When asked to discuss the concept of “wellness”, I had to ask myself, what exactly is “wellness?” Depending on who you talk to, the definition varies. Take, for example, the personal trainer or avid exerciser. A typical response may be something along the lines of “free from injury or muscle soreness” while a busy parent tackling a full-time job, chauffeuring children to endless activities and attempting to put a balanced meal on the dinner table may consider wellness to be freedom from stress. Similarly, the PhD candidate’s definition of wellness may stem from the intellectual stimulation of lectures and research.
The reason the concept of wellness evokes such varied responses stems from the fact that wellness in and of itself doesn’t have a strict definition or set of guidelines to follow. Rather, striving towards wellness or a state of wellbeing involves making choices every day that improve your life from a physical, mental, spiritual and social standpoint.
Let’s start by tackling physical wellness. It’s easy to say, “just eat right and exercise.” But if that were the case, the world would be full of perfect specimens of the human race. The reality is, physical wellness doesn’t mean the same thing to everybody every day. Perhaps one day your body requires strength training, maybe the next, a good cardio session or even (gasp!) a rest day. Listening to your body’s needs and acting appropriately will help achieve a state of physical wellness. Keep in mind though, this is only one aspect of the wellness spectrum.
Exercising your body physically is one thing, but exercising your mind is equally important. Research suggests that cognitive decline can begin as early as the mid-20’s for some individuals. Stress, inflammation, poor diet and hormone imbalances are just some of the reasons for these changes to occur. When considering mental wellness from this perspective, it’s easy to see how the beneficial effects of exercise can also play a role in improving mental wellbeing.
Healthy levels of exercise have the ability to lower stress, decrease inflammation and help regulate various hormones in the body. The key word here is HEALTHY levels of exercise. We often tend to think more is better or no pain, no gain. And while there is definitely a time and place for this type of training, the body and mind can similarly benefit from learning a new skill or type of exercise. Challenging yourself to a new exercise class or stepping out of your comfort zone and tackling a new skill such as playing a musical instrument or attending a cooking class can help reduce stress while challenging the mind and staving off cognitive decline over time. Further, accomplishing a new task helps improve self-esteem and self-efficacy.
The concept of spiritual wellbeing extends outside of the realm of religion. Rather, spiritual wellness includes discovering a sense of connectedness with oneself and partaking in activities that are nourishing to the soul. Again, these will be different for everyone, yet the overall effect is the same.
Spiritual wellbeing can be achieved when we act intuitively rather than what we feel “should” be doing. For example, following a rigid routine at the office, gym and home often places us on autopilot and we silence what our bodies are actually asking of us. One way in which to combat the situation would be, for example, taking the time to cook a balanced healthy meal for yourself. While time-consuming, this can be an incredibly soothing experience. Rather than ordering takeout or nuking a pre-made meal that’s been sitting on freezer shelves for months, the act of preparing food from scratch can be incredibly rewarding. These days everyone is always in a rush, and yes, we do tend to get more accomplished in a day, but at what cost? Taking the time to attend to self-care helps awaken the spiritual wellness so often placed on the back burner in favor of more “important” tasks.
Perhaps one of the most important aspects of our wellbeing is social wellness. Human beings are social creatures. And while it’s true that we are often surrounded by people on a daily basis, are we really engaging with them? Of course there are plenty of times we need space and privacy, yet all too often we plug in our headphones and become isolated from those around us.
The activities we choose to participate in can be greatly enriched by engaging with other people. For example, research has indicated those who partake in group exercise sessions are more likely to stick to their routine than those who opt to exercise alone. Further, joining a club or group and communicating with individuals who share similar interests fosters a sense of community and belonging that improves self-esteem and self-efficacy.
Yet, while forming relationships is an important aspect of social wellness, so too is ending the relationships that are toxic in nature. Surrounding yourself with people who are critical and negative detracts from the overall concept of wellness.
As mentioned earlier, achieving wellness isn’t accomplished via a simple set of guidelines. Rather, it’s a journey and the decisions you make every day have the ability to either add to or detract from your wellbeing, so choose wisely.