike ride, yoga retreat, or train for a marathon. This will give you something to work toward, and give your exercise practice a purpose.Have healthy goals.
Exercise, like rest, can be a refreshing break from the day-to-day responsibilities of life. If you approach exercise compulsively, it might become another demand on you, which may increase the stress in your life. So set realistic goals. Do it for the pleasure of it.
Exercise and movement can be fun, if you make it that way. Embrace the strength and beauty of your body regardless of your shape and size.Give yourself rewards.
If you hit one of your goals, congratulate yourself by doing something special. Maybe do yoga on the beach or buy yourself a new pair of tennis shoes. Keep a journal.
Record your exercise and write about how you feel after. Keep track of any personal triumphs or breakthroughs. Doing this will help you monitor your progress and reevaluate your program when necessary.Diet
Diet and exercise are like two sides of the same coin. In our culture of near obsession with body image, our relationship with eating can be complicated or even painful. Exercise can sometimes become a way to mask an unhealthy relationship with food. Moderation is key with both exercise and diet. Simplicity is also a great tool for maintaining a healthy diet. If we are depending on supplements, vitamins and other crutches to provide our bodies with nourishment that is not present in our diets, it may be time to go back to basics. Nothing can replace the wisdom of nature in providing nourishment for our bodies. We are what we eat.
If we eat fresh, live, organic foods, then we are maximizing the benefit we can get from what we consume. Processed foods filled with chemicals and hormones hinder the body’s ability to achieve the natural state of wellness that it is programmed to maintain. Although we cannot change our genes, and we cannot always control environmental factors, we can decide what to eat and what not to eat.
There are as many body types and different nutritional dietary needs as there are people. In order to be responsible for our individual health, it is necessary to take responsibility for learning what is best for each of us. Do we function best with a vegetarian diet or one that includes meat? Do we thrive on a diet high in carbohydrates or high in protein? All of these are questions that each individual must answer.
In her book, If the Buddha Came to Dinner: How to Nourish Your Body and Awaken Your Spirit, Halé Sofia Schatz and Shira Shaiman show how we can eat consciously by making a distinction between eating and feeding. When we merely eat for the sake of eating, we are usually doing it to fill a void that has nothing to do with an empty stomach. Eating mindlessly becomes a habit that can result in a host of health problems. But when we feed ourselves mindfully, we are consciously nourishing our bodies and contributing to our overall health.
In her book, An Invitation to Health, Dianne Hales offers some guidelines for developing eating habits that will lead to physical and psychological wellness:
• Eat with people you like.
• Talk only of pleasant things while eating.
• Eat slowly, and experience the taste of the food you are eating.
• When you eat, avoid reading, writing, working or talking on the phone.
• Eat because you are hungry, not to change how you feel.
• After eating, take time to be quiet and rest.
Keep in mind that eating for health and eating for pleasure can go hand in hand. Nourishing our bodies doesn’t have to mean giving up our enjoyment of food. It means being conscious of our actions and being responsible for their consequences. Bon Appétit!Spirituality
Probably the most important and most complex component of wellness is our spiritual health. The whole idea of spirituality brings with it a host of differing interpretations and definitions from person to person. Spirituality encompasses our relationship to ourselves, as well as to the universe. It is an avenue for finding meaning and purpose in living. The function of spirituality is to help us experience that which is beyond the physical realm, aiding us in defining who we are in the context of the universe.
Feeding our souls is as important as feeding our bodies, though the effects of doing so may be much more subtle. For the Dalai Lama, compassion is a basic part of our spiritual development, which involves caring about the suffering of others, and also being willing to do something about it. True spirituality results in making people happier, calmer, and more peaceful, and it is a mental attitude that can be practiced at any time.
The foundation of our spirit selves resides in our thoughts. In the same way that we are what we eat, we are also what we think. On a subconscious level, our minds do not distinguish between thoughts and experiences. If we relive the same story of tragedy or painful event in our lives, our minds experience it as if it were happening again right now. The same chemicals, neurons and hormones are secreted in the body when we think about an experience as when we actually experience it.
Our bodies become accustomed to living in an environment of pain and trauma. The next time that we have experiences in our lives that hearken back to painful experiences from our past, our bodies are trained to replicate the chemical response to painful situations, robbing us of the ability to respond mindfully and thoughtfully.
There are many ways to nourish our spirits.
• Spend some time in quiet reflection
• Appreciate natural beauty
• Be silent, lie on the ground and watch the clouds go by
• Plant flowers in a garden
• Engage in volunteer work
• Attend religious services
• Kiss or hug a loved one
• Write a letter to someone you have not seen in a long time
• Read something inspirational
• Pray for yourself and others
• Write in your journal, meditate, and breathe deeply.
Are we marinating in joy, or in anger? We have the choice in our lives to embrace joy and gratitude, or pain and self-pity. Going inside, getting to know ourselves and making a conscious decision about who we want to be and what we want our lives to be provides a foundation for inner wellness. It takes practice to see the joy and light in ordinary moments, but the benefits are magical. Once we achieve inner wellness, outer wellness is sure to follow.
Sources: Living and Learning, by Gerald Corey, Cindy Corey, and Heidi Jo Corey (1997, Chapter 9) “Taking Care of Yourself”; and I Never Knew I Had A Choice, by Gerald Corey and Marianne Schneider Corey (2006, Chapter 4)