Holistic Health and Fitness Part IV: What the Hell is Self Care?

As the fourth and final part of this mini-series, I'm examining this whole "self-care" thingy we often hear about.

My sister-in-law once shared an article about self-care. The author stressed that self-care involved taking responsibility of our financial situations. This was the first time I thought about self-care being anything but a bath and a pedicure. The article made me wonder: what other ways do I care for--and maybe neglect--my well-being?

One definition of self-care reads, "an activity we want to do that improves our emotional, mental, and physical health." Making sure our finances are in order improves mental and emotional health by providing a sense of security. However, I don't know many people that want to balance their checkbooks. Sure, it's hard to relax if we don't make the occasional appointment for our finances. The act of ensuring financial security wouldn't necessarily be an act of self-care in itself, but a practice that helps us benefit from future acts of self-care. 

It's the pairing of desire and health, then, that helps clarify what, exactly, acts of self-care may look like. We may want to eat an entire pint of Cookie Dough ice cream, but bloat and barf. And while exercising and cooking healthy food offers health, these practices can sometimes feel like a chore. Which is why self-care may best be understood as practices apart from things we explicitly do for health. Sure, somedays we're genuinely stoked to run or cook. But somedays we're not, and that's okay. 

That's why I think it's important to separate self-care practices from those relating to diet and exercise. We need a range of activities we can resort to when our bodies and mind call out for a little extra care.  Actually, they would ideally be activities we do before our body or mind demands them.  

I struggle with practicing self-care. I'm a go-go-goer, often working and playing until the cold or flu forces me to chill on the couch. I'll climb until I'm bleeding from every knuckle. I'll spend an extra couple of hours in the kitchen, preparing fresh food for the week, even when my feet are aching from having just cleaned the house. In these cases, resting more, and doing less, would probably have been the better option for my overall well-being. 

No matter how many pushups I do or how many kale salads I eat, I'm discovering, again and again, that vitality starts outside of the gym and kitchen. It begins with revising the stories we tell ourselves to be ones that empower rather than shame. (I wrote about this in the Four Foundations.) It continues with the way we care for ourselves as a practice born from those self-beliefs. 

Beyond being active and making good food, the art of self-care involves day-to-day maintenance of our overall well-being. 

Ideally--and I'm working on this--self-care is built into each day as a practice allowing space to enjoy restful, low-demand activities. I tweaked my schedule so every few hours I do something small that helps maintain my mental, emotional, and physical health. I try to start my day with meditation and connecting with gratitude. Over lunch, I try to take a walk and do some light stretching. At the end of the day, I try to relax with a book or a show.

The key word here is try. I don't meditate everyday. Sometimes I skip the walk. And some days I work right up until I go to sleep.

Self-care is in the small efforts we make each day to create balance in our often busy lives. It's habits that tell our minds and bodies, "Hey. You've worked really hard and you deserve to enjoy this break." It's an active push-back against the cultural norm of do more, be more.

Ironically, caring for the self can be harder and take more endurance than training for a marathon. But I'm starting to think that more than exercise and diet, these little acts, practiced daily, are what help us become our healthiest, most vibrant selves.