One thing I've found fascinating about my journey in becoming an optimal wellbeing enthusiast is how far we have to go, in terms of living with vitality. Sure our life expectancies are greater, but for many of us, we are spending these extended lives in worse health. Which I'm sure you'll agree defies the point.
The increasing incidents of food related illnesses are staggering. The stats speak for themselves! Diabetes is set to skyrocket by 98% by 2020, with a recent rise of 117,000 newly reported cases according to Diabetes.co.uk. Heart attacks - related to a rise in BMI - have increased by 11%.Cancer is growing globally by 20% in a decade, and 2.8 million of these cases are due to poor diet.
The figures - repeated in national newspapers time and time again - are no longer new; so it's clear that while awareness of these issues is high, the enthusiasm for acting upon them is much lower. There's arguably a group dynamic at play as well; research reveals that health routines are common amongst groups of friends - so the more time our peers spend in the pub or on the sofa the more time we will too. The government's unsuccessful Olympic fitness pledge to get 2 million people to be more physically active is a case in point - it has been scrapped. Perhaps our unpredictable weather has held us back from meeting that Olympic goal? We have neither the snowy slopes of Chamonix, nor the sun soaked beaches of Sydney.
To many people, healthy living is synonymous with the most popular approaches - gyms and diets - and arguably boredom and restriction. After all, who sits at work thinking "I just can't wait to plod away on a treadmill, staring at music videos of dancing girls in hot pants"? Who eagerly anticipates counting calories, staring at scales, eating substitute dairy and gluten free bread products that taste like cardboard or keeping records of what they eat? I surely didn't - and I'm sure many others feel the same. These approaches lead us towards yo-yoing; being 'good' for a matter of months and slipping back into our old habits as time passes. We need to make the journey just as much fun as the destination. So, if diets don't work in the long term and we don't see many octogenarians in our local gyms, how to we create habits that stick?
In my view, changing the underlying systems that support our current attitudes to wellbeing, namely our social surroundings and our ways of thinking - is a vital first step in making us all embrace a lifestyle of vitality. People are more compelled to act when they a) cultivate a 'health is wealth' mindset b) create a social environment around them that motivates them positively towards this vision; c) can lose themselves in an activity because it's so enjoyable; and d) build those activities into their daily lives manageably and incrementally.
So, what do I mean by a 'health is wealth' mindset? This means treating health literally as a source of wealth. We wouldn't fail to save for a pension, and then play the lotto when we're old and skint, hoping to make up for it would we? So let's treat wellbeing as a practice starting now, not just something we focus on when we are sick. It also means steering ourselves away from the numerous sources of what I call "anti-health peer pressure". No one would goad their friends towards bankruptcy, but we often encourage our peers to drink too much, overeat, and take other intoxicants on the basis that they are being 'boring' if they don't. Have you ever got a boring person drunk before? Have they ever become more interesting as a result? I thought not. Just think of the commonly bandied term 'health freak'. As if it is dysfunctional to treat the body with love and respect. I personally am much less of a health freak and more of a health geek.
It's the duty of health geeks like myself and others to do a better job at promoting the journey. I strongly believe that you can never judge or scare people into better health habits with the foreboding stats we see in the media, you can only invite and inspire them. So for all you geeks out there, that means inviting people to cool and exciting places where they can get their RDA of fresh fruits and veggies (which is not just a mere 5 a day, but the majority of your daily food intake - this approach also lowers the risk of health issues like diabetes, IBS and more); showing people your rock climbing holiday pictures and suggesting you'll (ahem) 'show them the ropes'.
Plodding away on that treadmill may leave you thinking only of the destination of loosing that stubborn five pounds/that muffin top etc; but you can lose a whole day biking in Epping Forest or the South Downs, or kayaking in Snowdonia and not realise how many calories you've burned through. Ultimately, it's only when you absolutely adore the health journey you're on that the 'big changes' begin to happen.
Finally, all of us - health geeks or not - need to cultivate emotionally nourishing environments, both in our working and home lives. After all, if you're trying to swap grains for greens but you're feeding your mind 'junk' thoughts that drain you emotionally, you're likely to end up stressing yourself out, encouraging your adrenal glands to produce cortisol. This is linked to the appetite spikes associated with 'stress eating' and also impacts the body's function in a host of detrimental ways. By contrast, choosing our influences carefully allows us to create a community of positive action, where all parties push each other forward.
So many people look towards ageing as something to be feared; it needn't be the case. When I find out about people who have invested in their wellbeing for the long term, they report two things: 1) looking radiant and 2) feeling energetic. Just look at the stunning examples set by Mimi Kirk, Annette Larkins and (the recently departed) Bob Delmonteque - who wouldn't want to age like that?
To motivate my geeks in training I ask them to picture themselves in their minds in a state of optimal health; then fast forward to how that healthy vision would be at the age of 70. Now think of what you'd need to be doing today to make that happen.