We’ve been hearing for years and years that losing weight is a matter of eating well and exercising. Weight loss, it seems, has been at the center of our national discussion on obesity and its health-related issues. Which is fine. Being overweight is often a problem on many levels, from physical health to emotional well-being. It’s good that we recognize the importance of maintaining a healthy weight.
But lately I’ve noticed a slight change in the discussion. I’ve heard (or rather, read) more and more talk about eating well as a means of improving health, including curing specific ailments like high blood pressure, and about exercise as the antidote to mental issues that we’ve grown accustomed to taking pills for. Eating well and exercising, it seems, are not just for weight loss — they’re also good at combatting some of the illnesses we develop by (wait for it) … eating poorly and living sedentary lives. Things like high blood pressure, anxiety, stress, and depression.
This is a step in the right direction. It’s a sign that we are recognizing the connection between our diet, our activity level, and the way our bodies feel and perform. It also means that we’re realizing there is a safer, healthier, more cost-effective way to fight the ills of our age than by taking pills, some of which have side effects that are as bad as the disease itself.
While this development in the conversation on nutrition, exercise, weight loss, and health comes at a fortuitous time — when we are having other conversations about the costs of healthcare in our country — I am nervous about where it could lead. Changing our diet and moving our bodies more frequently and intentionally are, I’m sure, the most natural and efficient ways to both improve our health and decrease the amount of money spent on medicine and medical treatments. But if eating more carefully and exercising more consistently are to become “treatment methods,” what will the future of our healthcare system look like?
I certainly don’t have the answers, but one scenario that goes through my mind is that doctors will be writing prescriptions for “three 4-mile runs per week at an easy pace” or “kale salad with dried cherries and toasted nuts” for their patients. And that running 4-miles will be just like taking a pill: You do it because you have to and try not to think about it too much.
If that happens I think we’ll have not necessarily missed the point, but possibly missed a great opportunity — the one in which we realize that living active lives and eating real, whole, fresh foods is actually really enjoyable. Living that way leads to greater energy and awareness, to a variety of experiences, to meeting new people and to discovering new, empowered parts of ourselves — and that’s in addition to the lower blood pressure, calmer mind, and fewer prescriptions to fill.
It’s possible, of course, and even likely that even if doctors prescribe meal plans and workouts instead of pills, people will come to a realization on their own that their health, their energy, and their life in general has greatly improved and they will learn to love the “drugs” (diet, exercise) that got them there so much that they will integrate them into their lives as a lifestyle and not merely as something to take before breakfast or with dinner.
But I believe the better course could be to skip that step in which doctors have to tell us what to do and just do it ourselves: discover the joy of movement, the deliciousness of food that doesn’t come pre-cooked in a plastic tray, and reap the mental, physical, emotional, and spiritual benefits that come when we do things because of joy and not because of fear (of disease, of fat, of the unknown).
One of my personal heroes, George Sheehan, the late running enthusiast, writer, doctor, and philosopher of sport, wrote frequently about the importance of finding those intrinsic reasons for running, playing, and being active. Things like increased creativity, conquering the blues, discovering your inner hero. When a similar topic came up during the rise of aerobics nearly 40 years ago and the prospect of prescribed exercise had been suggested, he wrote:
“There is an alternative to the athletic-state or the exercise-your-heart-ailments-away argument of the aerobics plan. The answer is to consult your friendly neighborhood athlete, be he runner, tennis player, or average half-court basketball player. Why does he do it? [ . . . ] Running pays off and it pays off today. Exercise gives instant and exhilarating effects. There is a natural high to be obtained legally.”
And, more poetically, but no less accurately:
“And while these pounds were being shed, while the physiological miracles were occurring with the heart and muscle and metabolism, psychological marvels were taking place as well. Just so, the world over, bodies, minds, and souls are constantly being born again, during miles on the road.”
Weight loss is a good first step, better health and fewer pills are worthy motivations, but until we embrace a healthy diet and consistent exercise as both a gateway to and a hallmark of a full, well-lived life for body, mind, and spirit, we’re cheating ourselves of those final revelations: that there is natural high to be obtained legally, that our bodies, minds, and souls are renewed when we treat our bodies well. Doctors can’t prescribe that to us. We have to claim it for ourselves.
Photo credit: Lizzie Heiselt