Good Health is More than Moving and Eating Well: Conducting a Health MOT
You are holding up a ceiling
with both arms. It is very heavy,
but you must hold it up, or else
it will fall down on you. Your arms
are tired, terribly tired,
and, as the day goes on, it feels
as if either your arms or the ceiling
will soon collapse.
something wonderful happens:
a man or a woman,
walks into the room
and holds their arms up
to the ceiling beside you.
So you finally get
to take down your arms.
You feel the relief of respite,
the blood flowing back
to your fingers and arms.
And when your partner’s arms tire,
you hold up your own
to relieve him again.
And it can go on like this
for many years
without the house falling.
I love this poem so much. It acknowledges that life isn’t always easy, in fact it can can feel like you are holding up a ceiling. This can be exhausting and it is so wonderful when someone steps into your life and helps lighten the load. The Maori model of health does something similar, it breaks health and life into four cornerstones that make up the four walls of a meeting house. It acknowledges that we have mental health, physical health, family/cultural health and spiritual health.
Here in the UK doctors are prescribing time in galleries .They are referring people to exercise specialists and they are nature prescribing. This has all come about in the realisation that our health needs to encompass our whole selves - we are spiritual, psychological, physical and mental beings and so we must nurture each of these aspects of ourselves to be fully healthy.
This is why we changed things in our embodied anatomy class this week. I pulled out my daughter’s old doll’s house and we talked about our health. We conducted a Health M.O.T on ourselves.
Using the garden as a starting point I started by asking people why they thought that time in nature helped our health. Why do patients next to a window overlooking green spaces heal a day faster, need less pain medication and have fewer post surgical complications than patients who looked out at a brick wall? We chatted about the fact that we too are a part of nature. That it is beautiful and calming. That it has a special energy that lifts our spirits. It has predictable cycles and provides a reassuring continuity when all about us is unstable. A bird's nest weathering a storm is a lesson in fortitude. Spring blossoms bring us hope for the warmer days ahead.
I then moved on to the the foundation of the house - sleep, and we chatted about how important it is to our health and thought of one thing that we could do to help improve our sleep. Suggestions ranged from getting off devices earlier; not taking phone calls in the evening; choosing to eat earlier; watching a film or doing something to help the brain switch off; taking a bath; and making sure to get outside and exercise during the day so as to be physically tired enough to sleep.
From here we moved onto movement and chatted about blue zone cultures which are areas of high centenarian populace. Dan Buettner who studies the common denominators of blue zones, has observed that none of them exercise. Instead, they set up their lives so that they are constantly nudged into physical activity - walking, squatting, going up stairs for example. When they do do intentional physical activity, it's the things they enjoy. We chatted about daily movements and how important stairs are in our lives. We also shared what movements we enjoyed and thought about how to incorporate them into our schedules.
The next wall of our house is nutrition and I pointed everyone to the nutrition facts website. A site that shows people the results of the latest peer-reviewed nutrition and health research in a way that is easy to understand. We talked through the daily dozen checklist - a list of (mostly) foods that we should aim to eat each day. We spoke about how to incorporate them into our diets easily. I was reminded of Tim Spector's marvellous book Spoon Fed and his emphasis on the microbiome and the importance of eating a wide range of fruit and vegetables as well as fermented foods such as kimchi, kefir and sauerkraut. I was also introduced to Jonathan Aviv who helps people prevent acid reflux through eating anti-inflammatory foods. We also reflected that eating chocolate is OK - as it is good for our mental health. Bad food is food that is rotten or spoiled; food that we're allergic to; or food that tries to rob a bank 😉
We then moved on to our social health and I introduced the group to Frances Moore Lappe. She is a researcher who focuses on the benefits of community and nurturing human connection. She is very clear in her belief that we wither outside of community and it isn't a luxury but essential to our well-being.
In Okinawa, Japan there is a large population of centenarians who actively participate in the community. One of the secrets of their long life is that they form a secure social network called a Moai. People have daily interactions with friends and neighbours and know that they will have, and will give emotional or financial support if needed. From here, we chatted about the necessity of leaving the house every day for the small interactions we have with others. We also discussed what a gift zoom and modern technology has been for us while acknowledging that nothing beats face-to-face interactions.
The last wall of our metaphorical house encompasses our mental health. I asked the group what they did to keep learning or keep curious and interested in the world. What were their hobbies? Being engaged is important as we need to use and exercise our brains to keep mentally fit. Buettner’s studies show that older people who keep learning and who are curious have much better health outcomes than those who aren’t. What a range of hobbies everyone has as well - puzzles, game shows, scrabble, bridge, musical instruments, gardening, writing, sewing, painting, photography, crafting dolls houses, chatting with friends, cooking.. All things that keep us grateful to be here.
We then spoke about the termites, the things that pull our walls down, that unbalance them and deplete our physical, mental, social and spiritual resources. We spoke about stress. We spoke about what we need to do to relieve stress and keep ourselves in balance. I asked peple what they did to “downshift” this might mean prayer, it might mean meditative movement, it might be mindfulness. Slowing down for just 15 minutes a day turns down our fight or flight nervous system and turns up our rest and digest nervous system. I lead a guided mediation that turned our worries into objects. When our worries are like mist we walk in to them and they envelop us, they overwhelm us emotionally physically and mentally and we can’t separate ourselves from our worries. But. We have control over our thinking processes. We can turn our worries into objects. We can know their colour, shape and weight. We can examine them. Accept them. Create distance from them. And put them away - even for a little while.
The roof of the house is the place for our spiritual health. I left people to think about their life purpose, their legacy, and to really think through their answer to the question “why are we here?” We didn't debate the existence of God because spirituality is different to religion. It is knowing one's place in the world.
And that was us done - what a lovely session. We did this because life span and health span are two different things and our goal should always be to be as healthy as we can for as long as we can, so that we can carry on holding up our ceiling. I think this message was important enough to change our class format for just a week