When I have a consult with a new client I ask some unorthodox questions about their life. I want to know if they have long term and short term goals. I want to know if they enjoy their work. I want to know their priorities, passions and focus. Essentially what I am getting at, is do they feel they have a purpose? The average client usually looks to hire a personal trainer because they want to lose fat, feel good physically and look better naked. What I have discovered over the years is clients rarely succeed at this if they are stressed, unhappy and/or hate their life. I’m not a therapist, but find my job does include a good deal of life coaching, as well as fitness and nutrition tip; especially since what motivates people is so closely tied with their priorities and their general attitude.
Today I’d like to take a closer look at one area people usually think is unrelated to their health goals, but is incredibly important: Purpose. There are many aspects of wellness. As a culture we tend to think that if we just control what we eat and do enough exercise our bodies will magically be what we want them to be and we will automatically be free from disease and illness. This black and white thinking based solely on calories in, calories out leaves out a major component of wellness, the mind. If our minds are not healthy, we are not healthy.
We should all know the feeling of a mind body connection in action. Ever get butterflies in your stomach? Ever get sick when you are emotionally stressed? Ever get the chills when something scares you? Our mind and body are intricately connected and science is discovering more and more that stress (mental/emotional and physical) plays a role in most diseases, including obesity.
In one abstract from the Abarbanel Mental Health Center and the Sackler School of Medicine in Israel Dr. Barak states, “There is data to support the hypothesis that individuals characterized by a more negative affective style poorly recruit their immune response and may be at risk for illness more so than those with a positive affective style.” Our attitude can certainly have a big outcome on our overall wellness.
Often what affects our attitude is stress, what we perceive as stressful and how we handle it. Stress alone can affect our health. Researchers at the Institute for Medical Psychology, University of Düsseldorf, Germany looked at SigA levels of students taking a tough exam. SigA is the main component of Immunoglobulin A (IgA), an antibody that plays a critical role in mucosal immunity. More IgA is produced in mucosal linings than all other types of antibody combined. The bottom line is this: if your gut is unhealthy, you are unhealthy, and SigA levels have a lot to do with that. The researchers not only found that the SigA levels of test taking students were lower than those of non test takers, but they discovered that after 14 days the levels remained low. Mental/Emotional stress can hurt us long after the stressor has left us.
Another study conducted at the Centre for Gastroenterology, Institute of Cell and Molecular Science, Barts and the London found that acute psychological stress increased inflammation and worsened the conditions of those with ulcerative colitis.
Stress, immune function, inflammation etc all play a huge role in losing body fat and getting “fit” but that is a topic for a different blog. What I want to focus on today is one specific stress that plagues more people than you know, the stress of lack of purpose.
There are several definitions of purpose, and I’d like to take a look at a few of them.
1. Purpose, noun: the reason for which something exists or is done, made, used, etc.
Why do you get up in the morning? What prevents you from having a major case of the F#@$%!-its and giving up? There is no right answer, but you should have an answer. When I ask people their priorities they usually tell me about their family, friends, career, hobbies, etc. For some people this is the purpose they feel passionate about and in a general sense it’s enough to drive them. Maybe someone makes it their purpose to be the best mother or father and that is plenty for them. They feel completely fulfilled by their role in their child’s life and taking care of their family. Other people find purpose in a hobby like sailing, painting or cars. Their hobby becomes their passion and a whole life and culture surround it. For many career is a major source of purpose. Everyone knows that writer, lawyer, teacher or actor who you seems like they were born to do what they do, their work is all encompassing to them and they are driven wildly by it.
However for every person that has found meaningful purpose in their life there are many who have a job, a family, friends and hobbies, but still lack purpose. Not sure if you have purpose? Ask yourself do you get up every morning really excited about your day? Do you love Mondays just as much as Saturdays? Do you feel electric in life and excited for new challenges? If not maybe you could use a little purpose searching. Lack of purpose can cause depression, which is very harmful to our health. Whether we admit it or not we all want to feel like we have a contribution to offer the world, something that makes us special. When we find that, that is our purpose.
For those that need more purpose in their life let’s look at the second definition of the word.
2. Purpose, noun: an intended or desired result; end; aim; goal.
A good way to start feeling more purposeful in your life is to create goals. Think of something you have always wanted and set goals to get there. The secret is it has to be something you truly want and you must honestly believe you can get there. I find with weight loss clients one of the major mental blocks of making their goal is that they haven’t yet embraced what a life with the new skinner them would look like. In order to make that goal happen you have to imagine yourself getting there, imagine the outcome clearly and really absorb that image of the new you, the new life into your being. You can’t just want something, you have to feel it, live it breathe it.
Don’t worry how big your goal is, even the biggest goal can be tackled by breaking it down in smaller pieces. As long as the goal is realistic and you are willing to work for it it’s a good goal. Say you love nature, and taking photos, and you want to travel the world and take pictures for National Geographic. First envision what that life and career looks like, make sure that is truly the way you want to live and then look at the steps to get there. You’d need to be trained well in photography, maybe go to school for it. You’d want to talk to those in that profession, maybe interview one. Once you find out how to get into a career like that you can plan the steps. It’s all possible if you are willing to make the sacrifices to get there. You must envision yourself making those sacrifices and accept them too.
If you are unsure what you feel passionate about, what will bring your life purpose, try adding some new experiences to your life and setting smaller goals. Like taking a ceramics class or joining a book club. Getting better at an art, sport or other skill and reading new books are always good goals. You never know what might spark your passion and purpose. When I first started Muay Thai I had no idea it would bring so much purpose to my life. It was just a side activity that I made a goal to get better at and it blossomed into my life’s work. Just goal setting and achieving in general will bring you a sense of accomplishment and start a positive snowball effect of meaningful things in your life.
With consistent goal setting you will maximize your chances of finding something purposeful in your life. You will know when you have found something worthy of purpose in your life because you will feel on fire, on the verge of obsession. That one thing will drive you, define you and make you want to be a better person.
The third definition of purpose is just as important. Without it we will not be able to tackle and achieve our goals.
3. Purpose, noun: determination; resoluteness.
You not only have to envision yourself making your goals, you have to believe in yourself wholeheartedly and have a huge amount of conviction that you will achieve them. I know this to be true firsthand as a fighter. No one becomes a champion without first believing it, but also no one becomes a great doctor, writer, banker, scientist, without passion and belief. Most people are familiar with writing down their New Year’s resolutions. It’s a good practice to set change in motion, but I prefer to make a yearly goal list, tack it to my fridge and work on my goals all year. Recently I started taking it a step further and writing down my most important goal in an affirmative paragraph. Detailing specifics of how I will achieve the goal and when. I read it out loud every morning before work. This practice has done wonders for my focus and purpose.
Your purpose is not static.
One last part of the purpose equation is that purpose is dynamic. What passionately drives us today, we may not feel the same about tomorrow. It’s okay to fall out of love with something that was important to you and change direction. What matters is that we strive to live a purpose driven life. That we find things that are meaningful to us, work hard to get them, feel rewarded by those outcomes, learn from our experiences and let them enhance our happiness. In this way we can be truly healthy from the inside out.