We were snoozing gently to the radio this morning at 8.30am – occasional cuddle-filled lie-ins are a hidden benefit when the whole household is self-employed, including the cat. This benefit almost makes up for the joys of complete financial insecurity and Double Tax Return Week. Anyway, in its own inimitable impression of a modern news service, the BBC announced to the nation that tens of thousands of people a year die from ‘inactivity’, and we should all be taking a ‘brisk walk’ for 20 minutes a day.
Interestingly, every morning for about half an hour after breakfast, I walk the man-bear I live with in cuddles and bliss. I am unsure of the definition of ‘brisk’, although it’s often quite cold out, so it’s good to move fast. But still, why is it that this announcement had me groaning and diving under a pillow?
It turns out the study referenced has much to recommend it. Cited here, it notes that obesity alone is probably responsible for only half the mortality rate that inactivity is. That is, you can be big and exercise and be more likely to be healthy than if you’re thin and never do anything that can be claimed as exercise. This doesn’t mean obesity is good for you, obviously, but bodies are made to move. This is a message we can approve of, and confirms a lot of other studies and evidence already in the public domain.
What is less helpful is how the message is translated and transmitted. The fact is, we are repeatedly bombarded with often contradictory messages about what we ‘should’ be doing to stay healthy. The narrative is consistent: do this one ‘simple’ thing universally, regardless of condition or position, and you will ward off the spectre of death and disease…and this one other ‘simple’ thing…and this one thing that contradicts the first thing…and this one that is impossible for a significant minority of the population to do. All this, it is claimed, is in the service of ‘simplifying’ health for people. Because somewhere in the last hundred years we have completely lost the personal capacity to look after our daily health. Medical research is now needed, not only into the cure and prevention of disease, but to regulate everything from diet to exercise to patterns of sleep and rest. That, and we’ve become standardised human units with standard needs and standard outcomes and standard desires and opportunities.
On the one hand, then, let’s consider the standardisation. As it happens, I was at the respite centre last night, and so when I heard the announcement this morning, I did idly wonder if all the young people in wheelchairs I know were expected to also take ‘a brisk walk’ once a day to stave off death? And if the answer is ‘of course not’, then are they not part of human society too? Who do we exclude in our pronouncements of ‘normal’ behaviour and exercise for ‘normal’ people to stay ‘healthy’? Because when your ideas of ‘normal’ turn out to exclude the disabled, the elderly, the weird and the wonderful, this should make all good people nervous. And it’s a small step from there to declaring that for fat people to become ‘normal’, they need to follow the same program of strict dietary advice and exercise behaviours as ‘normal-sized’ people. And when they do, and don’t miraculously halve their body weight overnight, what then? What is averagely healthy for average people becomes a strange form of cultural oppression we all suffer under. I’ll come back to that point.
My dear friend Isaak, on the other hand, is a happy gym rat and acrobat. There are things he wishes to achieve with his body that make me feel tired just to watch. He needs a lot of regular strength and balance training to maintain a physical form that works for him. He eats mostly protein and low-carb, high-fat, but he isn’t fanatical about it and has a soft-spot for Swedish chocolate cake recipes. He could probably benefit from more flexibility, when and if he has the time. The last thing he needs is a state-mandated 5-a-day and 20-minute-brisk-walk program. But of course, we don’t mean him. He’s obviously fine. But it’s not that simple.
My physical behaviours are partly functional, partly expressive. I maintain a 6-days-a-week ‘personal practice’, on top of that daily walk and a run once or twice a week. That personal practice consists of relaxation, contemplation, prayer, movement, stretching, awareness, training and exploration of key physical functions (such as breathing, pelvic support, sinus clearing, eye exercises, and so on). It also often includes body-weight strength work, because I am more flexible than strong by nature, and later-life bone density can be directly improved by weight bearing exercises. It sometimes includes pain management and avoidance, where my body is under stress by lifestyle or choice, because my teaching work is very physical, my study work is very sedentary, and between those two poles I like to run occasionally. All long-term runners are either managing a tendency to injury or nurturing an actual injury, in my experience. My (almost) daily practice takes an hour.
I need that much time to support the life I lead. I need to be fit enough to keep up with not one yoga class a week, but lead them multiple times a week: joining in with the warm ups and the tough bits for solidarity; and demonstrating anything that’s new or difficult or, very occasionally, aspirational. I need to be able to physically handle and lift the bodies of the children I work with. I am rarely involved in optimal manual handling conditions. Sometimes children will lean on me heavily for balance. Sometimes they want to lie in my lap for long periods of relaxation. If a 17 year old, overweight, severely autistic young man makes eye contact, smiles and leans in for a clumsy but well-meaning hug, it’s nice to be able to accept it without worrying about my back.
I need a lot of contemplation and relaxation practice to maintain a healthy emotional life and connection to what, for the sake of argument, we’ll call spiritual presence. (That’s a whole other post!) My work leaves me often vulnerable to the emotional life of others, which is a sacred duty I choose to undertake; but it needs a lot of support. In the same way, the mental gymnastics of starting a doctoral project are stretching and training my capacities in ways that require a lot of sleepy, dreaming time to rest and renew. That hourly practice most often contains a full half hour of contemplation and relaxation, and it’s probably not quite enough.
The diet that best supports my lifestyle, my genetics, and my life choices is almost entirely vegetarian. Rather than 5-a-day, some of my meals contain five portions of fruit and vegetables. My breakfast was a smoothie of spinach, coconut milk and frozen berries, with a handful of oats, and a few other bits and pieces. I don’t start the day this way because a government program told me to. I do so because it tastes and feels good to me, and I can do the things I want to do as a result.
But there are three essential points we should remember in this search for ‘health’. Firstly, we’re all going to get old, get sick, and die. Those three things are inescapable – like death and taxes, right? What we do to look after ourselves in our time here is important not because it will stave off death, but because it will make the most of the limited time we have on this glorious, beautiful, crazy, dysfunctional planet. I have a strong tendency to orthorexia – when eating (and exercising) according to a pre-designed ideal becomes an obsession that threatens the very health it aims to protect. (I write posts on this issue because this is personally vital to me). I once read an article on orthorexia that reminded me: sometimes, it’s more important to eat a pizza with friends than a salad alone in the dark. Now, trying to find that article again, instead my search returned page after page of ‘simple advice’ on ‘essential food rules’. You are not a machine, that will function effortlessly and eternally if given the officially-recommended servicing requirements of manufacturer-approved nutrients and maintenance procedures, or your money back.
This brings me to my second point. My practice, Isaak’s workouts, and the work I do with the children and the classes I teach: they all evolve from day to day. One reason why I focus on yoga as the core of my practice, rather than dance or martial arts or any other discipline that I bring in to complement what I do, is because modern yoga is most often concerned with self-awareness. This is the biggest gap in the announcements dribbling haphazardly out of your news media: when we tell people what they need in ‘simple’ terms, we infantilise them and reinforce the idea that health is complicated and best left to the experts. If the nation will just follow their advice without thought or personal agency, all will be well. It won’t. The difficult but empowering truth is this: it’s all down to you. Your body, your heart, your health, your peace of mind. There is no simple formula that will work for you for all time: and why would you want it to? Because the hidden message beneath the idea of ‘simple’ health messages is that the art of living well is a chore. Let’s state that more clearly: eating well, living well, moving your body, sleeping enough to be rested; all these things are chores, rather than simple pleasures of living.
There are experts, researchers and teachers of all kinds that can help, if you want advice. But in the end, the one factor that makes it all work is your ability to listen to yourself. Are you only listening to those parts of you that want a diet of fast-food kebabs and fast-food television? Are you only listening to those parts of you that strive and push and deep down think you’re not good enough or safe enough or strong enough?
Yoga has this one, simple technique that I think will help – and you don’t have to do it for a mandated number of times a week. Instead you learn to do it all the time. Listen to your desires and, if you can, find out what’s really underneath them, layer by layer by layer. You’ll get better with practice, but it’s never easy. As an example, when I crave food that’s not usually good for me, it’s often because I’m tired and pushing myself too hard. I study all day and work most evenings, (although to be fair, it’s not proper work, as my grandparents would have considered it). I’ve learnt that by allowing myself a daily ritual of Earl Grey tea and a biscuit or other small, sugary treat in the afternoon stops those larger cravings later on, and is a regular reminder to slow down, breathe and settle in for a marathon rather than a sprint. That daily Earl Grey is ‘necessary’ to my current routine. But I have the luxury of being able to take it.
That brings me to my third, and most political point. In my years of teaching yoga I have been witness to the attempts, failures and successes of hundreds of people in their search to live well and make positive health choices. It is true that some of the inconsistencies still intrigue me. Why is it that people who ask about classes by text message (rather than email or a phone call), rarely turn up for the class? How is it that I can intuitively predict with some accuracy those students who say they’ll come regularly – and think they do – but in reality turn up once a term or less frequently? But there is one over-riding conclusion I can assert with confidence: people already know what they could be doing to be healthier, and the reasons they don’t engage in those behaviours have little to do with laziness or ignorance.
Most people just can’t. The people I know that are struggling, are struggling with life as a whole. They are over-worked and anxious and over-stressed and they just don’t have the mental, emotional or physical capacity to do more. All I can do is make it as easy as possible for them to get to class, and then spend the time nourishing and nurturing them, and reassuring them that they’re already doing what they can. And they’re not very different from those of us that are doing okay. There but for the grace of the gods, we also go. What is killing us is not the individual lifestyle choices of over-eating or inactivity. What is killing us is a culture that moves ever faster, that demands ever more of us, that advertises poison to our children and pollutes our air and water and visual environment, that isolates us ever more from our natural habitat, that fills our hearts and minds with ‘news’ of chaos and despair, and that numbs us to our world, our bodies, our communities. And then it says: we can take the pain and confusion and fear away. Just do this one simple thing.
We all know, really, that it’s a hundred times easier to follow the rules of eating and exercise if you have wealth, opportunity and education. How oblivious do we have to be to turn to someone working three part-time jobs and struggling to feed the family anything healthy given the quality of discounted crap available in the local supermarket, and say: drag the children away from the TV and take them on a brisk walk for twenty minutes around the estate and all will be well? The greatest factor in lifestyle-dependent disease isn’t obesity, or inactivity, or ignorance. It’s always been poverty – the one thing we have in increasing abundance.
Meanwhile, those of us that are probably going to be just fine anyway, and are doing most of what we need to do to be mostly healthy, are being culturally encouraged to conform to a stricter and stricter definition of ‘normal’. Normal is a workforce that is resilient, thrives on stress, works standard hours, is happy-going and insanely positive, fits a given standard in every emotional and physical way, and is distracted from self-awareness as much as possible. But don’t fall prey to depression, or anxiety, or illness, or disability, or have anyone who depends on you fall prey to any of those things. Because then you are no longer a functioning machine in the service of society. Then you are a drain on resources, and a problem to ‘normal’, tax-paying people. And thus, those that are broken by this culture are rejected by it as being inherently, and personally defective.
If we stopped worrying about whether onions ‘count’ as one of our mandated 5-a-day, and whether ‘carbs’ make us fatter, and whether red wine is an ‘antioxidant’ or a health risk, and if you have to sweat for it to be considered ‘cardio’, and whether our fat levels aren’t just low enough but in the wrong places, because some study said belly fat correlates to heart disease, and…and…if we stopped all that and listened to our silenced inner voices, what do you think we would hear? I think we’d hear a call for a different culture entirely. Don’t you?