Human beings are like ecosystems. They are made of many different elements that interact, intersect, and impact one another. There are several different types of ecosystems in the world, but the core idea is that an ecosystem contains diversity – wildlife, weather, soil, water, vegetation, and rock are normal elements. Each of these elements is distinct from the rest but none are separate or isolated from one another. Human beings are composed of many different parts and these elements intersect with one another, affect the whole, and make up our soul. No where is the reality of human integration more visible than when someone experiences abuse or trauma. In The Body Keeps the Score, the author describes how trauma literally reshapes both the body and the brain:
One does not have be a combat soldier, or visit a refugee camp in Syria or the Congo to encounter trauma. Trauma happens to us, our friends, our families, and our neighbors. Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shown that one in five Americans was sexually molested as a child; one in four was beaten by a parent to the point of a mark being left on their body; and one in three couples engages in physical violence. A quarter of us grew up with alcoholic relatives, and one out of eight witnessed their mother being beaten or hit.
As human beings we belong to an extremely resilient species. Since time immemorial we have rebounded from our relentless wars, countless disasters (both natural and man-made), and the violence and betrayal in our own lives. But traumatic experiences do leave traces, whether on a large scale (on our histories and cultures) or close to home, on our families, with dark secrets being imperceptibly passed down through generations. They also leave traces on our minds and emotions, on our capacity for joy and intimacy, and even on our biology and immune systems.
For far too long, “soul care” has focused exclusively on the spiritual health of an individual and neglected the physical, emotional, relational, mental, and vocational. This kind of fragmented approach has not served us well. Human beings are integrated, not compartmentalized.
In other words, you don’t have a soul. You are a soul.
What is Physical Health?
The physical fitness and health industry in the United States is booming. In 2018 it became a $30 billion industry and continues to grow. There seems to be more emphasis on being in good shape, eating healthy, going to the gym, stretching, and taking your vitamins than ever before, yet America is experiencing a health crisis and has been for several years.
- 50 -70 million Americans are affected by chronic sleep disorders and intermittent sleep problems.
- 70% of American adults are overweight or obese.
- Only 24% of American adults meet the CDC Physical Activity Guidelines.
- About three-fourths of the population has an eating pattern that is low in vegetables, fruits, dairy, and oils.
The culture of the United States promotes physical health, but it is obviously not the reality for a significant number of people. However, the culture is not solely to blame for our physical unhealth, each person resists physical health in multiple ways. We resist moving towards physical health when we choose not to examine and explore the ways our families dealt with eating habits and exercise when we were young. We resist moving towards physical health when we refuse to utilize the services of health professionals (doctors, dentists, trainers, etc) to strengthen and sustain our bodies. We resist moving towards physical health when we do not listen to the “messages” that our body is sending us. We resist moving towards physical health when we deny the inevitable changes that come with aging.
Physical health is a skill that we learn and grow in over time. Every person has to intentionally and repeatedly choose to grow in to a physically healthy person over the course of their life. This is my working definition for physical health:
Physical health is the ability to develop habits that promote care of the body, notice and listen to the “messages” your body sends, and embrace different physical capacities and limitations in changing seasons of life.
There are three main elements to this understanding of physical health that needs to be unpacked a bit more:
- Ability to develop habits that promote care of the body – Physically healthy people grow in their ability to nourish, strengthen, and care for their body. This includes exercising regularly, prioritizing sleep and rest, seeking the expertise of health professionals, and maintaining healthy eating habits. Physical health is directly linked to consistent habits of care, nourishment, and strengthening.
- Ability to notice and listen to the “messages” your body sends – Physically healthy people grow in their ability to listen to their body and respond to its messages. This means learning how your body responds to stress, fear, anxiety, and anger, as well as joy, delight, energy, and healing. Physical health grows the more attentive we become to the messages of our body.
- Ability to embrace different physical capacities and limitations in changing seasons of life – Physically healthy people grow in their ability to identify their unique physical limitations and adapt in new seasons of life. This includes embracing your limitations in a season of sickness or injury, changing your physical expectations as you grow older, and adapting to new energy levels when you have a newborn baby in the house. Physical health learns to integrate into the changes that every stage of life brings.
Growing into physically healthy people takes time, intentionality, and deepening self-awareness. A good place to start is by assessing your External and Internal physical realities.Physical health is the ability to develop habits that promote care of the body, notice and listen to the “messages” your body sends, and embrace different physical capacities and limitations in changing seasons of life. ~ Matt Alexander Click To Tweet
External and Internal
One of the best ways to begin assessing our physical health is to examine our External and Internal approach and reality. When we think about our physical lives we primarily think about the external elements like sleep, diet, and exercise. If you can get into solid, consistent rhythms with your sleep routine, eating habits, and exercise regimen then you have come along way and are healthier than most Americans!
But there are internal elements to being physically healthy that are oftentimes overlooked. Body image, listening to what our bodies are telling us, and embracing our physical limitations in different seasons of life are important competencies to being physically healthy.
Moving towards greater physical health definitely involves consistent rhythms of sleep, diets and exercise but it also includes developing a positive body image, paying attention to your body’s cues, and embracing your physical limitations.
The Longing of Odysseus
The story of Odysseus is a classic tale of adventure, romance, and the longing to return home. After ten years in the Trojan War, Odysseus begins his journey home to Ithaca, but it is filled with many complications and tests that keep him at sea for ten more years. Despite the trials that Odysseus endures, he remains fixated on a vision of a future in Ithaca, with his wife and son.
My heart aches for the day I return to my home.
If some god hits me as I sail the deep purple,
I will weather it like the sea-beaten veteran I am.
God knows I have suffered and had my share of the sorrows
In war and at sea. I can take more if I have to.
The journey “home” seems like it should be easy, but rarely is. A dream and vision for the future is crucial as we attempt to move towards health. Without a vision of what life could be like we are unlikely to attempt the challenging path ahead. If we pursue physical health it will mean confronting the shame and insecurity we feel about our bodies, admitting our weakness and vulnerability, confronting our apathy and laziness towards our physical health, and trying out new habits that will be stretching. If we go on this journey, what will life look like on the other side? Will it have been worth it?
Growing into a physically healthy person is challenging, but there is tremendous fruit on the other side. Healthy trees grow fruit and as we grow in physical health there will be “fruit” that grows in our lives. Here are a few examples of “fruit” that will grow as we pursue physical health:
- Energy and enthusiasm as we create rhythms of sufficient sleep, regular exercise, and healthy eating patterns.
- Humility from embracing physical limitations that come to us in different seasons of life.
- Integration with our relationships, work, emotions, spirituality, and all aspects of life.
- Courage to resist unrealistic body images that come from our culture.
- Self-compassion as we embrace our bodies as they are, rather than obsess about how they “should” be.
A life of confidence, hope, and energy is available for those who seek to grow in physical health.
This post is part of the You Are a Soul Series:
- Part 1: You Are a Soul
- Part 2: Emotional Health
- Part 3: Relational Health
- Part 4: Spiritual Health
- Part 5: Physical Health
- Part 6: Mental Health
- Part 7: Vocational Health
 Bessel van der Kolk, The Body Keeps the Score, p. 1.
 “The Six Reasons The Fitness Industry is Booming” by Ben Midgley. https://www.forbes.com/sites/benmidgley/2018/09/26/the-six-reasons-the-fitness-industry-is-booming/#288a88e506db
 Homer, The Essential Odyssey, p. 35.
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