July 30 2015

Great Expectations: Why Good Health Is Awesome (but Not a Panacea)

By Mark Sisson
49 Comments

There is no silver bulletHow often do we bemoan people’s lack of expectations around their health? Their passivity. Their inertia. Their apathy. (Perhaps our own.) They just don’t seem to care or even expect that good health would offer them enough to justify the effort. I can feel heads shaking out there. Personally, I don’t get it either.

On the other hand, there are those people who hold good health on all encompassing pedestals. Maybe you know a few – or have identified as one yourself at some point. They’re the folks who believe that if they can only lose X pounds or get into great shape or achieve washboard abs that everything else in life will finally come together. They’d finally be happy, successful and otherwise “worthy.” And their thinking becomes a distortion that tells them they flat-out can’t be those things until they’ve achieved their physical end goals (as if there is such a thing). As odd as it might sound to some, I can’t tell you how many people I’ve seen latch onto this panacea principle.

I get it – why this discrepancy between expectation and reality. Is it much wonder people glom onto this notion when you consider how healthy, fit, athletic-looking people are often portrayed? It isn’t only that they’re active or doing exciting things in all the ads and entertainment news features. It’s that they supposedly have everything together. It’s suggested they have high-paying jobs with big titles. They have huge social circles and great relationships. Their kids do well in school. Can we just cut the bull already and remember what we’re doing here?

Let me back up and say that taking care of yourself can give you more energy (always a major plus). If your body is in good health, it will serve your hormonal balance and emotional resilience. You’ll likely sleep better and have a better immune response. You’ll be able to do more fun things like kayak or hike or surf for hours. There is almost no end to the benefits of being healthy and what it can do for your overall well-being.

That said, let’s be clear. Getting fit and healthy won’t make you more lovable. You won’t suddenly be showered with good fortune. You won’t be released from all your unhealthy tendencies and personal faults. Bad memories and past indiscretions won’t be carried away by a blue balloon. Insecurities won’t disintegrate. Life won’t suddenly morph into a convivial Miller High Life commercial.

Because the truth is that old mundane phrase – wherever you go, there you are – with all the baggage you came with.

That voice that seventy pounds ago told you were never as impressive as other people around you… That habit of always looking for a comparison between yourself and others… That uncomfortable feeling in crowds or fear of rejection… The propensity to live small and stay invisible… Guess what? They don’t vanish with lost pounds or muscle gained.

Whether it’s losing 20 or 120 pounds, running an endurance event or otherwise transforming your health, none of these accomplishments will give you what’s lacking in your emotional well-being.

This you have to claim from other kinds of work – a speaking back to those internal bogeys time and again. There’s no flip-switch here. Changing your inner environment takes effort in the same way transforming your physical state does. Taking the initiative to make substantive external changes surely can boost your confidence, but it’s still an inner job. Getting real about your health doesn’t preclude you from doing the necessary internal work to get right with your inner self.

The people I’ve seen meet with the most success in health goals are those who can appropriately distinguish their health endeavors from the overall outcome or meaningfulness of their lives. There’s an advantage to not hinging your success in life to a number on the scale or an athletic goal. It’s the difference between letting good health support our ability to go after other visions and expecting our dreams to be met if we achieve a certain fitness measure.

Why would anyone put that much pressure on their health process?

Instead of bringing impossible (i.e. self-defeating) expectations to our workouts and meals and nightly walks, how about we keep it simple? Getting healthy is worth getting healthy – all on its own without the push to fix every problem we perceive or elevate every dimension of our lives.

Gauge your expectations for the sake of your success. Consider the weight loss or fitness goal you’re going for as a positive base to expand from rather than the panacea for all that leaves us less satisfied or connected in our lives.

Thanks for reading, everyone. Let me know your thoughts, and have a good end to your week.

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49 thoughts on “Great Expectations: Why Good Health Is Awesome (but Not a Panacea)”

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  1. I’m under no illusion about what reaching my bodyfat-percentage goals would do for me. But I will say that the ~135lbs I’ve lost on paleo has done wonders for my vanity. My job still sucks. I’m still anti-social. I still sit on my ass and play video games and watch too much TV and movies. And, I’m as content as I’ve always been.

  2. Great post! I appreciate the wide ranging nature of your topics.

    For me, health may not be a panacea, but it is the certain foundation from which all else grows. It is well worth focusing on and helps most every other aspect of my life.

    Thanks for more food for thought…

  3. Yes! I’m thinking of a person at the gym who is in amazing physical shape and can win any competition (marathon, swim, strength, etc) you throw at him, but it doesn’t change the fact that he’s a total jerk with a lifetime of bad relationship issues.

  4. I agree, to a point. Sure there is no panacea, but being physically fit can increase energy, bring a smile when we look in the mirror, and people treat you differently. With that increased energy we are able to say “yes” to more of life gaining experiences and friendships. When we feel good about how we look our confidence tends to grow stronger, which has a direct impact on risks we might take and challenges we’re willing to tackle. Finally, if two people enter a space, one overweight and one fit and healthy, others react differently to them. As a general rule, the fit and healthy person is going to get more positive attention. In my opinion, all of these factors play a major role in our lives not to mention the huge benefits exercise and sleeping well can have on alleviating depression.

    1. I agree with you, to a point. I do not disagree at all with what you said in terms of it being the reality and what people are often exposed to, but I think they’re exposed to it in Westernized society. You wouldn’t find hunter-gatherer tribes-folk denigrating each other because of how they look or trying to win a popularity contest. That happens here. And here the “beautiful people” get the attention.

      That kind of behavior on people’s part is ingrained sadly a part of the culture here. I knew few if any people who are not guilty of it at some point in their life (particularly when young (i.e., adolescent)), or some of the time during their adult life.

      I do believe it’s true that someone who is comfortable in their own skin, truly comfortable, would be affected by it because they would not derive their happiness from acceptance of those around them. Clearly, this is an extremely idealistic viewpoint, but I do believe that it’s true. We all, as *humans* would be happiest not relying on those around us to MAKE US happy; merely to support us, to be there when we need assistance, and be accepting of who we are.

      That said, I understand your viewpoint and know that I’ve “suffered” the same feelings of rejection. Who hasn’t, right? But I know as I’ve “worked on myself,” I am more likely to do the things that I want without fear of what anyone things because I know that those things make me happy regardless of who they’re with, if anyone at all.

      1. You don’t think hunter-gatherers wouldn’t judge one another on their appearance? If I’m planning an activity such as a hunt or a raid on the neighboring tribe, I’m going to choose the most able people I can. Though it’s not a perfect litmus test, ability is largely reflected in appearance. This will also factor in to whom I choose to marry my daughters or with whom they choose to actually procreate. I firmly believe in evolutionary wisdom, but to believe that our ancient ancestors were any less judgmental seems like fantasy.

        1. Fair enough. And maybe it’s just a romanticized viewpoint. But I don’t doubt that advertising and television and magazines and movies and so many other things available to us, in today’s world, have an impact on how we see ourselves.

          I did not mean to imply that there wouldn’t be any of the kind of judgements you’ve pointed out. I do believe that the prevalence was not as severe as I believe it is today.

    2. I think a main point though is that whatever you look like on the outside isn’t as important as your mental health.

      1. Yes, and what Kris is saying is when you get treated differently – often badly – just by being overweight or obese out in public – EVERY time you go out in public – cannot help BUT affect your mental health.

        There’s only so much sunshine you can blow up your own nose when you get stared at, glared at, just for going to the shops, or the cinema, or church – or getting yelled at by strangers in cars just for going for a daily walk. I say with kindness, this isn’t the ideal world your comment suggests.

        1. Absolutely! Lack of respect is a major concern. Remediated by adherence of ecomorality, as advocated by Religious Naturalism?

    3. “Sure there is no panacea”
      This is just a belief and not a fact.
      The fact is there is panacea!
      Hundred of thousands of people use it every day.

      Peace, perfect health and unlimited happiness!

  5. great post. I have struggled with that particular stinking thinking for most of my life. As I face turning 50 this year, I have finally conquered it. I’m OK whether I’m fat, skinny, or somewhere in between. Life will only be great if I work to make it great. There is no magic “one thing” that I can achieve to make everything else OK. And that is one of the most freeing thoughts.

    1. Hey, Marie! I’m turning 50 this year as well, and sounds like I’m in the same place. I suspect a good part of that is the offshoot of processing the mental stuff that comes with turning 50!

  6. Good health really is paramount. I’m not talking about losing a few pounds or achieving washboard abs, although such things often do go hand in hand with better health–and I do get the gist of the article. Rather I’m referring to chronic pain or illness (and the depression that goes with it) versus feeling really good in one’s body with energy to spare and no serious health issues. Anyone who has ever lost their health, even temporarily, knows that very little else is quite as important as regaining it.

    1. I couldn’t agree with you more. I was down and out with a life-threatening illness several years ago, and most recently am recovering from hip replacement and then dislocation. It’s so frustrating to feel helpless and to lose your independence, even if it’s a temporary situation. It’s made me realize that all I really want is to be able to function in life as I age. If the side benefits of improved physical appearance and boundless energy come along as a result of trying to maintain general fitness, that’ll be a welcome bonus!

    2. Its a bit like if you try to learn a move like the Human Flag – if you approach it from the point of view of being able to do it to try and look impressive, you miss the whole point. If you approach it as “exercise”, and your objective is to work your lateral chain of muscles, you will eventually achieve the move but not as the sole purpose of doing the moving.

  7. If you don’t have your health, what else do you need? I used to joke about my “executive body”. Flying around on airplanes, hotel food and tying one on with clients really takes its toll. Add the stress of regulating agencies, paying over 50% income taxes and attending to employees instead of family is not the path to health and happiness. I came to the conclusion that if I kept it up, I would not be alive for my 12-year-old daughter’s future wedding. I sold the business with the intent to simplify my life and LIVE with my family. It’s about priorities. Maintaining one’s health should never fall far from the top of the list. Why live to die when you can die living?

  8. I think I’m guilty of this to some degree. I wish that eating a special way will make my life better in more ways than just regarding the typical health aspects. However, I also have hope in the possibility of healthy eating having an effect on personality (I’m thinking gut-brain connection here).

  9. I just read a book from Eckhart Tolle “The power of Now” that addresses this type of mindset.

    Great read!

  10. My wife and I had excellent results after quitting smoking and going Primal and starting regular exercise programs. I was always active in sports but my wife had never exercised since her 20s. Now we do P90X3 and are in excellent shape yet ironically we are frustrated that we are not yet as perfect specimens as we would like to be. Of course we are 59 and 60 yrs old, should have started 20 years earlier for perfection, ha ha. Of course we realize this is a stupid mindset but it’s one thing to get it together physically and another emotionally. I saw a quote from David Geffen the other day, ‘I believe we all die unhealed’. Sadly, I realized that I have been coming to the same conclusion. Perhaps our next improvement project should be philosophy and meditation.

  11. For me it’s feeling so good I feel like I’m jumping out of my skin with even, all day energy and positivity. It has never been about how I look. That just happens to be one of the benefits of this lifestyle.

    One more thought on folks that tend to overwork and stress out…I read a book by a hospice worker and the overwhelming thing she noticed was that nobody said on their deathbed, “I wish I had worked more during my life”.

      1. Thanks for sharing this link. It sends out a really good message and really struck a cord with me.

  12. Great advice here: “Gauge your expectations for the sake of your success. Consider the weight loss or fitness goal you’re going for as a positive base to expand from rather than the panacea for all that leaves us less satisfied or connected in our lives.”

    If you click on my name below it will link you to our MDA success story. I approached it first and foremost from wanting better health. My uncle, not that much older, got dementia and I had a two-year old adopted daughter. Things had to change.

    I know it is easy in retrospect to say it wasn’t about weight loss, and there was a part that way. But it truly was centered around health and wanting to be a better person. Without quite understanding it at the start, I knew I just wasn’t me. Not just overweight, not just unhealthy, but I was kind of a blurred, mutated version of myself. So becoming me was by far the best part. Weight loss is puny next to that.

    As to why other people don’t. I try to have compassion. Remember most people are told to exercise more and cut calories which is the most disastrous way possible to lose weight: body holds on to every calorie and every fat calorie it can.

    So after a while being obese and ill isn’t settling per say or giving up, but a reasonable response to a lifetime of non-MDA advice. Even though few are happy about being unhealthy. And most are frankly scared and maybe even desperate. But don’t know what to do.

    That is why I continue to tell my story. I am kind of sick of it to tell the truth. But the majority of people are still pretty ignorant about virtually everything we talk about here.

  13. Thoughtful post Mark. I do think improvement in one area can lead to improvement in other areas – “a rising tide lifts all boats.” And also that perfect health/physique/achievements can be used as an excuse for not addressing other critical areas of importance – meaning I’ll get to it only after I have “made it” here. Solid distinction and here’s to health for health’s sake.

  14. I see a lot of people approach weight loss in a manner of must lose X number of pounds, usually by some date. And if they miss that goal they fall completely to pieces. They will usually be better served by a commitment to eat clean for a week (and longer periods as time goes on), or to keep up the primal exercise program. Things relatively easy to hit and then expand on, which will eventually lead to the ultimate goal goal at a pace your body will like rather than forcing the end goal and being disappointed.

  15. A very good reminder. Self-work and acceptance may be one of the very biggest factors to help people break through and become happier, find success (however they define it), and live fuller lives. Being healthy and fit is one aspect, but not the be-all end-all of it.

  16. I thought you were going somewhere different with this. . . my son, who is 17, is healthy in terms of free from disease and injury. But in terms of the way we all speak of health, he’s not. Overweight and sedentary.

    But he’s very happy. He’s very cerebral and really one of the most content and cheerful people you’d ever want to meet.

    Of course, I’ve tried various things to get him active and into a more healthful state of being. He always, in his good natured way, makes a good effort, but then goes right back to his book and a snack.

    I thought you were going to be talking about people like this.

    Maybe another day!

    1. That sounds like me in my teens… See if you can get him to bike to the library with you a few times. Maybe that will become a habit? And try to stock not-too-terrible snacks.
      One step at a time! But it sounds like he is a happy person anyway!

  17. This reminds me of a time that a co-worker introduced me to someone, saying, “Marge runs 3 miles every day!” (which wasn’t true… it was every other day…) The new person gushed, ” Oh, you are so GOOD!” as if I were Mother Theresa! I simply said, “I don’t do that to be good! I’m just selfish!”
    I do what I do to feel good, because I like to feel good! It gives me a better base for dealing with life, but it is not the whole of my life.

  18. Great post! A good counter balance to 99% of the material that the broader “health and fitness” community is putting out there.

    I hear people expressing regrets and concerns about getting older (and I’m 48). But ultimately along with the ‘wherever you go there you are’ statement that Mark quoted is the plain old fact that we are only ever given moments to live. The past doesn’t exist except in our memories, and the future doesn’t exist either (that’s why it’s the future, duh).

    So rather than get obsessed with physical perfection at the next IFBB show or whatever your thing is… Simply focus on the moment. This workout, or this meal preparation, or this moment that you’ve chosen to read to your grandchild or visit a sick friend, or pay bills, get that root canal etc. (Pain has it’s place in our lives as well.)

    The moment is all you’ve got anyway. Might as well enjoy it or at least learn from it.

  19. I think you missed a critical aspect of health, and the associated psychology. For many people, there are links between health-related behavior and other behaviors. For example, one researcher has show that there is a link between having a cluttered house and being obese! There’s even a book titled “Does this Clutter Make my Butt Look Fat?” For these people, there are broad lifestyle behaviors that contribute to both their unhappiness and their ill-health. If they “could just lose that weight” then they would have to change the behaviors that contribute to their unhappiness too. Losing the weight as a means to change the behaviors is quite a worthwhile goal in my opinion. Understanding the necessary behavioral changes is probably better, but any method is a good starting point.

  20. I’ll add to Eric B’s comment that for me, having SOMETHING work for me was pretty much game changing to the way I saw myself and the way I interacted with others. After 30 years of struggling with my weight and trying SO DAMN HARD, I could never figure out why I still was failing at weight loss and why my health would not improve. 30 years of failure is a long time of wondering why – perhaps if I had worked just a little bit harder, run a bit farther, eaten a bit less, then OF COURSE I would have seen the magnificent changes that were promised to me by conventional wisdom. The weak link was ME, right? Wrong.

    Primal changed my whole life – not just my weight. When I saw that I could lose weight, that I could improve my health, and that I could take credit for these changes, my self-esteem improved dramatically. And when that happened, I began to believe that I deserved to be happy. For me, these things were inextricably connected. Day 1 of the 21 day primal lifestyle “makeover” was just the first domino in a cascading, toppling lineup that helped me believe in my own worth. Though it was my initial motivation, the weight loss was really just a side benefit in the end. Finally, I believed I COULD do anything and SHOULD work to make myself happy. It changed my entire life to see that I could lose weight.

  21. Really appreciate this post, Mark–and all of your posts probing deeper than a “set of food rules.” In my work with patients, one of the key pieces is mindful, compassionate investigation of patterns–not just eating patterns, but also patterns of thought, belief and action. Eating is about more than just eating; and food is about more than just food. The most significant, lasting transformations I see in clinic happen for those who get really honest and really curious about…well…themselves.

  22. Losing all the excess body fat may not make me a better human being, but being able to go out in public and not get the fat-shaming glares – every – single – time – will make MY world a better place without doing anything else different.

  23. I think what Mark is trying to say is to ‘enjoy the journey’. In other words, make it about the journey rather than the goal.

  24. Here’s what I always tell my clients:

    Health doesn’t equal happiness, but it’s a hell of a lot easier to BE happy when you have the raw materials necessary to make your neurotransmitters responsible for those moods.