Health vs. Fitness


I have been more and more interested lately in nutritional health, and in finding a balance that works for me. I am gluten intolerant and have dairy allergies, both confirmed by EnteroLab testing. Went on a Paleo (aka, low carb) stint for a few years and felt great the first year, but started to develop annoyingly numerous food sensitivities and other allergies got worse. I stayed with it for so long because my weight held steady around 129, and with all the scary news about health risks related to fat, I assumed that had to be good.

Then, I wound up deathly ill in December 2010 on the way back to the states from London, caught in weather related delays. It took a week to kick the bronchitis, another couple of weeks to get my strength back, and a few more after that to get rid of the cough. I healed myself, I believe, by eating. I started to cook again, and to eat. I stopped running, only visited the gym occasionally, and I ate like I’d never eaten before. I ate well before, I thought, but cheated a lot with sweets. Now I tried to eat mostly whole foods, including brown rice and potatoes, with abandon, and extra salt and olive oil, please. I was RRARFing.

RRARF is a concept I had read about before the health crash in December on Matt Stone’s 180 Degree Health. It made a lot of sense. The foundational idea seems to be that health is dependent on proper functioning of your hormones, and that metabolism and health are a function of mitochondrial activity which can be measured in a lot of people by body temperature. Key to all of this is the food, and there seems to be an awful lot of damage possible from not only processed food, but also the act of dieting (translated as food restriction OR over exercising, or both). Matt proposes taking your temperature every morning, and eating more and exercising less until you get up to a normal 98.6 (I am oversimplifying, so please check his blog or book for details if you are interested). “More” refers to whole foods, the kind that are still recognizable and come in the original wrapper, and fewer foods high in omega 6 – polyunsaturated fat – vegetable oils, nuts and seeds, and poultry. It also means eliminating things that mess with your adrenal activity like coffee, chocolate, alcohol, sugar and drugs. At least for awhile.

I delayed trying this “diet” due to my running addiction, but being helpless and ill and unable to run at the time, I figured, what the heck. The gamble paid off. I have gained a good degree of health from this approach, it took a while before I was willing to eliminate the sugar (which is only necessary temporarily for most) and the running. My food sensitivities decreased, my mental health has improved, my energy is more consistent, and I gained 10 pounds. I stopped being ravenous after a few months and now eat to appetite and eat more fruits and veg just because I want to. I do still cheat a few times per week, but it’s only when I want to, say, have a hard cider, make homemade custard, walk to Graeter’s with my husband for ice cream, have a square of chocolate, or have a Sunday morning decaf mocha. It’s not a stash of dark chocolate in my purse or at work, or making sure there are always gluten free treats in the house, because I don’t need them anymore.

Exercise now consists of walking (for ice cream and other) biking for errands or to the gym when I feel like it, one strength training and one interval workout per week (each = 20 minutes), gardening, hiking the stairs for laundry, pretending to guard my husband while he shoots baskets, the occasional run when I get the urge (only as far as I feel like), and anything else that sounds like fun (hiking, skiing, rollerblading, tennis, or some other play). This has reduced my stress around fitness considerably. The focus is now on health, rather than fitness at the expense of health, as before (see Body by Science, or Power of 10 for details), and I am much more relaxed, less exhausted, and even seeing signs of the possible return of my libido.

While the hardest parts of this process have been giving up running, detoxing from sugar, and rethinking my body image, the larger process has been about a shift in values, and a shift in approach. Learning to listen my body, stopping the search for the ultimate supplements and fitness and nutrition rules to use for the rest of my life, and accepting that I am, indeed, human, and prone to aging like all beings. My particular health challenges are stress, allergies, and gluten, in that order. As I try to compassionately live with my new body, I am newly aware of something that wants to hang on to an image of a me that is 10 pounds lighter, even with the new knowledge that it may not be possible for me to be healthy at that weight and I might actually need the fat for proper hormone function. I liked to think that I was beyond such madness, that my equating a certain level of thinness with health was okay because I was pursuing a “healthy” level of thin.

I now realize that the sound basis for judgement I thought I was using (liking the image in the mirror) was flawed. Liking that image is based on the conditioning of my mind by advertising, subtle comments of others, meaning I have attributed to numbers on clothing tags, and the science of the day, currently intent on convincing us that dieting, overexercise, and deprivation are the new lifestyle we should all adopt. Ironically, I suspect it is altogether likely that losing the stress about my weight and health could cause some of the 10 pounds to melt away while I’m not looking. The more I read, the more the evidence seems to be mounting in favor of stress as the ultimate health threat.

Consider it for a moment, even without the research – how many of your unhealthy habits can be traced back to stress? How much sense does it make to try to remove the habits without addressing the root cause? Can you imagine a world where you are kinder to yourself,  a world where you regularly practice relaxation, try to do less, take better care of yourself, and develop good boundaries? If you find it difficult to imagine, you are not alone. Societal pressure to do it all, be it all, and have it all, does not make it easy to imagine. But, please, keep trying. Your life may depend on it!

About Cynthia M Clingan

Cynthia Clingan is a licensed professional clinical counselor in Columbus, Ohio who offers somatic psychotherapy, spiritual coaching, and meditation and mindfulness instruction.
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