May 17, 2017

Our Health Can’t Be Found at a Gym—Here’s Where it Actually Is.

Too often I hear people say things like, “I need to be healthier,” or, “I need to get in shape.”

That is the common response when we walk up a few flights of stairs or carry heavy bags of groceries into the house.

Some of us have deeply rooted causes for this struggle, such as fighting disease or rehabilitating an injury. No matter what the source or motive, many of us have the same drive. We want to feel healthy.

Considering this and looking inward at my own life, I found myself sitting with a few questions: What do these statements really mean? What does it mean to be healthy? At what point do we stop, look at ourselves in the mirror, and say, “Nice! I did it! I’m healthy now!”

The word “health” is defined as:
>> The state of being free from illness or injury.
>> A positive mental and/or physical condition.

Becoming healthier means different things to different people. Most would say that being healthy means maintaining a great physical condition. That model in the underwear ad, or the gym rat benching 300 pounds at the gym is the epitome of health. Right?

In my opinion, not necessarily. What sacrifices did these people make to get their bodies so toned? What part of their lives did they put off or ignore to get a few extra hours at the gym? Are they injuring themselves while they’re there? Are they eating foods to promote a nourished body and not just fat loss?

On the flip side, does it mean that we are “unhealthy” if we only make it to the gym once a week or not at all? If we have pizza some nights and watch Netflix, does that mean we’re unhealthy? Again, in my opinion, not necessarily.

A very wise Eastern Psychologist gave me one great piece of advice that I’ve taken with me for almost 20 years. We were discussing my depression and if medication was something I should consider. Pointing to his temple he said, “Before your body can be healthy, you need to be healthy here.” Then placing his hand over his heart he said, “To be healthy in your mind, you first need to be healthy here.”

That statement, and the compassion in his eyes, brought me to tears. Understanding this set me on a new path, one I’ve walked since. This man didn’t try to sell me designer drugs or schedule hundreds of dollars worth of therapy sessions. He simply explained what he believed was the right place to start, and only after those avenues were explored would he discuss the options of medication.

We talked about my lifestyle and the possible causes for my present emotional distress. We settled on the facts that I smoked and drank too much, didn’t exercise, was unhappy with my work, didn’t eat well, and didn’t have a single healthy relationship to speak to.

I was terrified thinking that in order to beat depression I would have to give up everything I enjoyed. “Moderation.” He said. “You need to find the balance that works for you.”

In the years since that visit, I found the balance he spoke of and have been able to maintain it with slight variation over the years. There are always the occasional “bad days” and I infrequently have a slight bout of depression, but it’s nothing I’m not able to work through.

These are the key points I needed to feel good inside and finally be happy with my life:

I needed to knock off drinking and smoking.

I smoked about a pack a day and drank at least four nights a week. It took me a while, but I quit smoking and cut my drinking down to once a week or so. After doing this,I realized that I usually ended up in a horrible mood for an entire day after just one night of drinking. Even having only two or three drinks seemed to knock my mood down, just like clockwork. As I realized this, I drank less and less. I’ve pretty much had a distaste for drinking since and now only have a drink once every few months. Every day I choose not to drink I feel better than when I do. This was proof that I wasn’t missing out on the things I liked by making these changes. In fact, I was opening the door to find new things I really liked that were now unhindered by my old life.

I learned to love exercise.

My new lung capacity and energy level gave me the ambition to start hiking. After hiking for a couple months and regulating my diet, I got my first gym membership. I remember sitting in my car at the gym parking lot, terrified to go in. At the time, I was about 50 pounds overweight and had never set foot in a gym since high school. Somehow I found the resolve to get out of the car and walk in. I did the same the next day and again a few days later. I watched, amazed and more proud of myself than ever, as the pounds fell off.

I studied how to be in relationship.

Despite my physical health transformations, I knew I still had to work on all aspects of my life. The “heart” my psychologist spoke of a year ago still eluded me. I still lacked positive relationships and emotional depth. I started reading about relationships, and a particular article stood out to me. It suggested getting involved with people who exceed what we expect for ourselves. At the time, what I needed most was compassion and drive, so I found a local equine rescue and volunteered there. Suddenly I had a place to go every day where I was doing something meaningful with people I admired.

During this time, I also began studying meditation and Eastern philosophy. I explored new ideas inside myself that I never knew existed. With these additions to my life, this was the first time since seeing the psychologist that I felt healthy.

So does this mean I lived happily ever after and was the healthiest guy in the world from that point on? Not at all.

A few years into the weight lifting, I was in pretty amazing shape. That being said, I suffered from Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and frequent lower back problems. I remember thinking, “I can’t win.” I was living the life I believed would make me happy, but I didn’t know how to without injuring myself.

I had to carefully consider where I was and where I wanted to be physically and emotionally. I knew that I needed at least four days of strenuous exercise in order to maintain my mood, so these injuries posed a difficult obstacle. Time to pivot. I found a new gym with a pool and decided to give swimming a try. Turns out, it was exactly what I needed. Not only did it provide the strenuous activity I needed, but I loved it! I was genuinely excited to go every day. Within a few weeks my lower back eased up and my wrists felt almost completely normal. I was back. I was still getting in great physical shape, but I was doing it in a way that my body was okay with and my mind enjoyed.

So this means in order to be healthy, everyone should exercise all the time and meditate, right?

Not at all. That is simply the combination that worked for me. Each of us has different needs and different goals. I may need to exercise four days a week to maintain a stable mood, while another person may only require one. I may need to immerse myself in meditation and Eastern philosophy in order to maintain a good attitude, while someone else can find the same result by painting or spending time with their children.

If we truly want to make our lives as amazing as they can be, we need to explore our own source of balance. We need to look at the way we live and the people around us, then think about how to make changes. If we’re unhappy and unhealthy, we need to look at ourselves and ask what we can do to to support ourselves.

The healthiest version of ourselves may be working out once a week and spending the rest of our time with family. The healthiest version of another person may be spending six days a week at the gym and the last day in church. The point is this, the healthiest version of a person is the version where he or she is fulfilled by the experiences and people in their lives, coupled with a decent diet and an exercise regimen that fits his/her body’s needs.

That, my friends, is where healthy meets happy.

Author: Michael Sutch
Image: Scott Web / Unsplash
Editor: Danielle Beutell

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