I am a runner, and have been for over 25 years. Before I picked up the running habit, I was pretty sedentary, and while I wasn’t exactly a couch spud, regular exercise was not something I ever thought about. However, shortly after I began to run I noticed some changes in my health that were pretty dramatic. I started to crave healthier foods, and even dropped a few pounds. I felt better conditioned, had more energy and I even slept a little better. However, the most important change I noticed was not physical or even very describable. It was a change in the relationship between my mind and my body. I began to notice things. For example, I noticed how different foods impacted my energy, how my actions affected my health, and I became aware of the physical effects of stress.
I think this happened because when I began running it was extremely difficult. I was overweight and out of shape, so I gauged my runs based on how miserable I felt. I would monitor how difficult it was to breathe, whether my shins ached, or if my head was pounding from being overheated. Monitoring how I felt eventually became a habit on the road and off. As I continued to run, I noticed a lot of body signals even when I wasn’t running that I had never noticed before. Things like how awful I felt after a night with too little sleep, or how low my energy would become when I ate poorly started to appear on my radar. These may seem obvious to most people, but back then, I was out of touch and out of control. If I had a stomachache, I would never have made the connection between my discomfort and the fries and chili dog I had picked up at the mall.
I continued running and paying attention, and I became healthier. It took a while, but when I made the connection between how I felt and my diet, sleep, and exercise habits, I made some better choices, including choosing to walk some days instead of running.
I have seen this same transformation occur in some of my patients. However, it doesn’t happen because I make them start running; I don’t. I ask them questions about their health that they have never thought about before. More often than not, a patient will come back to me and say something like, “I have been thinking about what you asked at my last visit, and now I notice that…”, and I know that that patient has started to change how they view their body and their health.
This is a good thing, because it also signals a new level in taking responsibility for your health. It goes beyond eating well, exercising, and hoping for the best. It means that you now have the owner’s manual for your particular model, which is one of a kind. It also means that, for the most part, you no longer need to be bewildered as to why you feel poorly or why you feel really well. Your body will tell you, if you listen and make the connections.
For most of us, despite eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising regularly, we still get sick, or at the very least, don’t always feel our best. This is because, while we are taking really good care of ourselves, sometimes we lost touch.
We either forget to listen, or choose to disregard the messages we are receiving, even when our bodies are speaking to us very clearly. For example, how often have you been working in the garden or around the house and suddenly get a pain in your back, neck, shoulder, or wherever? And how often do you ignore the pain until you get the job done? I’ve done it myself, where I’ve heard the pain message loud and clear, but ignored it until I’d finished the job. The end result is an injury that might have been avoided if I had stopped working at the first whisper of pain, instead of working until the pain itself made it impossible for me to continue.
A second example of how we often fail to listen to our bodies relates to stress. It’s unfortunate that most of us live fairly stressful lives, and have for many years. Starting in school, where we were pressured to achieve good grades,, and into our work and family lives with an infinite number of pressures and conflicts, many of us simply feel overwhelmed. And yet, because this stress had been going on for so long, we tend to ignore it because it is “white noise”; it’s always there. A second reason we tend to ignore stress, is that it’s stressful trying to figure out how to or find the time to deal with it. The end result, like the example above, is that our body breaks down in one way or another, until we are forced to take some time out and deal with our health.
So, do you need to start running to be able to better listen to your body? No, but physical activity of some sort can help. All you really need to do is take some time each day to run through a mental checklist of how you’re feeling. Are you getting sick frequently? Are you tired? Now sleeping well? Do you feel better than you ever have before? Try to relate these things to what you are doing and what’s happening in your life. Remember, if you listen, your body will tell you exactly what it needs.