Common Beliefs Can Hold Us Back
Remember the old advice, “Never assume,” which perhaps a parent proffered every time you thought the other kid had it better? Lately, I’ve been thinking about how important a premise this really is—of course, in general, but especially as related to health & wellness. So many thoughts & beliefs about what it means to be “fit and healthy” don't actually help us. Instead, they consume precious brain space. Questioning assumptions about what it means to be fit frees up energy that we can then till back into our own health.
It’s human nature to assume things, especially regarding others. Our ancestors needed to make quick judgments about fellow humans, for example, to assess whether the person approaching them were friend or foe, or to calculate a potential partner’s health prior to procreating. The problem of course lies in the definition: an assumption is a thing that is accepted to be true or certain WITHOUT proof (Oxford Dictionary). We’ve all evolved to make asumptions, but when we absorb generally acceptable assumptions without pushing back against them, they can gobble up mental energy and even hold us back.
Think about the common assertions we often find in pop culture and sometimes in statements made in conversations around us (or even happening in our own heads!). Here are some examples. Are you taking these as fact when it comes to your wellness or perhaps that of someone else? Do you or those around you fall into the automatic habit of…
Believing older adults are weaker than others?
While some fitness variables do change with age, age alone does not equal lack of strength. What does change? A person’s VO2 max, which measures the amount of oxygen the body can process during bouts of peak exercise, does decline. (Research shows that VO2 max falls approximately 10% per decade after the age of 25 years, and more specifically, by about 15% between the ages of 50 and 75.) Of course, joint issues tend to crop up more frequently with age. Also without resistance training, ALL people lose muscle mass—the compounding deficit of which becomes an increasing problem with age. However, at any age, we can start regaining muscle mass & strength, and we can maintain the optimal ability to process oxygen for our age group. We may actually be more fit than a younger person who places no demands on their body!
Assuming heavier people are unhealthy?
This one persists as “a fact” in our culture, but plenty of heavier people exercise more, sleep better, and eat more healthfully than lighter people. Those lifestyle habits often seriously impact health measures in a positive way, lowering blood pressure, blood sugar, resting heart rate, and risk of heart attack, stroke, and disease. One study, among others, concluded that, “Healthy lifestyle habits are associated with a significant decrease in mortality regardless of baseline body mass index.” Of course, there ARE risks to carrying more weight and I don’t mean to under state this, but every person’s health numbers, habits, and resulting quality of life are a very INDIVIDUAL matter.
“Knowing” you can’t do something because you never have?
I think almost all of us have done this. We take on a label, sometimes early in life, and stick to it, telling ourselves things like, “Oh, I’m not a swimmer,” “I’ve never been strong,” “I’m just a nighttime eater and always will be,” etc. Just because we say a thing about ourselves doesn’t make it true. Often these assumptions are a way of keeping us safe from trying things that feel a little scary (“What if I fail?”), uncomfortable (”What will people think?”), or daunting (”How on earth will I find time for this?”). Shattering one or two of these self beliefs can amplify confidence and lead to successes we’d never allowed ourselves to imagine.
Declaring that if everyone tried hard enough, they’d be fit & healthy.
In general, our culture sees wellness as a personal victory and subpar health as a moral failing. This is especially true of obesity. If we weigh “too much” or become ill, we must have done something “wrong.” While healthy habits absolutely serve as an investment in future wellness, we cannot strong arm health into existence. Has anyone else noticed that life can be incredibly unpredictable? Myriad factors, ranging from stress to our environments to simple genetics, cause wellness to wobble. In American society, wellness is often closely linked with advantages like higher income, free time, and access to fresh foods & clean, green spaces for exercise. Realizing this can free us to treasure the aspects of life that allow us to focus on fitness and to accept our situations (and those of others) more easily when health struggles arise. In doing so, we clear the path to make progress toward our own, personal best health.
We will never stop making assumptions, and like our ancestors, sometimes we need to. However, we can free up a ton of mental energy and angst by conducting small interrogations of the things we regularly automatically believe to be true. Challenging these ideas can be a challenge in itself, but in the long run, we'll actually save mental energy. And those pockets of mental power go much further when we can invest them in our personal health in more positive ways.