It’s a Pandemic. Time to Radically Redefine What It Means to Be Healthy.
Give yourself a break and embrace these five new health metrics (that have nothing to do with weight)
Late this spring I woke up and realized I felt like crap. I had slept, but not soundly and I didn’t feel rested. I was sluggish and grumpy. No amount of body-positive affirmations could make me happy about the fact that the seasons were changing and my summer pants didn’t really fit. I wasn’t sick, but I was not well.
Although under lockdown my family had avoided the normally inevitable parade of runny noses and stomach bugs that ordinarily punctuate the school year with small children, I found myself deeply affected by the indirect health effects of the pandemic. My newly sedentary lifestyle was characterized more by frustration and anxiety than by Netflix and chill, and I didn’t want to feel this way.
I started doing a Tabata-based workout on Zoom with Aynsley Kirshenbaum, a Brooklyn-based personal trainer with a master's degree in nutrition, who has been holding online classes since the beginning of lockdown. “The only thing we’re here to do today is to feel better when we’re done,” she’s fond of saying at the beginning of each class. Kirshenbaum, both in her classes and on social media, has informed my thinking about exercise, and really shifted it away from something you do to make your body look a certain way, to something that helps you feel a certain way. Even when my Wi-Fi fails or there’s a Zoom glitch and I only complete half the class, I always do feel better after the workout. So much better that it got me thinking — if one sweaty hour of burpees and squats could make such a difference to my day, what other well being metrics could I use to check in with myself and get back to a place of ease with my body?
Here’s an expert-backed set of five new metrics to assess your health that have nothing to do with measurements like weight or calories and all to do with reframing your relationship with health. Ask yourself these questions each morning or evening.
How much green stuff are you eating?
Fad diets flood social media and creep into recipes designed to accommodate the trendy avoidance of specific ingredients or macronutrients. Yet science clearly shows that individual nutritional needs and metabolisms vary so much that it’s impossible to settle on one perfect diet for all.
In 2014, David Katz, MD, a physician and researcher at the Yale Prevention Research Center published a meta-analysis of data on a variety of popular diets, including low-carb, low-fat, paleo, Mediterranean, and vegan. The study notes that rigorously studying long-term dietary habits is an extremely difficult task, due to complicating factors like the unreliability of self-reporting, inherent bias, and the reality that even a perfectly designed observational study can only correlate diet to health, and can’t definitively prove that a vegetarian diet leads to longevity. “Can we say what diet is best for health?” Katz and his co-authors write. “If diet denotes a very specific set of rigid principles, then even this necessarily limited representation of a vast literature is more than sufficient to answer with a decisive no. If, however, by diet we mean a more general dietary pattern, a less rigid set of guiding principles, the answer reverts to an equally decisive yes.” Those guiding principles, the study concludes, are simple: Eat more plants.
Whether they’re based on eliminating a certain type of food, like carbs or fat, or just an overall reduction in calories, most diets tell us to eat less. That restrictive nature doesn’t make room for the way we eat as individuals, erases cultural preferences, and forgets that eating is fun. So take the advice to eat more fruits and vegetables to heart to subvert the culture of restriction and focus on packing in as much of the good stuff as you can. “Here’s something that very few health professionals will tell you about food: It’s supposed to be pleasurable,” writes Christy Harrison, MPH, RD, CDN, a dietitian, health at any size activist, and the host of the podcast Food Psych. “Diet culture gets us so wrapped up in the pursuit of nutritional ‘perfection’ that we miss the pleasure part. Food is supposed to bring us joy.”
It’s a lot easier to eat in a way that makes us feel good, and contributes to long-term health, when we’re thinking about how to get more sweet potatoes and peaches into our diets, rather than fixating on eliminating foods we think are “bad” from our plates.
“If you look at what you’re eating currently, think about adding in more healthy fats, more vegetables, more fruits,” Shana Spence, RD, a New York-based registered dietitian and nutritionist, told me in an email. “I keep saying add in not take away because I think it’s important for people to realize that they do not have to cut out food groups and severely reduce their calorie intake.”
There’s a lot more to eating well, but if you want simple, actionable, and positive advice, it’s to eat more leafy greens and juicy berries. Get after tomatoes and sweet corn. Crunch into cucumbers and apples. Forget about calorie counts and portion sizes and work at adding more fruits and vegetables to your plate. Or, as Spence put it, “There’s nothing wrong with pizza, at all. But maybe have some vegetables with it or on top.”
What did your body do for you today?
Adding a salad to pizza night might be easy, but individuals’ relationship to food and the way they feel about their bodies can be anything but. A growing body of evidence suggests that weight stigma, the stress that people in larger bodies feel as a result of discrimination, and the substandard medical care they often receive, may have a greater effect on health than actual weight. “Scientific understanding of weight and health developed in tandem with cultural biases about body size, leading to a belief that weight is a matter of personal responsibility and willpower,” Virginia Sole-Smith, author of The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image, and Guilt in America, writes in Scientific American.
It’s not just that that weight tells us less about our actual health than we might think; there actually may not be a lot we can do to change the number on the scale. “Since 1959, research has shown that 95 to 98% of attempts to lose weight fail and that two-thirds of dieters gain back more than they lost,” Michael Hobbes writes in a Huffington Post article titled “Everything You Know About Obesity Is Wrong,” which radically changed my own perspective on weight and weight loss. He continues, “The reasons are biological and irreversible. As early as 1969, research showed that losing just 3% of your body weight resulted in a 17% slowdown in your metabolism — a body-wide starvation response that blasts you with hunger hormones and drops your internal temperature until you rise back to your highest weight.”
Kirshenbaum also pointed out that Covid-era weight gain isn’t a failure of willpower, or a triumph of banana bread, it’s a result of the current situation that we’d likely see as predictable and natural if we weren’t so obsessed with weight and body size. “Our bodies change in reaction to stress,” she says. “That’s what we’ve adapted to do over time.”
Instead of worrying about numbers on a scale, think about one great thing your body did for you today. Did your legs take you on a walk? Did your arms give a great hug? Did your hips shimmy in a little dance when that summer jam you’re digging came on the playlist? Thank your awesome body for that and then think of even more body moments to feel grateful for tomorrow.
“It’s a lot easier to eat in a way that makes us feel good, and contributes to long-term health, when we’re thinking about how to get more sweet potatoes and peaches into our diets, rather than fixating on eliminating carbs, or nightshades, or beans from our plates.”
How stoked are you to move your body?
“If you’re a goal-oriented person, and you try a diet or you try a workout plan based on you dropping a jean size, you’re going to be very frustrated because the process does not equal the product that you’re looking for,” says Kirshenbaum. “If it did work, all of our bodies would look the same.” In some contexts progress goals are great — maybe you’re training for a race or you really want to do a handstand in yoga class. You are already moving your body with intention. If you’re struggling to find some kind of activity that feels good to your body and a goal will help you do that though, you don’t have to try to shave time off your mile. “Process goals are a lot more important than product goals,” says Kirshenbaum. “Either like, number of days per week, or length of workout. I’ll have some people who are like, I’m going to run two days a week and do one yoga class. And so it’s actual boxes that you can tick.”
The other metric, and the one I personally use, is the question: How much did I look forward to this workout? For me at least, there’s nothing that clears my head, improves my mood, and even makes me feel instantly a bit hotter than exercise. For years though, I struggled with the idea that the only exercise that really counted was running. And I hate running. So I didn’t exercise that often. In my experience, it’s totally possible to get hooked on the way you feel after doing something that is very hard. But I’m also a complete fangirl for a Zumba class. As Kirshenbaum points out, if there is anything that social distancing has made easier, it’s finding a class online. You could even make it a process-oriented metric — try one new kind of workout, or new bike route, or hike, per week.
Are you sleeping enough?
This is one health metric that’s always important, but is often not embraced. “Sleep is a basic need just as thirst or hunger,” says Christine Blume, PhD, a sleep scientist at the Centre for Chronobiology in Basel, Switzerland. “When we’re hungry, we go to the fridge and get something to eat. And when we’re thirsty, we drink something. But when we’re tired, it’s not necessarily [true] that we sleep. To some extent, I have the impression that we don’t trust that our body gives us the right signals or we… don’t appreciate these signals at all.”
Blume says that while sleep quality is highly subjective, we can improve our sleep by understanding how it works. First, you probably need more of it than you’re getting. “On average people need about between seven and eight hours,” she said. “Much less than six is not good.”
Just like the pandemic can be a good time to find a new exercise, it’s also a good time for many people who no longer need to commute, or get dressed for work, to figure how much sleep you actually need. (Apologies to parents of young children — I feel you because I am you, there’s not a lot you can do about the two-year-old who is going through a phase where she wakes up at 5 a.m. every morning. All I can say is this too shall pass.) Go to bed at your normal bedtime. Don’t set an alarm. See what time you wake up. Try this for a week and you’ll get a reasonably good idea of how much sleep your body wants.
“If you look online, there are people trying to hack their sleep rhythms. And you know, I don’t really think this works,” says Blume. “Why would you want this? Why would you want to train your body to only need four hours of sleep? I mean, I really quite enjoy sleep.”
Blume says human bodies have their own “biological night.” There’s an optimal window for bedtime for all of us, and we feel the most refreshed when we go to bed within that window and get a full night’s sleep. Over time, the less we vary that window — in other words, don’t stay up late during the week and sleep in on the weekend — the better our rest will be. Again, this is appallingly simple, but pay attention to how you feel in the evening, and notice when you feel sleepy. Go to bed. Keep track of that time and make it a policy to stop screen use an hour before.
If you’re tempted to use a fitness tracker to chart your sleep duration and quality, don’t. While Blume acknowledges that the very act of tracking sleep puts an emphasis on its importance, which can be positive, she says that it’s impossible to know how the algorithm for any given device actually works and what it’s measuring. Duration will be accurate, but that you can determine by reading the clock. Sleep quality? Not so much. “I know that many people have this tendency that they want to measure everything,’” she says. “And I’ve done that too, when running I want to know what distance I’ve covered. But, but then, in the end, it’s up to me… if I feel good during running or not, and you know, the same for sleep.”
How are you checking in on your mental health?
Social distancing has radically shifted day-to-day life and created new sources of stress, whether that’s juggling work and childcare, or struggling with isolation. It’s also a lot harder to take care of mental health with normal healthy coping mechanisms, like going to the gym, talking to a therapist, even going for a night out, or just getting two hours to yourself (or two hours not just with yourself). All of these elements are a recipe for burnout, even for people who may, before the pandemic, have been pretty good at balancing work, life, family, and friends.
Anne-Laure Le Cunff is an expert on mindful productivity who is pursuing a master’s degree in applied neuroscience at King’s College in London and a serial entrepreneur who has experienced work burnout twice. She writes about the science of productivity and time management, but she’s not about clever hacks so much as introspection. Burnout, she says, happens when we keep adding stress to our lives without addressing it. “Then there’s one thing that happens, a very stressful meeting, or a fight with someone you care about, something that just completely destroys the little bit of emotional balance that you still had,” she says.
One of the most frustrating things, she notes, is that in retrospect, she had plenty of warning that burnout was coming. “All of the signs were there,” she says. “Some of the symptoms are trouble sleeping, undereating or overeating, and, and this feeling of constant anxiety that you feel in your stomach. Everyone who’s been through burnout will tell you that they didn’t recognize the symptoms until it was too late.” So how do we pay attention to our mental health and make sure we’re not missing burnout — or encroaching depression or anxiety?
A weekly ritual that keeps Le Cunff sane is a simple exercise called “plus, minus, next journaling” in which she jots down what went well in her week, what didn’t, and what she would like to focus on in the week ahead. Then she books her calendar to reflect her vision for the week ahead.
“The more stress, the less I think about checking in with myself, and the longer I can go pushing myself, which leads to burnout,” she says. Her strategy is to check in every Sunday night with this very structured review.
I’ve been plus, minus, next journaling each week and it helped me realize that my Friday night cocktails were actually making the entire weekend kind of a bummer. What I was selling to myself as stress relief was in fact adding to my stress by leaving me feeling crappy on one of the few days a week in which I don’t have to balance work and children.
The point is not necessarily to follow Le Cunff’s system, but to find a strategy for regular “check-ins” that works for you. Putting 10 minutes on your calendar in the middle of the day where you sit quietly with your feet on the floor and your eyes closed to check in with how you’re feeling in your body and mind might be enough. When my children were infants I kept track of the line between mere exhaustion and dangerous sleep deprivation by doing a crossword puzzle on my phone before bed. If I couldn’t complete at least half of it, it meant I needed to sleep more the next day and ask for help to make that happen.
Another way to check in with yourself, says Le Cunff, is to listen to your actual words. One sure sign of burnout is when you start saying, “I’m too busy” to everyone, she says. That refrain is somewhat different during self-isolation, but if you’re too exhausted to call a friend, read a book, or even think about how to better care for yourself, then it may be time to really consider how you’re feeling. Put your feet flat on the floor, close your eyes, take a deep breath, and ask yourself, How do I feel in my body today?