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For many of us, being as healthy as possible is one of our primary goals in life. Trying to pick the best food, getting enough exercise and avoiding bad habits such as smoking are actions many of us try to take. Unfortunately, although it sounds straightforward in theory, this isn’t always easy in practice.
No one actively wants to be unhealthy, but after a hard day, curling up with some comfort food and hiding away from the world can feel like the path of least resistance. Making the healthy choice, on the other hand, can take enormous effort and planning, and that little bit of extra willpower. Luckily, however, there are ways to make health choices come more naturally – and the simple daily habit of meditation is one of them.
When trying to pursue a healthier and more ethical lifestyle – perhaps by embarking on a plant-based diet – we often have to overcome many years of habitual behaviour. The obesity crisis playing out through much of the Western world demonstrates that even when we know what’s bad for us, it is extremely hard for people to change.
Factors such as poverty, lack of education and mental health issues certainly have a major influence on people becoming very unhealthy. Yet many of us have the knowledge and capability to do the things we need in order to live better, but find ourselves somehow stymied in our attempts to make it a reality.
Even those of us who are very health-conscious can find ourselves at a plateau, trying our best but with our progress stifled, and our goals just out of reach. For example, we may want to only have a few glasses of wine every month, but instead drink a few times a week; or perhaps we have a soft spot for highly-processed fast food, and find ourselves ordering it just little bit too often.
By making meditation part of our daily routine, we can help ourselves to push past these sticking points, and change our life so subtly yet comprehensively that choosing the best thing for ourselves feels entirely natural. And it’s how meditation transforms our experience of stress that makes this happen.
For people struggling to make the right choices for their health, meditation can be a wonderful place to start. Even starting with twenty minutes a day can create what is known as a “keystone habit” – one habit in our lives which informs everything else in it.
As an example, a bad keystone habit might be staying up until 2am every morning, snacking on sugary food and binge-watching a favourite TV show. This is something which we might do once a month without much impact on the rest of our lives. But as a daily habit, it makes us wake up feeling sluggish, and prone to making less optimal food choices first thing in the morning in search of an energy boost.
This leads to an inevitable energy crash at lunchtime, which means that instead of going for a walk, we stay at our work desk with a coffee and lunch. As a result, we increase our screen time to an unhealthy degree, and miss out on the hormonal and psychological boost provided by a little exercise. Once home, we feel tired and undernourished, but wired from stimulants and looking for entertainment – so we sit back on the sofa, turn on the TV and the process repeats again.
Meditation works in a similar but far more beneficial way. By closing our eyes after getting up in the morning, and spending some time trying to cultivate a state of focused relaxation, we are benefited in a variety of ways. Firstly, we experience increased energy levels. With this, we are far less likely to pick up a high-sugar breakfast just because we feel terribly tired, and are unconsciously drawn to the food which has the most short-release energy content.
Secondly, we become far less stressed. Stress makes it very difficult to think outside of the short term, and many of us develop coping mechanisms in order to deal with it. In our evolutionary history, stress (which is an activation of our body’s “flight or fight” response) was something that helped us survive; by kicking into action during emergency situations we were able to focus on nothing but the threat in hand, and pour all our thought and energy into dealing with it.
In the modern world, however, when our stress response is being triggered throughout the day by work pressures, niggling worries, lack of time and any number of unavoidable parts of life, it is not quite so helpful. The short-term thinking which assisted us in confronting threats when we were cavemen can be more damaging in our modern setting, pushing us into impulsive poor choices.
We may smoke, drink or comfort eat in order to solve stress, even though over the long-term these habits tend to make it worse. Stress also affects our sleep, compromises our immune system and makes us feel generally run down – draining us of our motivation. Stress can also make us feel that we chronically lack time, with every daily task suddenly feeling like an urgent concern. When we feel under this kind of pressure, our choices begin to reflect it, and we pick the quickest and easiest option, not necessarily what’s best for us.
By reducing our stress, meditation breaks this vicious cycle. Because we feel calm and full of energy, we naturally choose the things that are actually good for us, rather than the short-term option. Going for a walk in the evening seems like a pleasant activity, rather than an obligation we have to force ourselves into and can’t help but think is a drain of our time. We feel at ease and more mindful, enjoying the act of cooking homemade meals and choosing what’s most nutritious, no longer relying on food that provides temporary pleasure but leaves us bloated, lethargic and full of guilt.
Meditation provides the equilibrium we need in order to see clearly. Stress is like a fog where, although we may be trying our best, we are inevitably led astray to less than healthy choices – even if it manifests itself in orthorexia and obsessive health anxiety. Through practicing meditation daily, we help to remove the distorting influence of stress from our lives – and after that point, everything else will begin to fall into place.
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