One of my Grandfather’s most famous phrases was “everything in moderation” and he lived by that mantra until he died, aged 87 of lung cancer. The 2 or 3 pipes he treated himself to each week, finally caught up with him, but he died having lived a balanced and joyful life. He may have been the first person to teach me about simple pleasures.
As an avid follower of golf, my Grandfather built himself a putting green in his garden - it was small, but perfectly formed, and it meant that he could move his body in a gentle way that he loved. Before every Sunday lunch he would take time to make himself a Pink Gin with just the right measure of Angostura Bitters to Gordan’s, always served in what I thought was the most beautiful cut glass tumbler. At the end of every Sunday lunch he would dish out his “GF Special” to my brother and I - two squares of Dairy Milk chocolate from the tin that he kept at the top of the bookcase. Now whilst I'm not about to recommend smoking, I do believe that my Grandfather had an innate understanding that balance was what kept him happy and healthy. He knew a little bit of what you fancy does you good, but as these were not every day moments, he made them special - he was completely present for them.
A balanced or moderate approach to health, is certainly not a new idea, but in today’s culture, we may have lost sight of its importance. We live in a world of convenience and comparison. We ‘need’ everything to be faster so we can stay busy. We ‘need' to stay busy so we can have the things that are supposed to give us value in this world - the house, the holidays, the successful career.
This way of living means we try and shortcut our way to health with extreme strategies. We will be "good" all week and then "blow off steam" at the weekends, we do high intensity exercise once a week instead of going for more regular walks in nature, we do our shopping online instead of personally picking out the freshest looking food, and we do crash diets to get "beach body ready”. When we choose things like chocolate or chips or alcohol, we rarely savour and enjoy them, because we are usually doing it to self-medicate against stress or exhaustion.
How many of us then berate ourselves because society tells us we’ve ruined our diet?
As those of you who follow my blog will know, I became very unwell a few years ago due to many years of chronic stress. So it will probably come as no surprise when I say that I was a shortcut junkie. Before said illness, I lived my life at 100 miles an hour - food was pretty healthy but often eaten in a rush or on-the-go, exercise was fast and furious and I loved to convince myself that my ten minute daily meditation was making up for everything else.
During said illness I went into what I like to call the ‘get well fast scheme’. I read everything and I did everything that sounded like it could get me better. I reached out to more and more practitioners to help me, convinced I would eventually find the one thing that would be the answer to my prayers. Whilst some of these things did go on to help me, for a while I wasn’t addressing the elephant in the room. More than anything, my body needed a lot of rest. A concept so profoundly at odds with what we value in today’s world, that we have virtually forgotten how to do it, yet it is vital for all human beings. This was something I couldn’t shortcut, and until I gave my body real rest, I wasn’t able to reap the benefits of any of my other health strategies.
A consequence of enjoying being in control and suffering with complex health issues, is that I shifted that control from work to my health. I became extremely concerned about what I was putting in and on my body - for a long time, no inflammatory foods, drinks or products crossed the threshold of my house. Whilst I still believe that eliminating or drastically reducing your exposure to these things can be of paramount importance when recovering from illness, in my own life, I struggled to see when it was time to create more balance.
Whilst my mission is to help people tackle the stress in their lives, the truth is that we can’t avoid everything that is inflammatory or stressful all of the time (and it may just make life a lot less enjoyable if you try). Not just that, but the human body is actually only able to thrive when it is exposed to a certain amount of challenge. This is called hormesis (1) - a process by which the body’s intelligence and adaptive response is stimulated into action by certain stressors.
What does hormesis mean in practice?
It means that in order for our immune system to work effectively, it needs to be challenged by infectious threats sometimes. It means that in order for our hormone receptors to work properly we need to have our stress hormone, cortisol, released some of the time. It means in order to have good antioxidant capability (to be able to prevent or slow damage to our cells) we have to be exposed to pro-oxidants some of the time.
The secret is in the balance. For those of us who are looking to optimise health (vs recover from an illness) it is enough to eat well 90% of the time and have a bit of what you fancy the rest of the time. Same theory for sleep and rest and all the other good habits. A bit of stress is really good for us, but it is absolutely vital to avoid stress becoming sustained or chronic.
Recently, I took a month in Montenegro with the objective of finding some stillness. Even though I coach on the subject every day, like many, I have to pay attention to slowing down. It may have been the first time in my life that I was abroad and I didn’t have any plans. All I knew was that I was going to do whatever my body told me it wanted to do each day. In practice this meant that I did a lot of swimming, walking, reading, listening to music and eating foods which made my heart sing. Did I eat processed food and stay sedentary all day? No, because that doesn’t make me feel good. But I did create balance. I took time to cook from fresh most days, I ate what I fancied other days, I slept well 90% of the time, and I didn’t stress about the other 10%, I moved every day, but only as much as my body wanted me to. I tuned into my body and stayed present, rather than catastrophising or marking myself against an imaginary checklist.
I found my Grandfather’s spirit in Montenegro and I was reminded that trying to shortcut or ‘perfect’ health never works. What does work is taking the time that our bodies need for rest, movement and nutritious food, respecting the pleasures in life as being good for the soul, and staying present for it all.