Fitness – Wellness coach Luke Coutinho on mental health, chronic stress and happiness quotient

Are we becoming a health-obsessed society? There is a difference between being aware of health and stretching it to a point that it comes in the way of living your life and being happy. Be health aware, but not health-obsessed. Read labels of food, but don’t get down to counting every calorie. Obsession causes us to choose extremes, stay confined to a rigid box and blind ourselves to things that may exist on the other side, which is not even helping us reach our goals.

Extreme diets, workouts, fasting, cleanses, detoxes and so on. Why is there so much complication and obsession? What are most parties and social gatherings talking about? Weight, diets, looks, skin, hair and the like. Conversations do not go beyond how much weight someone has lost or gained. Do we need to revolve our lives around health to be healthy? Health was supposed to be simple. Our body already has beautiful built-in mechanisms to keep us healthy.

We have innumerable fitness apps, fitness centres, meditation techniques, an abundance of information about lifestyle, yoga teachers, and more. So, why are people getting sicker and sicker despite having access to everything? Yes, there are changes to make in your lifestyle, nutrition, exercise, mindset and spiritual health, but why be obsessed? Health obsession can be your biggest obstacle to becoming healthy, whether it’s by gaining or losing weight, recovering from a disease or managing a disease.

If you are super strict with your diet, workout regimen and lifestyle and jumping from one diet or workout plan to another, then let us burst the bubble and say — you are settling on a plan for failure.

Here’s how your health obsession is your obstacle to getting fitter.

Health-obsession can cause chronic stress

Does your day start and end with only thinking about food and what your next meal will be? Are you constantly questioning your actions and decisions? Are you too worried about what you will eat when stepping out? Does a little extra portion stress you out? All of this can add immense stress to your body. And this is the kind of stress that you experience day in and out, not realising that you are in a state of chronic stress. Do you think it’s the quality of life you want to live? 

We operate within two systems — the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). The SNS is also called the “fight or flight mode”, which is an alert response and survival mechanism your body tries to generate when it’s stressed.

In this case, it’s the worry about the next meal, being offered a dessert, counting every single calorie, or the availability of a meal that suits you when you go to a restaurant. Food becomes your energy because there is so much fear and worry about it. The constant worry puts your body in a state of SNS all through the day. Your body isn’t even able to digest food the right way in this state. To make matters worse, your body switches on to fat-storing mode, because it has experienced stress (threat). Besides that, inflammation rises, and recovery, growth, healing and repair slow down.

Food is best digested when your body is in PNS, also called “rest and digest mode”. When you are relaxed and eating with joy, whether it’s a salad or a dessert, your body is in a perfect state to digest and break it down, and guess what, you even end up losing that extra weight! This mode is also conducive to sleep, better blood sugar and blood pressure readings.

Simplicity is the new luxury

Looking back to a few decades, how did people have great health so effortlessly? Only a few of them had diabetes, hypertension and thyroid condition. And Alzheimer’s and dementia were unheard of. They followed simplicity. They followed the basics like eating home-made and balanced meals, staying active, sleeping on time, sleeping with the sunset, waking up with the sunrise, and managing stress with grace and elegance by practising acceptance, letting go, prayers, surrendering and so on.

The happiest people are the healthiest

When I look at data of the healthiest people I have worked with or known, they don’t have better diets or exercise programs. They have simplicity and happiness in their lives. Their lives aren’t about chasing weight loss or a fit body. They live well, fully, do simple things, and most importantly, are happy. The happiest people are the healthiest too and vice versa. If the environment in your body is happy, everything else works optimally.

All the mechanisms in your body that promote better health — right from a fat burn, digestion to anti-ageing and immunity, only activate when you are relaxed. And the same switch is turned off when you are worried, guilty, insecure and angry because you are in the wrong system (SNS), which is generated by your thinking and actions.

Are you missing the larger picture of sticking to the basics?

Being health-obsessed but not looking at your emotional wellness is useless. I’d give more value to your emotional health than what is on your plate. Food matters, but it is not everything. When you feel good, can manage stressful situations and can diffuse stress by accepting, forgiving and letting go, you automatically enable your body to digest the food you eat and your body works for you. But if you are messed up in the mind, you are constantly fighting sugar cravings, binge eating to fill up emotions, and then feeling guilty about it, all of which is a constant battle to be healthy, which isn’t how health is supposed to be.

And, what about your sleep and quality of relationships? Is your chase to lose weight inviting a bigger problem? If you aren’t addressing these, they also impact the kind of food choices you make and how food gets digested in your body. So now, is the food the culprit or your emotional wellness and lack of good sleep?

Every time I post a success story of our client or patient, we are flooded with comments from people asking for that person to share their diet or food chart. Our clients do not lose weight or recover from lifestyle diseases by using just restrictive diets and exercise. They coach them to also include the healing of their mind and spirit, along with the right food, exercise and sleep in a way that suits their uniqueness.

Wellness, fat loss, disease prevention, cancer, and Alzheimer’s aren’t just about diet and medicine. Health is a right that is in-built into us. You have to allow health and weight loss to happen for you, provided you give it the right environment — internally and externally by also working on your overall lifestyle. Build a good lifestyle. The weight loss or weight gain, disease management, prevention, and possible reversal begin to happen on their own.

Luke Coutinho is an integrative and lifestyle medicine expert and the founder of  YouCare-All about YOU