The Most Important Healthy Habit
Updated: Jun 5, 2020
I was catching up with a friend over the phone this morning when she mentioned that she wasn’t proud of her body. “What do you mean, you aren’t proud of your body?” I asked.
“Well, I know I have to lose weight,” she explained, taking note of all her lifestyle habits that needed changing. More walks, exercise routines, healthier food choices. The usual stuff. During my adolescence, I don’t think anyone would have ever looked at me and thought, ‘physiotherapist’. At my heaviest, I was over 200 lbs. A three-minute light jog left me seriously winded, I could hardly do a few push-ups, and I was physically awkward.
Things have changed a lot in my life since then. Today I weigh just under 160 lbs, can run 5-10 k without too much effort, and I’ve lost count of all of the push-ups I’ve done in my living room while socially distancing during COVID-19. I've gained much more muscle mass and definition. I am still kind of awkward. The kicker was that losing 50 lbs, getting fit, and re-inventing my image didn’t really change how I felt about myself. Once I hit 160 lbs, my thoughts changed from ‘I want to be a healthy weight’ to ‘I really want to have a visible 6-pack.’ Doing ten pull-ups in a row wasn’t enough either; the fittest guys could do twenty pull-ups. And what was the point of running if I wasn't going to eventually do at least a half marathon?
To achieve that, I’d have to make my diet more restrictive and increase my dedication to working out. I’d have to give up my favorite foods throughout the week. There could be no more pints with friends at the bar once every week or two. Three to four days a week at the gym just wouldn’t cut it either-- it now had to be five, and I had to hit that number consistently. Now, I would be hard on myself for ‘only’ hitting the gym three or four times a week, and a couple squares of chocolate every other day was a source of guilt. And I love chocolate. For people meeting me at first glance, it probably looked like I was doing a great job of being fit and healthy. However, beyond looking superficially fit, this is not really how you envision health and happiness, is it? --- What good health means to each of us is always relative. This is a lesson that I have learned first hand. No matter where you are in your journey towards good health, you will always find people who are in better shape than you. There will always be people who are less in shape than you, too.
However, no matter where you are in life, you will never feel like a success until you practice unconditional self-love for yourself in the present moment. This includes wherever you are at today-- struggling to go for a walk or an accomplished athlete. If you are not practicing self-love, there will always be someone to compare yourself unfavorably to and to knock yourself down over.
Self-love is the most important healthy habit you can practice. It is the foundation of all other healthy habits. That is because without authentic self-love, whether you just want to get a little more active or whether you are aiming for a 6-pack, your main motivator will be shame. Shame is not fuel for success.
Shame is a self-defeating emotion. It dampens your sense of success when you achieve a goal. For those that are trying to change, healthy habits that are grounded in shame are tremendously difficult to keep in motion. Shame causes us to beat ourselves up when we mess up. That is the last thing we need when we are trying to improve ourselves. In reality, everyone is going to fall off the wagon at some point. Messing up is an inevitable part of behavior change. What really matters is how you talk to yourself when that happens.
Its a lot easier to get out of a rut when you're kind to yourself about being there to begin with. Coming down hard on yourself at every misstep will produce a much different result than practicing some self-compassion and cutting yourself some slack from time to time. Setting goals that are based around shame, and feeling more shame when you inevitably slip up, will eventually leave you feeling stuck and defeated. Remember, you are just as worthy of love after binging on fast food as you are right after running a marathon. (In physiotherapy, this might mean celebrating the fact that you did your exercises twice this week, instead of three times as advised!) Self-love doesn’t mean not taking responsibility for yourself, or that you can ignore things in your life that might need some work. We should still all strive to be better versions of ourselves. I think a lot of people get mixed up with this concept here. You are still very much accountable for your actions and (to an extent) your overall health and well-being. That said, approaching self-improvement with an attitude of self-love will make setting goals and forming new habits-- and getting back on track when you slip up-- a much easier and more worthwhile process. Fall in love with and accept the process of trying, messing up, and trying again.
Feel good about who you are today. Your body and mind have already gotten you this far in life, I'm sure through many ups and downs and various challenges, and that's a wonderful thing to celebrate. Life is a much easier and enjoyable ride when we accept that we will never be perfect.
Don’t fall into the faulty reasoning that you are finally going to love yourself only after you’ve lost fifty pounds, or whatever your current goal is. Healthy habits come from self-love, not the other way around. You really have to love yourself for where you are today, no matter where that is-- including after you’ve spent the entire day on the couch. Celebrate every success on your journey, no matter how small they may seem right now. I needed to stop and reflect on how well I had actually done in achieving my goals, and re-think why I was chasing them to begin with.
I told my friend to be very proud of where her body is today and to go from there. Our conversation ended on a much higher note than how it started.
Your most healthiest habit takes place on the inside. Treat yourself with kindness. Once you achieve that habit, everything else will come to you with far less effort, and achieving your goals will feel that much sweeter.