Dr. Joan Borysenko has been called The First Lady of Mind/Body Medicine. She is a Harvard trained biologist, as well as a licensed psychologist and spiritual educator. Here she shares with us how she switched to a healthy lifestyle by focusing on what felt good:
I started running because I wanted to look great and feel healthy. Two decades later I was still running — logging 20-25 miles a week. I crave the sensation of flying through the air, my body and brain high on oxygen, how the rhythm of my breathing crowds out my to-do list and provided a natural form of meditation. Although I'd started running because of a vague ideal and some good intentions, in the end the reason I made running a priority was simple: It made me wildly happy. And that's the basis of forming and maintaining any good habit.
Don't get me wrong. Running felt terrible at first. Three months into my practice, a "runner's high" began to kick in somewhere between the first and second mile. That's when I started noticing my mood was vastly improved throughout the day, too — I was brighter, happier, and much less prone to worry and stress. Pretty soon, I was living in a world of greater emotional peace and bodily wellbeing than I'd ever imagined possible.
These results aren't unique to me. Studies demonstrate that people who exercise at least three times per week are less depressed, angry, and stressed than those who don't exercise. Active people also feel more positive about their health and fitness levels. There's benefit to the brain, too. According to one study, exercise helps to prevent normal age-related memory loss because it stimulates new cells to grow in an area of the brain responsible for memory.
I had a similar experience when I changed my diet. My husband and I decided to switch to an organic, vegetarian diet, which was no small feat in the 1970s. After about a year on that diet I'd lost 20 pounds and felt awful. Nonetheless, I was morally committed to being a vegetarian. Then one day, my yoga teacher took me aside and asked whether I'd looked in a mirror lately. "Do you look healthy?" she asked. I couldn't say that I did. "Do you feel healthy?" Nope, I couldn't say that either. My conclusion was that my diet wasn't nourishing me and I needed to change it. Even though I adopted it for spiritual and moral reasons, it wasn't healthy for my body type. As soon as I added foods to my diet that I'd been leaving out (fish and chicken), my sense of wellbeing, strength, and muscle mass returned.
Through my experiences, I came to understand that all of us are unique. While some of us thrive as vegetarians, others may feel like their bodies need a little animal protein. In the same way, a fitness program that suits some people simply won't work for others. Fundamentally, when you're looking to create a healthy lifestyle you need to find what works for you.
The feeling of vitality, calm, strength, and creativity that the right diet and exercise program provides is addictive — in a good way! It's the way you were meant to feel. And it's the barometer of how well your lifestyle is working for you. If a change in your diet and exercise regime doesn't give you pleasure after a few months, that is good feedback; it means you should rethink and readjust your program. Otherwise, you're liable to give up and go back to your old ways. Using pleasure as your guide is an incredibly simple and effective way to reinforce your resolve to create better health that lasts a lifetime.