Food for Thought: When “Healthy” Habits Aren’t

Here is a great guest post I recently read on Whole9 by Kate Galliett, creator of Fit for Real Life and The Unbreakable Body.

“I got up at 4:30 this morning to get my training in.”

“Big week! I’m training 20 hours!”

“My knee usually only aches for the first 15 minutes or so, then it goes away.”

How do you perceive these statements?

Are they a sign of a committed individual? Are they statements only a professional athlete being paid to put their body on the line would make? Are they aspirational to you? Are they worrisome to you?

Today, the internet abounds with fitspiration carrying messages of “more,” “harder,” and “I do it even though it hurts” sentiments. And while you may think you’re immune to those ‘harder equals better’ mantras, there still are an abundance of habits out there that aren’t as healthy as they may seem.

Exercise is not meant to break you. Exercise habits are not meant to suck other important aspects of your health dry. Exercising is not meant to be a numbing agent to things your body is telling you.

Exercise is just one part of a balanced Health Equation – and far too often a short-sightedness exists in the selections made in the ‘exercise’ category with regard to how they affect whole body health.

Health-Equation-1.jpg

Ask yourself: is your health equation a net-gain, or a net-loss? It may not be easy to take an honest look, but doing so will net you greater results in your total health, as well as the results you desire from exercise.

Chronic stress is not helpful for fat loss, muscle gain, or performance improvement. It’s also not helpful for any of the health factors that keep you alive & kicking well into your later years. And many habits society deems ‘healthy’ are much less so when looked at in context to modern, busy, stressed lives.

The Halo Effect on “Healthy” Habits

A halo effect is when we create a perception of a person, habit, or brand based on our own feelings or thoughts about that person, habit, or brand. For example, if we deem a person nice, we are also more likely to deem them smart, whether there is any evidence of that or not.

Halo effects cloud our judgement.

Spending thousands of hours seeing clients, and being at countless social engagements where fitness conversation is inevitably brought up, like most fitness pros, I’ve been front-row for witnessing all manner of habits folks have deemed healthy. More than a few of these habits are surrounded by a full-on halo effect, a halo which impedes the long-term health success of the individual.

Here are common places the halo effect shows up:

  • I get up early to workout because I’m an achiever and achievers find a way (even though I’m regularly sleeping 7 hours or less per night).
  • I wrap myself in k-tape & braces before my training because I’m a serious athlete and these miles aren’t going to run themselves (and I’m choosing to ignore the pain because it might be a sign I have to stop and that’s just not acceptable).
  • I train like a professional athlete because I want to be the best (even though I’m not making any money for the amount of sacrifice I’m putting on my body & my personal relationships).
  • I do multiple long-distance endurance events per year because it’s healthy (despite evidence to the contrary.) 

It’s understandable that these halos would exist, you are applauded if you do an extreme feat of physical performance.

But extreme is not enriching.

If you’re feeling enriched by your social circle, but your circle is bonding over injuries you’ve sustained, sleep you’re missing, or family relationships you’re struggling with, those are hints that your Health Equation as a whole isn’t being enriched. Regularly getting taped up, dealing with pain, or showing up to race day with an injury, is not a ‘normal’ part of any sport or fitness practice, no matter what anyone tells you.

The social circle you gain from joining a group to all practice your fitness or sport together may indeed be enriching. But it’s the entire equation that matters. In addition to the “Physical Activity” aspect of the Health Equation, there is “Psychological/Physiological Stress” and “Rest” to factor in.

Context Is Everything

If the person who got up at 4:30AM to get their training in went to bed 8-9 hours earlier, and has the rest of their life stress set to a low level, that early call time won’t be as detrimental as it will be for the average person who is up at 4:30 on sub-7 hours of sleep.

Not getting enough sleep, carrying a fair bit of stress, and consistently training at a hard intensity in an under-fueled state is a recipe for disaster. And yet, there are huge amounts of people who do this every day. And are praised for doing so. This is the halo effect in full-effect.

As listed on the 9 Factors page, “Sleep” is the first thing mentioned after “Nutrition” in order of importance for a healthy life.

If you’re routinely getting up early to exercise, but aren’t getting enough sleep, you’re robbing Peter to pay Paul. Sleep expert, Doc Parsley, sheds light on the fact that failure to get adequate sleep nets the following results:

  • Insulin resistance, leading to development of type 2 diabetes
  • Increased levels of hormones associated with tissue breakdown
  • Increased fat storage due to disordered regulation of hormones, including leptin & ghrelin, which make it harder to feel satisfied after eating, and make you hungrier more often
  • Increased inflammatory markers in the bloodstream and increased cortisol, leading to increased migraines, arthritis, and other inflammatory-based health struggles

Stress is stress. It’s the same to your body whether you define where it comes from as “good” or “bad.”

Exercise is perceived by your body as a stress. And like most things, the poison is in the dose. High-intensity training and endurance training carry a particularly high stress on the body when dosed inappropriately and with poor context.

How you manage your life stress will affect how your body handles exercise stress.

If you’re well-rested, generally living a low-stress life, and aren’t experiencing the stress of under-nourishment, your results from your workouts will flourish and your body’s systems will function well.

When that is not the case, everything from hormonal imbalances to digestion issues can arise as your body’s systems suffer under the load of one more stressor, in the name of exercise, thrown on your body.

Screen Shot 2016-10-10 at 5.43.47 PM.png

Balancing Your Health Equation

The first (but by no means the easiest) way to fix things is to address your Health Equation in its entirety. How is your Rest category looking? Psychological & Physical Stress; how much have you got and how are you handling it? How about your Exercise dosage & intensity?

This can mean taking a hard look at what’s keeping you from getting enough sleep at night if you want to keep early morning workouts as a ‘thing you do.’

It can mean re-focusing your attention to the volume & quality of food you’re eating to ensure you’re actually fueling well enough to handle the load of exercise you wish to undertake.

You may want to look into meditation, prayer, quiet time, yoga, or any similar rest & recovery based strategy to help you unload your “Stress” portion of your overall Equation.

Change the context and you change everything. If your context is better – you’re well-rested, you’re properly fed, you’re handling the rest of your life fairly well – then you’re more capable of handling a big dose of intensity or endurance. It might be worth it to you to make trade-offs on your health right now for whatever performance goal you’re chasing.

It’s worth taking a step back every now & again to ensure you’re congruent with yourself on the actions you’re taking & effects you’re expecting.

The ‘stuff you do to be healthy’ needs to have a net-gain effect. Take the blinders off for just a minute and examine how the ‘stuff you do’ supports or hinders your overall health. Context is everything – address yours and you’ll upgrade the results you get from everything you do.

PS: For those who aren’t ready to change a habit, remember one of the Whole9 motto’s is this: No guilt, only consequences. In the context of food this implies that eating a cupcake isn’t “bad,” it just comes with consequences. And you’re an adult who can accept those consequences if you choose to have the cupcake.

The same is true with exercise. If you choose to under-sleep, sub-optimally nourish yourself, over- or under- exercise, or live life as a stress addict, those are choices you absolutely can make. Just remember that consequences come with that choice. No guilt, only consequences.