That may seem like a fairly obvious statement to you, but that truth does not often find its way into practice for far too many of us in the second half of life. Even if it sounds like a principle you already embrace, I encourage you to read on; there is still something in this article for you.
During my years of health coaching I realized how many people over 50 who lay claim to being healthy believe that they can pick and choose what that means; as if health were defined by the mere presence of a few constructive behaviors. These two or three behaviors inevitably consisted of lifestyle choices that were, of course, the least distasteful and inconvenient. For example, it is commonly believed that if you are someone who generally eats well (by just about anyone’s standards), takes your vitamins, and goes to a yoga class once or twice a week, that you are justified in laying claim to the mantle of “healthy”. That’s just a sample list of choices from among the many I’ve heard, but the attitude behind it is supported in nearly every corner of our experience; always by either someone else doing the same thing, or by someone trying to sell you a health-related product or service.
When asked what lifestyle choices someone is making for the goal of health, the one that makes the list most often is “eating healthy”. This behavior is claimed by the greatest number of people who believe they are generally “healthy”, in spite of the fact that weight-loss clinics and nutrition consultants will claim that you cannot possibly do it without their special “information” and motivation. How is it then that, in spite of its supposed difficulty, so many people are claiming to “eat healthy” without these aids? Is it possible that something else is going on? Here’s a very brief analysis of this apparent contradiction:
First, no one can really know what anybody eats, so there is little accountability for the claim of “eating healthy”. Second, there are no clear and concise standards for the claim of eating healthy, so it’s easy to believe that we are, whether it’s actually true or not. And third, eating healthy—even when the standards are high—is actually one of the easiest lifestyle modifications you will ever make among those that actually contribute in a real way to human health. The widely-promoted difficulty of eating healthy is not about hardship, just convenience.
Those are just some of the reasons that something typically makes the list, but the point here is not to analyze the choices we are making (or claiming to make), except as a contrast to what we’re not doing. This distinction is clear evidence of the actions we believe to be essential to human health vs. those that we believe are optional. It is those beliefs that are at the heart of a state of health that is less than what’s possible for you.
A great place to start is to look at the least desirable lifestyle modification, instead of the most. As you might have guessed by the first line of this post, it’s physical activity; especially of the kind that contributes the most to actual health. Among those 50 and over, challenging physical activity is rarely thought of as being necessary for the goal of health and, logically, it’s the last on the list to show up in actual practice. It is only possible for that belief to persist when we perceive health as a vague and mysterious quality, rather than a very real and unambiguous thing. As something real and definable, it demands a wide-range of very specific and non-negotiable lifestyle behaviors that are not of our choosing, but rather universally required for its creation to any reasonable degree.
Remember that health itself is identified by the breadth and depth of capacity and desire for functional activity. That requires some specific intent in the activity in which you engage. Our daily routines—which is what passes for physical activity in many of us—will never rise to the threshold for a contribution to health. They fail the “depth” test because we’re never engaged in them in them enough for them to be challenging, and they fail the “breadth” test because they have all been accommodated for with modern conveniences (motorized transportation, elevators, hard flat surfaces, etc.) which all serve to limit both the breadth and depth of your challenge. Unless there is specific intent to broaden and deepen your level of physical challenge, its contribution to your health is seriously impaired.
From among all of the many possible variations of levels and types of activity, there is very wide disparity in the quality of its contribution to health depending on how closely it resembles being fully engaged with the natural world. The less your activity resembles that standard, the less it contributes to your health; the more it resembles it, the more it contributes. What full engagement consists of is a very broad range of activities (to insure full and functional use of the body), and a depth of challenge (intensity) that pushes us out of our comfort zone; running, jumping, climbing, throwing, lifting, tumbling… they all make the list and none are optional. There is, of course, more to know, but the principle all by itself is a great gauge for the effectiveness of your activity as a contributor to health. Without being too detailed, it is safe to say that few of us can lay claim to the fullest contribution to health from our current activity, so there is always work to be done.
The lesson is for each us is that our individual lists of essential vs. optional disciplines in our lifestyle to which we are paying attention and/or modifying when necessary has far more to do with staying in our emotional and physical comfort zones than it does the constructive impact of the choices. That’s what happens when humans choose to remain uninvolved. Here’s what else happens: a failure to address the breadth of lifestyle disciplines will always result in that comfort zone becoming even smaller very quickly.
I understand completely that your desire to physically engage yourself to a level that is uncomfortable and otherwise unfamiliar has dropped considerably since about age 40, but that does not mean that it has magically become optional in your search for the best possible quality of life. I also get that you may have begun to question the necessity for it in this new over-50 (non-competitive and non-cosmetic) paradigm of fitness, but let me put that question to rest for you: yes, it’s still necessary; yes, you still won’t like it; and yes, it’s still not optional. Before there’s any claim of health, the list of lifestyle behaviors for everyone over 50 should look identical.
I just want to remind my readers that I am aware that I am sparse on the details in these articles; such as, in this case, what specifically do people over 50 need to be doing to satisfy the requirements for health. As I’ve mentioned before, we’re tackling a huge subject here and I believe that the greatest impact I can have on people’s lives in this context is to encourage you to challenge certain beliefs and attitudes that are ultimately limiting your success and potential in life. That’s all this article is intended to do. Please know that there are new materials in the works that will answer all of these questions, but those must appear in a longer and more structured format than this blog affords. Be patient, watch this space for future announcements, and know that help is on the way.