Caring for Your BodySee also: Maintaining a Healthy Mind
It is important to look after your body, to help you to stay well and healthy for as long as you can. However, advice about caring for your body is conflicting and often confusing. It can be hard to know what’s best. Many people abandon any effort to take care of themselves because it’s just too difficult.
However, just because it is complicated does not mean the effort is not worthwhile. Common sense tells us that even doing a bit more exercise or getting a bit more sleep, and not eating that second slice of cake, are likely to be helpful. The application of a little science, and quite a lot more common sense, can go a long way to helping you to work out what’s best for you and your body.
Why Should You Care About Your Body?
Caring for your body makes sense. After all, you only get one body in this life, and you want it to last as long as possible.
However, flippancy aside, caring for your body really does make sense.
Around the world, there is a growing problem of chronic, lifestyle-related diseases. These are diseases that are, effectively, caused by the way that we live our lives. Most, if not all of them, are associated with not looking after our bodies. Many are associated with being overweight and not taking enough exercise, or by putting the wrong substances into our bodies. These diseases and conditions include:
- Adult-onset diabetes;
- Heart conditions;
- High blood pressure; and
- Many forms of cancer.
You cannot, of course, avoid every illness or condition. Many are not lifestyle related. However, looking after your body will go some way to helping you to live a healthier life, for longer.
A Framework for Thinking
There is a simple framework that can be used to guide your approach to looking after your body. This will help you to think about your decisions more logically and understand why you might want to make particular decisions. It will also help to explain why it can sometimes be hard to do what you know is the right thing.
A Three-Question Framework
In any aspect of caring for yourself, there are three questions to ask:
- What do I want to do?
- What is best for me?
- What am I going to do?
The first aspect relates to your emotions: it is about how you feel, and what you want to do, whether about what you eat, when you go to sleep, or how much exercise you take. Emotions are very primitive, but also very strong.
The second applies reason to the situation, and asks what you think. This means taking what you know, that is, facts, and considering them in the light of the situation.
Finally, you need to balance those two aspects, and make a decision about what you actually do in any given situation. It requires you to balance what you want with what you think you should do in light of the facts.
There is more about this process in our page on Recognising and Understanding Emotions.
There will be many times when what you want to do coincides perfectly with what you know you should do.
You may want to go out for a bike ride because the sun is shining, or go to bed early because you are tired.
At other times, you will find that you are very tempted to do something that you know you would be better avoiding.
You may want to eat another slice of chocolate cake, for example, or not take exercise because you are busy.
It is important to remember that you don’t always have to do the right thing.
Every now and then, it will be fine to follow your instincts and eat chocolate, or laze around in bed all day. But if you do that too often, there will be consequences. For example, if you overeat and do not take enough exercise, you are likely to end up overweight, which can lead to the development of various chronic diseases including diabetes.
By all means give yourself a break from time to time, but don’t let bad behaviour become a habit, because habits are hard to break.
Looking After Your Body: Three Key Areas
There are three very important aspects to looking after your body: getting enough rest and sleep, eating well, and taking exercise.
Rest and Sleep
Scientists have done a lot of research on rest and sleep, but we still don’t really know why we need to sleep.
We do, however, know that regular periods of rest and sleep are vital to our personal wellbeing. Being deprived of sleep is dangerous: it limits our ability to do things like drive, and can also make us ill.
Our pages on What is Sleep? and How to Sleep – The Importance of Sleep explain more.
Of course, everyone’s needs for sleep differ slightly. Margaret Thatcher, the former British Prime Minister, famously claimed to need only four hours sleep every night, and more recently, there has been almost an epidemic amongst CEOs claiming kudos for early rising. Scientists, however, suggest that most people need rather more sleep than they think. This, in turn, implies that most of us are probably trying to get by on too little sleep.
What is important is to be aware of your personal sleep patterns and ensure that you get enough sleep on a regular basis to function effectively.
Food, Diet and Nutrition
The phrase ‘you are what you eat’ has become a bit of a cliché over recent years, but it still has a basis in fact.
Most of us know that modern diets can contain too many processed foods that are high in fats, sugar and salt and that we should eat more fresh fruit and vegetables as part of a healthy balanced diet.
Obesity, high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure and Type II diabetes are all common problems in modern life and often a direct result of poor diets.
But what counts as a healthy diet?
Our pages on diet and nutrition explain what your body needs and why. They also show how some simple changes to your diet can make big differences to your life, including increasing your energy levels, lifting your spirit and, perhaps, reducing the likelihood of becoming ill.
On the face of it, losing and gaining weight is a fairly simple equation:
If the number of calories that you take in is greater than the number used, you will put on weight.
If the number of calories that you use is more than you consume, you’ll lose weight.
However, a closer examination suggests that the situation is not quite that simple.
It is easy to lose weight by dieting. It is much harder to maintain that weight loss on a long-term basis. There are likely to be other things going on. The best approach is to maintain a healthy weight and avoid dieting, but this is not always possible.
Many scientists now argue that portion control is one of the most important aspects of healthy eating. There is also general agreement that we need a balanced diet—though there is not quite so much agreement about what ‘balanced’ actually looks like. Perhaps the best approach is to make sure that you get enough of each essential ‘building block’ of diet, and not too much of any one.
The Elements of Diet
Protein is an essential part of our diets; it is the building block for all cells in our bodies, organs, bones, muscles and blood. There is more about the different types of protein-rich food sources and how your body uses these to keep you healthy in our page What is Protein?
Fat is also an essential part of our diet, despite its bad press. We can’t live without it, and it is by far the most efficient form of energy. There is more about fat and the types of food that contain it in our page What is Fat?. You may also find it interesting to read our page on BMI - Body Mass Index.
Unlike protein and fat, carbohydrates (commonly abbreviated to carbs) are not essential to our diets. Most of us probably consume too many carbohydrates. There is more about the types of foods high in different types of carbohydrate and how carbohydrate intake affects our metabolism in our pages What are Carbohydrates?, What is Sugar? and Sugar and Diet.
High fibre foods help us to maintain a healthy digestive system and metabolism. They help your body to run more efficiently. A high fibre diet can also help you lose weight and is good for your heart, and there is more about this in our page What is Fibre?
Vitamins are, by definition, essential to our health, and there are 13 that we need to keep our bodies healthy. You can read more about foods high in vitamins that you may wish to increase in your diet in our page on Vitamins.
Finally, there are some minerals that are extremely important nutritionally, such as calcium. This is used to build strong bones and teeth. You can find out more about essential minerals, including what the body uses them for and which foods contain them in our page on Minerals as Nutrients.
Most people are aware of advice that we should take regular exercise.
Our page on The Importance of Exercise explains more about why this is necessary.
But what does that mean and why is it important?
Recommendations vary from 20 minutes of medium-intensity exercise (enough to raise your heart rate) per day, up to three longer sessions of high-intensity activity per week.
Many people, perhaps unsurprisingly, conclude that they just don’t have time to work out what they should do.
The common sense solution, however, is that any exercise is better than none.
Although the recommendations for the amount and intensity of exercise may change, nobody has yet concluded that taking some exercise is bad for you! However, very intense exercise over long periods may have some detrimental effect.
Even if you can’t do as much as exercise as is recommended, taking a small amount of exercise will do you good.
It is, however, important to ease yourself gently into any exercise programme, especially if it’s been a while since you’ve exerted yourself to do anything beyond lift the TV remote control or walk to the car. There is a risk of injury if you overdo it, and you can also run the risk of a heart attack or other problems if you ask your body to do too much.
There are a number of programmes like Couch to 5K that can help you to start exercising in a controlled way and avoid overdoing it.
Further Reading from Skills You Need
The Skills You Need Guide to Life: Looking After Yourself
Based on some of our most popular content, this eBook will help you to live a happier, healthier and more productive life.
Learn how to look after your body and mind: the fundamental first steps to personal development.
This eBook, now in its second edition, with new and revised content, is designed to make life both easier and better.
Doing the Right Thing
Knowing what to do, and actually doing it are, of course, quite different things.
Caring for your body is like other aspects of ‘goodness’. If you work on developing your ‘moral compass’, then you will be able to apply it to doing the right thing for your body too.
Yes, of course, sometimes your emotional response will win, and you won’t do the right thing but, with practice, you will get better at making sure that you take care of your body.