While the definition of health or well-being is largely subjective, there is an important differentiation to make: When we talk about health, many people immediately go to weight and the behaviors linked to shrinking our size or maintaining a specific weight.[Read “The MT’s Guide to Effective Self-Care”]
Consider this: When we talk about weight we are actually talking about appearance-based fitness, rather than metabolic health. Know that we cannot determine the health of an individual based on observations of body size or weight alone. Cosmetic measures are something we have been conditioned to focus on by a $60-billion-per-year diet industry and our culture.
Metabolic health, instead, focuses on other measures such as blood pressure, cholesterol levels and blood sugar levels, and can be manipulated or improved upon regardless of a person’s body size. Improvements in these measures are linked to longevity and a decrease in disease—so if it is a long, vibrant life you seek, this may be a better place to focus your efforts.
One movement that encourages us to approach well-being in such a way is Health At Every Size, a social justice movement aimed at treating all bodies equally, both in health care and social environments. This movement includes three basic components:
• Embrace body diversity. Recognize that bodies come in all shapes, sizes, abilities and appearances. Every person deserves respect and belonging, and to be free from prejudice. Each individual has the right to make decisions about their own body and life. Every body is deserving. Every body has value.
• Challenge societal norms and notions about body size and health. As mentioned above, size and health are not mutually exclusive.
• Practice weight-neutral self-care. These are practices we engage in to provide care for ourselves — spirit, mind and physical selves — that have nothing to do with changing our body size.
Let’s shift the focus toward you as a practitioner, and look at ways to practice weight-neutral self-care. While we are often in tune with the needs of our clients, it can be difficult to stay attuned to our own body in this noisy world.
This practice is rooted in self-compassion and a gentle listening to and honoring of the body’s needs. In many ways, this can be as simple as “practicing what we preach” to our clients. We often make recommendations about hydration, stretching, stress management, body mechanics, taking breaks and other self-care practices. The question is, how often do we actually practice these things ourselves?
Weight-neutral self-care practices are ones we engage in and benefit from no matter our body size. These aren’t tactics to change our body, they are habits to nurture and care for our body right now, at this moment.
When we release body shame and pressures of what we should be “fixing” about our bodies (a practice that is rooted in capitalism, not caring) we can start to resume a deeply satisfying relationship with our body and start to feel different — often better — physically.
I encourage you to take a moment and generate a list of habits you could or already do practice, that your body benefits from and have nothing to do with changing body size. What feels deeply nourishing and satisfying to you? Here are some habits to try now.
1. Get adequate rest. Research shows that most adults benefit from nine hours of sleep per night, but often achieve much less. No matter our body size, we benefit from adequate quality sleep when our body can rest and repair. Adequate rest improves mood, energy levels, metabolism, blood pressure and immune response; decreases inflammation; and much, much more.
2. Practice hygiene. Not only do our clients appreciate a showered therapist, but did you know a hot shower or bath also releases endorphins that can boost mood? A hot shower or bath in the evening may also boost melatonin levels that aid in adequate deep sleep.
3. Build a positive relationship with food. Start the day out with nourishment. Your brain and body need glucose for optimal function. Putting a little bit of gas in the tank in the a.m. will get your day off to a great start.
Not feeling hungry? Try just a little something, and then practice listening to hunger and fullness cues later in the day. By eating regularly, you’ll often notice a shift in your hunger and fullness that leads to feeling morning hunger after a couple of weeks.
Honor hunger and fullness. Your busy client schedule may require some changes to meal patterns if there isn’t enough time for three squares and two snacks per day. Plan ahead and try to fuel in small bits during breaks. If you notice you’re still getting hungry, increase portion sizes, protein or fat a bit until you find a balance that sticks with you. Ideally, we want to feel hunger about every three to four hours.
4. Hydrate. We often give this advice to clients and I encourage you to follow it too. Many of the therapists in my clinic bring their water bottle into the treatment room with them. This is a great way to model healthy behavior for our clients. Staying hydrated benefits immunity, blood pressure and so much more.
Pop quiz! The adult body is made up of about what percentage of water? (Answer: ~70%.) That means that about 70% of what we drink needs to replenish water content.
5. Increase fiber intake. The average American eats less than half the daily recommended amount of fiber. This impacts our gut health, blood sugars, cholesterol and heart health in general.
Consider simple additions or swaps: higher-fiber grains, or more servings of beans, berries and produce to up your intake each day. Your gut will thank you.
Note: when increasing fiber intake, do so slowly and increase your water intake as well so that your gut tolerates the changes.
6. Communicate. Healthy communication is a practice that takes time, effort and repetition. And it’s so worthwhile! Having healthy boundaries with self, loved ones and clients will benefit your stress levels and total health in the long run.
No matter our body size, we all benefit from healthy relationships. Research shows that connection with others is just as important in our total health and longevity — if not more — than other behaviors.
7. Move. All bodies benefit from movement. Physical activity is not a punishment for what you ate, or a means to change your body size; instead it’s necessary for lubricated joints, supple muscles, a strong cardiovascular and respiratory system, and mental health. It’s also an opportunity to connect with others, experience joy through activities we enjoy, and build confidence in our body as we see what it’s capable of.
Regular physical activity benefits metabolic health by improving cholesterol levels, blood sugars and blood pressure. While resistance training (read: weightlifting or body weight resistance exercises) has been shown to be the most beneficial for lowering blood sugars, impact activities like running and walking are the most beneficial for improving bone density. The bottom line is, find something you can enjoy and sustain.
As we move toward subtle changes that include more listening and honoring, remember that your heart beats just for you and that your body shows up in whatever way it can—every moment of every day. Weight-neutral self-care is our way of returning the favor.
RanDee Anshutz, RDN, LMT, is a registered and licensed dietitian, licensed massage therapist and Certified Body Trust® provider. She is the founder of Synergy Health and Wellness in Bend, Oregon. Her team helps people improve their relationship with food and their bodies.
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