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In our society, health is often talked about in binary terms: people are healthy or unhealthy. In this binary view of health, much of the categorizing is based on weight, lab values and diagnoses. Slightly more nuanced conversations about health talk about it being on a spectrum. Health is not a binary thing though, and looks different from person to person based on their values, life situation, and goals. I find it helpful to think about health as a matrix, something that consists of various intersecting spheres of health (i.e. emotional, community, physical, etc., and then the subsections within each of those spheres). Each sphere may hold more or less importance to different individuals based on factors that can change throughout life.
Here’s an example I like to use in demonstrating the flaws in how we define health. Imagine a young person living an active, healthy, and financially secure life. Essentially the google image result of when you search “healthy person.” Then one day they’re diagnosed with an incurable, fatal cancer through a regular health screening test. Before the diagnosis, they were considered healthy, and yet they still had this cancer inside of them. Nothing has changed from before and after receiving the diagnosis, and yet our view of how healthy they are has.
Now imagine that despite their diagnosis, after a period of grieving, that same person was able to maintain a positive attitude (they have a very good therapist in this example!). They decided to make the most out of the time they had, spending quality time laughing with family and friends and doing the things they love. Symptoms impacted them sometimes, but they had the medical care and finances to navigate them. In a binary view of health, people wouldn’t consider that person healthy because they were dying, but I mean, to some degree aren’t we all?
Personally, I think health is much less about presence or absence of disease, and more about life circumstances (mostly out of our control) and how we cope with them (mostly in our control). Because of that, when it comes to caring for my personal health and wellbeing, I tend to think more about my mental and emotional needs than physical factors. That’s pretty different from our mainstream culture, where discussions about health typically center around food and fitness.
Food and fitness certainly play a role in health, both physical and mental. They are also factors that we have some degree of control over (although some people have more control and access to food and fitness than others). That said, these are not the two most important aspects of health. Several studies have shown that diet and exercise only account for about 10% of population health outcomes. It’s a sizable chunk, and certainly factors worth considering, but not when the focus damages or distracts from other aspects of health.
When we talk about health-promoting behaviors, I think we need to look beyond what we eat and how we move and think of health with a holistic approach. If you’re working on improving your health and wellbeing, here’s 7 ideas that have nothing to do with diet or exercise.
7 Ways to Support a Holistic Approach to Health
Work on sleep hygiene.
I think we all know from experience how a bad night of sleep impacts mood in the short term, but long term sleep issues can have a major impact on physical and mental health. Chronic sleep deprivation has been linked to decreased immunity, and increases the risk of chronic diseases including hypertension, heart disease, diabetes, and stroke. It can also increase risk of depression and has impacts on energy, anxiety, focus, and memory.
Many people have physical, psychological, socioeconomic, and other life circumstances that are a barrier to getting a good night of sleep, so I know sleep hygiene is much more complex than having a cup of chamomile tea before bed. To the degree that you’re able to, try to get to bed around the same time, develop a relaxing bedtime routine, avoid stimulants like caffeine and your cell phone before bed, and talk to your doctor and/or therapist if you’re chronically struggling with sleep. Here’s a blog post that shares more ideas for good sleep hygiene. Also, check out this rest workbook developed by my friend and colleague Rachel Tenny. I worked through it myself and it was really helpful when I was going through a period of bad sleep.
Talk to a therapist.
I’m a big believer that we can all benefit from therapy, even if you don’t have any trauma or mental health diagnoses (but especially so if you do!). Therapy is still stigmatized in certain communities or cultures, so let this be a gentle reminder that talking to a therapist isn’t anything to be ashamed of. Because an individual therapist can be inaccessible for many people, especially those without healthcare, mental health support can come in many forms. Look for free or low cost support groups, facebook or other online groups, or even regularly talking to supportive friends or family members. If you’re in eating disorder recovery, Project Heal has a list of free support groups.
Get a pet.
Pets can improve health by reducing levels of cortisol (a stress hormone), lowering blood pressure and decreasing loneliness. While I’m pretty sure there’s research that shows big fluffy dogs are best for health (OK, so that might be my bias!), even smaller, much easier to take care of pets can bring joy. We just got hermit crabs last month (named Hillary and Marcel, in case you were wondering), and even though they spend most of their day burrowed under the sand, they still make me so happy! If you already have a pet, try setting aside some time during the day to snuggle with them.
Meditate, practice deep breathing, or try another grounding exercise – even if it’s just for 1-5 minutes.
So many of my clients spend their days in an activated state, running around in fight or flight mode without taking time to decompress. Sometimes the demands of life outweigh the number of hours in the day. That’s why I encourage my clients to build 1-5 minute breaks in their day to practice meditation, deep breathing, or other grounding exercises. I really like the app Insight Timer, which has a ton of guided meditations, as well as a timer with a selection of background music and nature noises.
Do a daily puzzle.
Whether it’s a crossword puzzle, sodoku or Wordle, doing a puzzle each day has been shown to keep your brain sharp as you age. If puzzles aren’t your thing, no biggie! Any mentally engaging activity has cognitive benefits, like reading or doing crafts.
Nurture closer relationships with family or friends.
One of the many, many lessons of the recent pandemic was learning just how much loneliness has an impact on health and wellbeing. In 2023, the US Surgeon General released a plan to combat loneliness as an “epidemic.” You don’t have to become an extrovert if you’re not one, but do put energy into the relationships that are important to you, or try and develop/foster new ones. Reach out to friends and family regularly, even if it’s just over text.
Find a hobby.
Spending time engaging in a purposeful activity can help improve mental health and wellbeing, build self worth, and help manage stress. Having a hard time thinking of something? Google “ideas for hobbies” and read through a few of the hundreds of lists that pop up – you might get inspired! Pick a few to experiment with and see what connects with you. Once you find a hobby, remember that you might need to schedule time to engage with it. During the pandemic, I picked up watercolors as a hobby, but I struggled to find time in my day to work on them. The next year I set a goal of making watercolor birthday cards for my friends and family, which forced me to set aside time to work on them each month. As my friends know, sometimes my cards come late, but having to make them on the regular really does help me prioritize something I know I enjoy doing!
A Holistic Approach Includes Community Health
In this post I am sharing ideas that focus on individual behaviors versus community health. While I think it’s really important to empower individuals with non-food and fitness related ways they can engage in a more holistic approach to health, we must not forget the role of our community and social structures in physical and mental health. Having access to the tools I share in this article is privilege. You can’t get adequate sleep if you’re working multiple jobs to keep a roof over your head. A therapist is inaccessible if you don’t have health insurance or are underinsured. There’s no amount of meditation or deep breathing that can regulate your nervous system if you live in a community plagued by gun violence.
If you care about your health and the health of others, I hope you’ll expand this holistic approach to health to include a healthy community. Here’s some ideas for supporting community health:
Donate money or time to a local food bank
Learn about local and national policies that impact access to healthcare, vote for politicians who support these policies, and continue to advocate for them when they’re in office.
Get to know your neighbors, especially elderly or lower income neighbors, and help out if you can.
Support local businesses as able. Keep in mind supporting local doesn’t have to mean spending more money. It often means shopping at some of the mom and pop shops versus more bougie stores.
Smile, wave, and talk to strangers (if it feels safe!). It may seem silly given all the trauma in the world right now, but I genuinely believe in the power of a smile and a bit of kindness. I’m sure you can remember a few times where a kind interaction with a stranger made your day, or even just made you feel happy for a few minutes.
Learn about issues that impact the environment in your community, for example if there are sources of pollution that you can get involved with advocating around.
When we work with clients on their food and health concerns, we take a holistic approach, viewing each client as a unique individual with their own strengths and barriers. If you’re wanting support in learning how to take care of yourself from a non-diet approach, learn more about our practice philosophy, services, and reach out if you’d like more information! We work with clients virtually throughout the US and out of our Columbia, SC office, and we are in network with BCBS.
This blog post on a holistic approach to health promoting behaviors was originally published May 2018. It has been updated to give you the best possible content.