For many of us, getting into shape means going on a diet or hitting the treadmill. But there’s more to being fit than just cutting back on cookies or signing up for a gym membership.
In fact, while physical health is important, internal wellness plays an equal role in determining our overall happiness.
So it’s not a bad idea to take some time to focus on strengthening the strongholds that contribute to our emotional well-being, including spirituality, fulfillment, relationships, finances and sustenance.
Like anything, however, knowing where to begin can sometimes be a challenge. Fortunately, with help from the experts, getting on track only requires a little know-how and the motivation to start.
Work. Life. Balance.
Life moves fast and trying to keep pace is stressful business. That’s why finding time to slow down and recalibrate is nothing short of essential.
While everyone has his or her own way of coming to center, an increasing number of people are turning to meditation, due to its well-documented benefits, including reducing stress and increasing relaxation.
“It’s a great way to just make yourself present,” says John Odlum, LMT, CMA, QTP, a nationally certified and Connecticut licensed massage therapist and the founder of Tru Elements in West Hartford. “And the more present you become, the more space you have to deal with things in your life, and to deal with stress.”
According to Odlum, who’s also a master medicinal aromatherapist and reiki master, meditation can provide much-needed perspective and self-awareness, which helps put things into their right place.
“The most important thing is to become more in the moment,” he says. When you’re mindfully present, it’s easier to see what’s influencing your life and then chose to either hold onto those influences, or let them go because they don’t align with your own beliefs.
To get started, Odlum suggests taking a few minutes to be still and become aware of your thoughts. “Imagine your thoughts as clouds, like a time lapse camera moving across the sky. There’s nothing to hold onto; nothing to grab. You’re just watching them and they can’t harm you.”
With millions of thoughts in our heads, he says, it’s important to take time to observe them without any sort of judgment. “Judgment equals jail. When you judge something outside yourself, you’re actually perpetuating something you do not want in your life.”
The ability to objectively examine your thoughts, intentions and desires can be both liberating and empowering. “It’s awareness, acceptance and allowing. When you do that, you’re living your life; you’re not really trying to control it,” explains Odlum. “It’s just bringing in perspective to whatever issue you have, whatever it is.”
As with most things, meditation takes practice and the willingness to try. But once integrated, he says, it can change your entire outlook on life. “It’s finding the path that works for you and being true to yourself.”
It’s Not the Destination
Studies suggest that nearly half of us are unhappy in our jobs or careers. Yet for any number of reasons, we find it difficult to make a change or pursue something different.
“Typically people are unhappy because they’re unclear,” says Jerry Gaura, life coach, therapist and founder of TOOWi Media in Collinsville. “They’re attaching to goals and outcomes that don’t really match up with who and what they are.”
To gain insight, Gaura recommends doing some self-reflection. “That first step, which is really important, is to be able to speak to the truth of yourself.”
That truth, he says, can get lost as we follow a track in life that doesn’t necessarily reflect our real desires. However, once we’re able to identify what we want, we can then give ourselves permission to honor it and take the next step, which is finding the courage to act on it.
It’s difficult, he says, because taking that leap requires us to take responsibility for our own security, rather than entrusting it to outside resources like the company we work for, or other influencers in our life. “That’s the trust step – meaning I’m going to have to have faith that I can do what I say I can do.”
Integrity comes next. “Integrity means that when you’re moving towards your goals and vision, if you run into obstacles, you’re not giving up,” says Gaura.
Curveballs are part of life, and instead of assuming they’re roadblocks to achieving your endpoint, consider them part of the path of getting there. “You’re going to have to find ways to pause, slow down in the face of obstacles and barriers, and connect with your community – your tribe and trusted mentors,” he says.
Gaura also believes it’s important to embrace “the suck,” meaning that instead of fleeing when things get difficult, lean into the struggle in order to find the strength you need to surmount it.
The next step is showing compassion for that struggle and the emotions that accompany it. “Emotions that show up are reflections of your truth speaking to you,” he says. By ignoring them, you can actually derail the whole process.
Finally, it’s important to recognize that if after pursuing your personal truth, you don’t achieve your desired outcome, it’s not your job to give up. Instead, it’s to let go of the outcome. “You’re not doing it for the outcome,” Gaura explains. “You’re doing it to live with integrity and truth.”
According to a long-term Harvard study, there’s a strong connection between happiness and our close relationships.
With that in mind, it’s a good idea to take inventory in those relationships to ensure that not only your needs are being met, but that your loved ones’ needs are too.
One way to start, according to Janet Peterson, LCSW, a Litchfield-based therapist who specializes in relationships, is to talk with friends and family about what you need. “People can’t read minds,” she says.
While it’s tempting to think others know what you need, in most cases, they don’t. “Identifying your needs is important because it can actually promote closeness and greater intimacy; then the other person can actually know how to help.”
Peterson also suggests reflecting on early-life relationships because often they directly impact our current ones. “Ask yourself [if you got] what you needed. For example, love, trust, safety, affection, patience, consistency, encouragement; if one doesn’t get those things, they will look for them in other relationships. Many times, we will give to others what we most desperately need and want, further draining our inner resources.”
As adults, she notes, it’s up to us to identify our unmet needs and provide them to ourselves, with the support of others.
Another way to promote healthy relationships is by being honest and letting others know how they are affecting you. “You’re telling them the behavior you don’t like, how it makes you feel, what behavior you’d like to see instead, or what the consequence will be if they continue the behavior,” she says. “On the flip side, be willing to admit when you’ve hurt someone and be able to apologize.”
It’s also important to be your own person and not depend on others to provide your needs. Healthy relationships consist of two emotionally mature people who know they’re separate beings who share thoughts, feelings, experiences and help bring out the best qualities in each other, she says.
Follow-through is still another important component of a good relationship. “Do what you say you’re going to do. This is a big factor in building trust and feeling secure.”
Finally, to foster healthy relationships, Peterson explains that we need to mindfully listen to one another. “Allow the person to talk and actually finish their thoughts, and avoid defensive language,” she says. “People want to be seen, heard and understood.”
A Penny Saved
If money grew on trees, we’d all plant orchards in our backyards.
Since it doesn’t, keeping financially fit is an important part of our overall health, especially considering that for many of us, money is often the number one cause of stress.
A good place to start is with your savings, says Bill Tait, a certified financial planner with Essex Financial, located in Essex. “How do you make sure that you’re saving, and saving in the most efficient way?”
One suggestion is to continuously evaluate any investments you might have, or work-sponsored programs like a 401K, to ensure that you’re diversifying your portfolio to optimize returns, as well as maxing out your contributions.
“If you can maximize your 401K, it doesn’t really cost you as much as it looks like on paper, because it’s all coming out pre-tax,” he says. This can ultimately help you pocket more of your hard-earned cash.
For folks without prearranged plans or who find it difficult to save, Tait recommends starting small, even if it’s $10 a paycheck. And to lessen the temptation of spending it, have it automatically taken out of your paycheck and deposited into a separate account.
“If you have those automatic withdrawals, then that money never makes it into your checking account, so you don’t see it and you’re not putting yourself into a position where you have to take that $10 and physically move it into the other account.”
The “out of sight, out of mind” philosophy can help build a nest egg over time, while reducing the likelihood of spending it.
Targeting bad debt is also essential to improving your financial fitness. Tait says that identifying high-interest loans and credit cards, and paying them off, or consolidating them, should be a priority. “How can we get these to the lowest possible interest rate so that more of your money goes toward paying down your debt, not interest?” he says.
Finally, one of the most important things you can do is have a long-term financial plan. “It’s a blueprint that helps you plan how long you need to work versus how long you want to work. By having that guide, it gives you some scenarios to give you a little more control over your work,” he says. “And when you have a couple of scenarios, then you know what the end zones are.”
You Are What You Eat
If the goal is to feel good from the inside out, then it’s important to talk diet.
And not the kind that you go on, but rather making meaningful choices about what you put into your body, which impacts your overall health and sense of well-being. In a word, nutrition.
It’s no secret that when we eat better, we feel better. And, according to Ellen Metzger, MS, RD, CLT, a registered dietician and nutritionist based in Glastonbury, better eating begins with going back to the basics.
“Eat organic food, or as your grandmother called it, ‘food,’ ” she suggests, explaining that back in the days of our grandparents and great grandparents, the concept of “organic” food as something separate from ordinary food, didn’t really exist.
However, recent decades have seen a dramatic uptick in processed foods loaded with preservatives, food coloring and dyes, artificial flavors, fake sugars and pesticides, as well as foods that have been genetically or chemically altered. Consuming those foods can increase the risk of a variety of health issues ranging from inflammation and allergies to diabetes and more serious problems.
So Metzger suggests returning to more basic foods that can be eaten in their natural state, or close to it. “An apple doesn’t have a label. A vegetable typically isn’t in a package,” she says. “Whole food really represents foods that retain their natural composition and don’t contain artificial additives or preservatives. They have little or no processing, they are not stripped of fiber or vitamins or minerals – basically, they are not refined.”
Changing your eating habits, however, isn’t always easy, and Metzger recommends doing it gradually, along with trying to approach food with a new mindset. “Food is medicine,” she explains. “It’s important to understand the basics of nutrition, how the fixed nutrients, proteins, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and water all have a job to do; they all have a purpose.”
Once you’ve embraced healthier eating, Metzger says that it’s likely that your cravings for processed foods will eventually decrease and that you’ll see improvement in how you feel overall.
“My pillars of health are eating real food, changing your behavior, having a community of support, movement and sleep. But I like to optimize nutrition as being the most important,” she says. “It all stems from what we put in our bodies, and the gut is really everything.”
Sarah Wesley Lemire is a writer, photographer, and humor columnist with hundreds of published stories, covering a diverse array of topics. For more information, visit swlemire.com.