I have been asking myself this question a lot lately.
It`s mainly when I am scrolling through Instagram, looking at all the women I follow. Between the shredding, the flexing and the prepping for shows, I find myself continuously in a slump wondering where I went wrong. These women are fit, they`re lean, and shamelessly promoting some type of fitness food or gear that they’re sponsored by. They’re the definition of health.
As a full time personal trainer and previous strength and conditioning coach, I have always been one that focuses on performance and longevity. As long as you feel good, train and perform optimally, and can avoid injury. No one cares what your body fat percentage is or if your abs are shredded. Once I switched over from S&C coaching to personal training, I started paying more attention to how the body looked rather than how it operated. My clientele had changed. Instead of collegiate athletes with a desire to win, I began working with the general public whose only desire was to lose weight and look good in a bathing suit. Definitely a culture shock. From track and field to power lifting, I have never really faced a sport where I focused on the aesthetics of my body, so this was not a natural thought for me. I just trained, refueled and slept. That was until I entered my first bodybuilding contest.
I couldn`t help but follow bodybuilding competitors, fitness models and supplement sponsored athletes on every social media possible. They were the idea of health and fitness that I wanted to be. I figured the only way to achieve that and to be the right role model of “health” for my clients was to enter a figure contest. I hired a coach, wrote my lifting plan and got to work.
For 3 months, I did endless fasted cardio, ate well under 1100 calories with little substance, and lifted like crap. I over trained and under ate. I was so high on life and the thrill of “the grind” that I did not realize that my health was being compromised; physically and mentally. Now don`t get me wrong, I gained a lot from this experience. Insane confidence, a new mindset of how to push my limits, and I gained a new found respect for the nature and difficulty of this sport. But unfortunately, aside from my third place finishes, I had also gained body dysmorphia, a binge eating disorder and an under active thyroid known as hypothyroidism. My metabolism was shot and so was my state of mind. Clearly I wasn`t cut out for the “health” lifestyle.
This trickled over into my job, I was constantly thinking that I didn`t deserve to be a trainer, or better yet, I didn`t even deserve to be in the health and fitness field. My entire mindset regarding what health is was skewed. Everything I had learned in school was a lie; no one cares about the benefits of cardiovascular exercise or the proper way to periodize someone for training. It was all about the 6 pack, the bicep pump, the body fat percentage and how many likes your flex picture got on Instagram. I must have missed that class or something.
The question we must ask ourselves is: What does it mean to be Healthy?
According to Merriam Webster, the definition of health is: A complete state of mental, social and physical well being. Lets break this down into a couple thoughts.
Complete means you have all the necessary or appropriate parts to something; you`re full to the greatest extent or degree. State in this context refers to a particular condition someone is in at a specific time. If we apply this to each of the components of health, we can see where we should stand regarding an optimal state of well being.
Mental- In order for this to be considered healthy, all aspects of our emotional, psychological, and social well being should be at their greatest extent; fulfilled and satisfied. To be absolutely high on life, emotionally stable and in good standing with all relationships all the time would be pretty incredible, but this isn`t always the reality of life. In fact, not only is this one of the hardest aspects to balance regarding health, but it has the biggest effect on our total health if out of whack.
Not sure where your mental health stands? Ask yourself a few questions. Are my habits and current lifestyle fulfilling me and making me genuinely happy? Generally, what type of mood are you usually in? Do you have positive or negative self talk? Do you think positive thoughts when you look into the mirror? How do you refer to yourself when talking with others; with confidence and value, or with insecurity and little importance? Do you often shy away from social situations because you are uncomfortable with who you are or do you invite people in to get to know you? Hopefully some of these questions can shed some light on where your current mental state is.
Social- This refers to our relationships with family, friends, strangers and even ourselves. It also includes how we interact with others, how we act and react in certain situations, how we respond to social cues and our networking capabilities with others whether it is face-to-face, over the internet, or through our body language. When our mental health and internal physical health are sliding downhill, it can greatly effect our relationships with others. When we don`t feel well, we can easily become moody, short tempered, and can interpret comments and conversations in a negative/offensive way. We can go from 100 to 0 friends real quick.
Seeing how all of these aspects are interrelated, emotions also play a heavy role in our social life. Depending on how you cope with stress and negativity/disappointment, you may invite others into your situation or you may push people further away in order to gain clarity and understanding. Both of these can cause rifts in relationships and make friendship and companionship difficult, especially if it is long lasting.
Physical- Physical health mainly refers to how your body is functioning as a system, and most importantly, what it needs to function efficiently. Components of this include exercise, nutrition, sleep, and weight management. The no-brainer here is to eat nutritious foods, exercise daily including cardiovascular and strength training, and to get 8 hours of sleep every night. This is the main pillar of health right here, right?!?
Well, not quite. Here is where the idea of health gets foggy, or skewed I should say.
“You eat clean foods?”- You`re healthy.
“You lift, bro?”- That`s definitely healthy.
“I’m on a diet.”- You`re on your way to being healthy.
“A protein packed donut? Protein ice cream?”- As long as its got protein, its probably healthy.
“Protein everything plus an IG post regarding you eating it while lifting?”- Now that’s the definition of health!
Alright, so that last one was a bit dramatic. Unfortunately, today`s idea of “health” is not far off that statement, and is very far from anything healthy.
Now there is nothing wrong with lifting, eating clean or eating protein and taking an occasional selfie. (I am a personal trainer for goodness sake!) But we as a “fitfam” focused society fail to realize that our physical health starts from inside. Although these protein packed foods, two hour lift sessions, and extreme dieting may make us feel good and feel healthy, they are not our saving grace to all health issues. The big question that we must ask ourselves is whether or not our body is actually working optimally. This refers to our digestive, thyroid, and circulatory/cardiovascular function, our immune system and a whole other host of functions our body needs in order to operate. Not quite sure how this relates? Lets look at some examples.
Protein bars, sugar free “no calorie” foods and food enhancers, protein packed donuts, 10,000 calorie refeed days, and detox skinny teas. Most would say these are all “healthy.” These indeed are a great alternative to other foods, they can curb hunger, make egg whites and bland prep foods taste amazing, but if this makes up 90% of your diet or even worse, you have an already existing deficiency in micro-nutrients, we may have a disaster on our hands in the digestive department. And too many of these health foods may make the toilet your best friend. Yo-Yo dieting, restricted calories for an extended period of time, and long periods of high stress/intensity training are often the perfect ingredients for thyroid dysfunctions. Fat burners, steroid usage, and abuse of OTC medicines and prescriptions can cause cardiovascular/circulatory issues and many other problems within the body. Coincidentally, these are all common practices of fitness models, fitness YouTube-ers, supplement promoted athletes/models and bodybuilders; all people we view as the definition of what health is and should be. It is hard to believe someone with a six-pack could possibly have an absorption dysfunction, thyroid dysfunction and require a digestive enzyme with every meal in order to offset a stomachache and bloating every time they eat.
The meaning of the word “health” goes far beyond being the fittest, the leanest and the most muscular. It goes beyond the physical attributes that we so heavily place our opinions on. Our health, our character and our worth should never be held in the same light as our bodies. Mental and internal physical health deserve to have just as much importance.