The concept of “wellness” is more pervasive in pop culture today than ever before. Although, for many people, living in a state of wellness is far from the status quo. In fact, the ever-increasing prevalence of disease might be the reason that ideas about how to enhance wellness have grown in popularity. More people than ever before are intimately involved with a disease in one way or another; diabetes, cardiovascular disease, arthritis, depression, autoimmunity, dementia, or cancer. In many cases, modern medicine has a firm grasp on the factors that contribute to disease such as smoking, poor diet, lack of physical activity, trauma, etc. However, it is more difficult to nail down the factors that result in wellness. The cause and effect relationship between wellness behavior and feeling well is vague and extremely broad. Wellness looks wildly different based on age, culture, genetics, and the like. Wellness lies on a spectrum that diverges from disease and spans the great divide to optimal vitality. For those of us that are interested in landing as far away from disease as possible on that spectrum, we are often looking for the best way to get there.
Most of us have a vision of what “Wellness” looks like. Marketing campaigns and magazine covers work to portray wellness in some sense or another. Beauty and fitness magazines create a visual of physical health by showing physically fit and beautiful people. Architecture magazines offer the picture of financial wellness with designs that sell “the good life”. Bridal magazines portray emotional well being. Whatever aspect of wellness we are concerned with, it definitely has a look! However, looks can be deceiving and can result in a belief that there is ONE surefire way to be “Well”.
The truth is that there is not ONE clear path to wellness. Instead, it is helpful to think of wellness as a recipe. For ease, let’s imagine a basic vegetable soup recipe. My soup recipe might look completely different from your soup recipe. My recipe might include broccoli and cauliflower in a tomato base while your recipe might contain potatoes and peas in a vegetable stock. You might switch out potatoes for wild rice. If you are feeling confident, you may adjust the seasoning from Italian herbs to Indian spices. The soup might be light if it is meant as a side dish or hearty if it is meant to be the whole meal. In any case, the recipe has a format but you are free to go nuts with adaptations as your needs change.
This is wellness; it has a basic recipe but it is most successful when it is developed with ingredients that reflect individual circumstance. Your wellness recipe might change seasonally, during times of increased workload, lifestyle shifts, or vacation. As life ebbs and flows with differing roles and responsibilities the recipe follows suit.
As logical as this might seem, it is not as easy to put an individual plan into action because it means listening closely and maintaining awareness of your individual needs. It means ignoring magazine covers and creating a picture that reflects your life. I am reminded of how difficult this can be each time I meet up with one of my marathoner friends. As soon as we part ways I commence to scolding myself for not running marathons. Then, I promptly create a plan to run a marathon. Approximately a week later, I ditch the plan because up until now and for a multitude of reasons, that is not in my wellness recipe. However, that does not stop me from being lured into the “if they are doing it, I should do it” addiction of achieving wellness. Each time I ditch the marathon plan, I go back to my recipe and become clear about my plan. My plan is based on what I know about myself and what I know of the research around wellness. While I cannot offer an exact recipe to wellness for anyone by myself, I can provide the format to build a wellness recipe and the research that explains why it works.
Whole Food – Your diet might be vegetarian, paleo, raw, Mediterranean or undefined. Scientific research has not conclusively revealed that one-diet-fits-all. However, the research does support that eating REAL food, i.e. unprocessed and nutritionally dense food, is the basis of good health. This means that 85%-95% of your food is not coming from a processing plant, but from its original source. Whole food is dense in nutrients and void of harmful food additives. On the other hand, processed food is often laden with harmful additives like sugar, preservatives, inflammatory oils, and food dyes while providing too many calories and too few nutrients.
Research also suggests that a diet that is based on plants is optimal. This is not to say that animal products are off-limits. It means that most of what you eat should be plants. Whatever diet works best for you and for whatever reason it works, it should be based in whole foods, very low in sugar, and mainly plants.
Movement/Activity – The marathon runner is not necessarily in better health than the person that walks in the forest a few hours per week. This is an area of wellness that forces each person to assess their goals and intentions. Are you exercising to be in bikini-body shape? Are you exercising to increase energy levels? Are you exercising to enhance mental health? Are you exercising to train for an adventure that you have been planning like biking through France? Is exercise your sport or social time?
There are so many questions to ask and there is endless research about fitness. There is research that supports the importance of resistance training for women to retain bone mass. There is research that states that the amount of time that you exercise is more important than the intensity of the activity for weight loss and health. There is research that shows that high-intensity-interval training is better for increasing metabolism in comparison to consistent cardio work. Then there is the research that shows that the areas of the world that have the highest number of people living healthfully over the age of 100 don’t exercise at all. Instead, they live active lives that require movement as a part of accomplishing activities of daily living. This is what is conclusive, you need to move. Figure out how you like to do it!
Healthy Body Weight – If you are eating whole foods and moving enough to burn the energy you’re taking in, then a healthy body weight should be the result. However, if you are battling with other factors affecting metabolism then it may be time to find a professional to help you attain a healthy body weight. Being overweight/obese, especially around the belly, is linked to insulin resistance, diabetes, cardiac disease, dementia, and more. The endocrine system becomes dysregulated by hormones produced by fat cells around the belly (visceral fat) increasing inflammation and wreaking havoc on all body organs. Extra weight around the mid-section is not something to put off for later.
Supplements – There is a place for supplementation in the wellness recipe. The right supplements can make a giant difference in mental, emotional and physical health. The key is to choose high-quality products and understand the risks and benefits. Many vitamins and minerals affect the absorption or function of other micro-nutrients. Do your research and base your supplementation on your specific needs, taking into consideration the positive and negative effects that each supplement may have on other aspects of your biochemistry. If this feels beyond your scope of understanding, find a reputable naturopath or functional medicine physician to guide you.
Rest.Relax.Recharge – This ingredient involves quality sleep as well as flipping the “off-switch” in your mind throughout the day. Sleep is vital for physiological repair and being in a well-rested state prevents sugar cravings as well as the tendency to rely on caffeine throughout the day. Research consistently shows that it is best to go to bed and get up each day at a similar time and that seven to nine hours of sleep per night is optimal.
There is more to rest than sleep. Very strong research supports the positive health benefits of relaxation on conditions that range from anxiety to chronic pain and beyond. A real life example of a culture that embraces this idea and yields the many health benefits are the Italians. In Italy, it is customary to take a 3-hour break for lunch every day. This time often includes eating with family or friends, taking a stroll (passeggiata), having a rest (pisolino), or relaxing alone. In any case, it is a reset in the middle of the day to recharge for the latter half. This may be unrealistic for many people but the practice can be modeled by taking 15-20-minute breaks a few times a day and relaxing in whatever way helps to recharge. This does not include looking at your smartphone or partaking in other activities that result in stimulating the sympathetic nervous system. This is time to remove stress and connect with friends, family, or yourself in a direct and restorative way.
The last aspect of recharging is meditation or prayer. Scientists have found that those that partake in daily meditation and prayer are happier and healthier mentally and physically.
Taking time to slow your nervous system down can pay you back in dividends. As little as three minutes of meditation upon waking and three minutes before bed can make a difference and create a lasting habit. For new meditators, apps like Calm.com and Headspace are a great guide to getting started.
Social support – Another aspect of wellness that many people can overlook is the importance of emotional support from family, friends or a close community. Those that feel isolated are more likely to partake in unhealthy behaviors and suffer from emotional and physical illness. This aspect of wellness can be very difficult to change for those that are in the midst of isolation. Finding a group to get involved with can be a very challenging yet rewarding first step. Research indicates that social belonging improves health and achievement.
Financial reliability – Financial stability is vital to health. This is not to say that a person needs to make a lot of money to be happy. It means that if a person is stressed out about paying for life’s necessities every day, it takes a giant toll on health. Generally, the reason that type of stress is so dangerous is because it forces a person into a permanent state of “fight or flight” or sympathetic nervous system overdrive which can result in adrenal fatigue and a perpetuating cycle of exhaustion and stress. This type of fear and physiological stress looms overhead like a giant rain cloud and can result in severe illness. If this is a part of your wellness recipe that seems out of control, it is worth sitting down with a financial advisor. There are many reputable sources for free financial advice such as AARP.
Time in Nature – Spending time in nature on a regular basis can provide many benefits. Research shows that spending time in nature reduces stress and inflammation, restores mental energy while increasing creativity, improves concentration and short-term memory, and boosts the immune system.
Moderation – There are a handful of behaviors that are not traditionally thought of as healthy, but which bring pleasure and happiness. These are pleasures such as eating a beautiful dessert, drinking a glass of wine, buying a beautiful pair of shoes that are slightly above budget, etc. These activities are wonderful in moderation, and detrimental in excess. Living in moderation allows a person to enjoy the good life without the guilt or repercussions that are the result of overindulgence. Take inventory of your pleasurable and not-so-healthy behaviors and check in with your level of moderation.
1. Carve out 30 minutes alone in a quiet space.
2. Grab a pen and paper.
3. Using the Ingredients list above, write out a wellness recipe that meets your needs.
4. Pay close attention to choosing the ingredients that really match your needs and preferences for health. (Note: you can leave ingredients out or add ingredients in if necessary!)
5. Make a point to focus on ingredients that will have the largest effect on your wellbeing.
6. Post your recipe in a place that you can see it every day.
7. Put a date on your calendar when you will return to your recipe and adjust your ingredients if necessary. Remember that your unique Wellness Recipe is a reflection of the ingredients that match the season and setting of your life.
Serve with a side of satisfaction and enjoy!
Megan Barnett earned a B.S. in Dietetics from Kansas State University and an M.S. in Nutrition and Functional Medicine from University of Western States. Megan is a Certified Yoga Instructor and Mindful Eating Coach. She has worked in private practice and with major health care systems, health clubs, and yoga studios designing and implementing nutrition and wellness education for people of all ages. Megan’s passion lies in sharing her love of food, wellness and science through writing and working directly with clients to help them connect with their bodies & achieve optimal health.
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