Health is a verb.
We live in a world that pushes this idea that if we mold our bodies into a particular shape, that’s health. If we have a certain body fat percentage, or we wear a certain clothing size, or we have a certain amount of muscle definition in our legs or arms, or even an athletic energy about us, we’re healthy, right?
I grew up in the dance world, and to this day I still believe that dancers are some of the most incredible athletes on the planet. But are they the healthiest? I would argue no.
If you judge them only by their body, you might say yes. But so many dancers that I was around when I was a dance professional were drinking and smoking and had eating disorders and mental health issues (and please hear me out, this was many moons ago so I realize that cultures change). Also, these dancers weren’t concerned about performing in a way that respected their body. They were doing whatever it took to make the moves look good.
Moving into the fitness arena showed me a lot of the same things. I was surrounded by people with incredible physiques. They appeared healthy and they got tons of clients because of how they looked. But behind the scenes, the same people were eating, drinking, smoking, not sleeping and so burnt out.
Years ago, when I was in high school, I used to call this being two-faced; when a person acts a certain way in one place, but then shows up and acts a different way someplace else. And this is what I want to talk about today, the two facedness of health.
What is health?
The problem is that looking healthy and being healthy aren’t necessarily the same thing. There’s the appearance of health, and then there’s the embodiment of health. Popular media culture loves to push the former with very little regard for the latter.
So what does embodying health actually mean?
Health, in my opinion, is a verb. It’s an action. And health is not binary. It’s not something you either have or don’t.
Health is multidimensional, which means it has a lot of components. There’s physical health, mental health, emotional health, environmental health, relationship health, spiritual health, behavioral health…
Health is also not static; it’s dynamic. It’s always changing, depending on the stress loads of your life. And when I say stress loads, I’m not just talking about mental stress. Stress comes in many forms.
Health is a byproduct of how we choose to move through the world, not a byproduct of how we look. And yet, I consult with women every single day who have been chasing the idea of looking healthy with very little regard for actually being healthy.
So what’s the difference?
Looking healthy vs being healthy
The pursuit of appearing healthy is very outcome-focused. It’s often a weight on the scale, a body fat percentage, a particular look in a swimsuit, a clothing size, a certain level of muscle tone…
It is also very connected to Hail-Mary approaches of “I’ll do anything at any cost to create this look.” When we’re pursuing a look we tend to be in a rush, and we’re very rigid in our approaches. There are lots of rules and regulations to follow.
The focus, of course, is exclusively on physicality, and the pursuit of appearing healthy is largely rooted in the “What”: what to eat, what form of exercise you’re going to do… Sort of the details of your approach.
Being healthy is not outcome-focused; it is value-focused. It means showing up in your life in a way that honors the things that you value. It’s also very practice-driven. It’s not about outcomes, but about developing practices. There’s no rush when you’re focused on becoming healthy. And it takes into consideration all the dimensions of the human.
If we’re really focused on being healthy we have to be flexible, not rigid. Because life is always changing, the stress loads are always changing. So if we are not flexible in our approach, we cannot be healthy. The body is the vehicle, not the purpose.
And finally, we’re focused on the “What” but also on the “Why”. Why am I choosing to eat this way? Why am I choosing to move this way? Is it because I feel like I have to, or because I’m truly trying to honor my body so it can support me in the way that I want to be supported?
How do we become disembodied?
Becoming healthy is inside-out work. It’s not outside-in work. We can’t shape the body from the outside and expect to be healthy on the inside. It is less of an exercise in thinking about the outside of the body, and more of an exercise in learning how to be in the body in a peaceful and harmonious way. This is what embodiment is.
Hillary McBride is an incredible therapist, researcher and author of The Wisdom of Your Body. In this book, she explores the broken and unhealthy ideas that we have inherited about our bodies. Instead of the body being a problem to overcome, she talks about how our bodies can be the very place where we feel most alive, and the seat of our spirituality and our wisdom.
There is a part of this book where Hilary McBride talks about how we have become disembodied, and she has a great analogy for that. She talks about the body like it’s a house. You came into the world living in this amazing house; it was comfortable, you enjoyed being in it, you liked it.
One day you go outside to do some yard work and one of your neighbors comments on how great your house looks from the outside. You like the attention, and you perk up when you hear that comment. Or maybe it’s a different kind of comment. Maybe your neighbor criticizes the outside of your house, and that too starts to compel you to focus more on the outside of the house than on the inside. Over time, you find yourself spending more and more time on the outside. You’re living your life on the lawn, rather than inside your home.
In all my years of being in the wellness space, I have never heard an analogy that so poignantly speaks to disembodiment. We have deluded ourselves into thinking that if our houses look awesome on the outside, we’re healthy. But that’s not how it works.
What happens on the inside is what makes us competent and healthy humans.
How to embody health
There’s one word that always comes to mind when I think of embodying health, which to me is respect. Respect is when we treat something or someone with kindness and care.
1. Respect your chemistry
This means recognizing that your body has needs. It has requirements that need to be met in order for it to support you in the way that you want to be supported.
If you want to have energy tomorrow, you need to go to bed tonight and get a decent amount of sleep. If you want to feel strong, you need to condition and care for your muscles. If you want to be less reactive, you need to feed yourself well-balanced meals throughout the day.
If you’re not taking care of your body’s basic needs, health will remain elusive. Not only will you be reactive and have difficulty showing up in your life in the way that you want to, but you literally start to break down your physiology.
It’s kind of like a house that’s imploding. You can have a great-looking kitchen, but if the flooring has rot, or it’s starting to be eaten away by termites, you’re not going to have a nice kitchen for very long.
So are you respecting your chemistry?
I have an entire Free program based on this called Five2Thrive. In that program, I mention the five elements that I believe are the foundation of respecting our chemistry: sleep, hydration, eating real food, moving your body, and connecting with yourself, with nature and with others. If you want a deeper dive into those five elements, you can sign up here.
2. Respect your resources
In order to direct your energy towards the things that nourish your health, and away from the things that deplete your health, you’re going to have to manage your resources.
When I say resources, I’m speaking specifically about time, energy, willpower, focus, and what I always reference as your “state of whelm”. This is a term that I adopted from Susan David’s work, and it means that you’re neither overwhelming nor underwhelming your brain. You’re choosing to operate in a space that keeps you in a state of whelm.
You only get so much time, energy, willpower and focus every day. If you’re spending these resources on things that don’t matter much to you, you’re not going to have them for the things that do matter.
This requires organizing yourself, including yourself on your daily schedule, and leaning into practices like setting boundaries, making decisions and saying no to things that are not in alignment with your values and with who you want to be as a human.
3. Respect your brain
You could also call this thought management or mindset work. Decision fatigue is very real. We make a lot of decisions in the day, and the brain gets very tired by midday. We also have some pretty remarkable parts of the brain. When we understand how they work, we actually feel more compelled to manage our own thought processes.
I’m speaking specifically about your amygdala, which is one of the parts of the brain that developed first, and it’s very reactive. The amygdala has three primary objectives:
- Seek pleasure
- Avoid pain
- Exert the least amount of effort
When our life was constantly at risk because we lived in caves, and we were foraging for food and constantly being hunted by predators, those three things were really important. But today in modern times, if you let the amygdala run the show, pursue pleasure, avoid pain and exert the least amount of effort is a recipe for a slow death.
And this is what a lot of people are choosing to do: never get out of their comfort zone, never apply any effort, never lean into discomfort, pursue tons of pleasure (because pleasure is around every corner these days)…
But you also have a much more evolved part of your brain, sort of the executive functioning center, called your prefrontal cortex. And that part of your brain allows you to see what your amygdala is doing.
I was planning on moving my body today, but now I don’t feel like it. Well, it’s probably because my amygdala just wants me to stay safe in the cave. But going to work out today is not threatening my life in any way. So even though I don’t feel like it in this moment, I know the reason I put it on my schedule, and I’m going anyway.
That’s what using your prefrontal cortex looks like, among a lot of other things.
Another thing I love about this idea of respecting the brain to become healthy is it allows us to focus on what we want for our future, versus only focusing on what we have been in the past. And this is so relevant to the community of women that I work with. Because I find so many women are chasing a version of themselves from the past, rather than stepping into who they want to be in the future.
“When you think from your past memories, you can only create past experiences. As all of the “knowns” in your life cause your brain to think and feel in familiar ways, thus creating knowable outcomes, you continually reaffirm your life as you know it. And since your brain is equal to your environment, then each morning, your senses plug you into the same reality and initiate the same stream of consciousness.”
Joe Dispenza, Breaking the Habit of Being Yourself: How to Lose Your Mind and Create a New One
What Joe Dispenza is saying in this quote is that when we are constantly pursuing a past version of ourselves, we’re only going to get more of the same. We’re only creating more of what we already have. We’re not creating anything new for our life.
4. Respect your emotions
There’s a difference between a sensation and an emotion. A sensation is a message that your body is giving to your brain in terms of something that it needs. I feel like I need to pee so I go to the bathroom. I get a rumble in my tummy, I’m hungry. Those are sensations.
Emotions are messengers about how you are showing up in relationship to the world around you. It’s a message from the brain to the body. When you learn about your emotional landscape, and you start paying attention to it, you also learn about yourself. It is an incredible lesson in self-development.
I recently wrote a blog post about befriending emotions. If you missed it, you can read it here.
I will summarize by saying this: when we start respecting our emotional landscape, meaning we see our emotions as important messengers, and we start paying attention and listening to them, essentially we start allowing them. We stop doing things that cost us our health. We stop resisting emotion, reacting to emotion, avoiding emotion and we start opening ourselves up to learning how to regulate emotion in healthy ways.
If you could only look healthy or be healthy for the rest of your life, which would you choose?
I sure hope it’s the latter. Some of you might be reading that question saying: “Well, can’t I have both?” Absolutely, you can. Looking healthy is often a byproduct of pursuing the practices that allow you to be healthy. But being healthy is not a byproduct of looking healthy.
Like I said at the start, I know lots of people who pursue a certain look on their body. And if you don’t know them, you would think from the outside, “wow, that’s a really healthy person”. But when you get to know them, it quickly starts to become apparent that that’s not the case. This person is not being healthy, they just have a certain look that you have defined in your own brain as healthy.
In this post, I have mentioned the four buckets of health: respecting your chemistry, respecting your strategy, respecting your brain, and respecting your emotions. Those are also the four categories of work that I do with my students and my clients, and how we organize all of the content inside of the Rumble & Rise membership.
If you’re looking for a space that can help you to start thinking about health in a different way, if you are someone who is really committed to being healthy and not just appearing healthy, come join us inside of Rumble & Rise. It’s an incredible space with amazing resources and amazing support. And I promise you, you won’t regret it. You can check out the benefits and all of the things that this membership entails here.