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29 January 2020

Self-Care & Creating A Eudaemonic You

by Lyndon Purcell 0

Being a personal-trainer can be hard—like anything in life really. No one was ever promised that their time here on earth would be easy. With that considered, there are some particulars that about coaching for a profession that make it more challenging than other jobs.  Just to be clear, I am certainly not saying that…


Being a personal-trainer can be hard—like anything in life really. No one was ever promised that their time here on earth would be easy.

With that considered, there are some particulars that about coaching for a profession that make it more challenging than other jobs. 

Just to be clear, I am certainly not saying that it is the hardest job in the world— and I think we should all be grateful for the opportunity to do it for a living—however those who do it, do have my sympathies for a variety of reasons.

Number one reason is sleep. Getting enough is hard when you work split-shifts, you might be starting at 5am and finishing at 8pm some days. 

“But you get the middle of the day to yourself”all your friends say. 

Yes, this is true. However, displaying the same level of effort and attention at time points that are separated by more than 12 hours can be difficult and confusing to your circadian rhythm. I know most coaches would much prefer to condense their split-shifts and be able to relax at the end of the day, when you feel like you can actually switch-off. No matter how much time you have to yourself in the middle, completely unwinding is basically impossible when you know you have to be back to your bubbly-best again in a few hours. Not the worst thing, but a factor.

Number two—adding to the circadian confusion of split shifts—is the irregularity of working hours. Even the most seasoned vet’s, with full client-lists still get late cancellations and experience seasonal fluctuations in workload. Throughout a working week you might start work at three different times, depending on when your first client is that morning. Monday might be 5am, Tuesday 6am, Wednesday 5.30am, Thursday 6am, Friday 5am. And that’s before you even consider you could intentionally schedule yourself to work a Saturday but give yourself a late start. This lack of consistency adds up.

This then begs the question of what you do with your late starts. We know it’s recommended to have a pretty consistent sleep-wake cycle, so should you wake up each morning as if you were going to be starting work at 5am? Most likely not. In a population that is typically under-slept already, the extra time in bed (hopefully asleep) is probably of greater value. It’s important to be aware though that this inconsistency of sleep-wake time (and your caffeine addiction) is much more likely causing your lethargy and morning-grogginess than “adrenal fatigue”. 

On top of this comes number three; which is the people-issue. Depending on where you score on the personality scale of Introversion-Extroversion, your tolerance for people (and other related things such as small-talk) will differ. Regardless, you WILL have a threshold either way. 

Coaching involves working with people though, and if left unmanaged, the people-focused work required of personal trainers can cause serious disruptions to social behaviour. I’ve talked to many young coaches over the years and a large portion of them report not realising initially how socially-drained coaching can make you feel. You don’t want to be that person who spends their entire downtime hiding from people because you’ve overshot your social threshold at work.

Personally, I score above 90% for Introversion on a number of standardized personality tests, and coaching has posed serious questions, concerns and internal struggles for me a number of times. However, it is manageable. With experience I learn more and more about what it takes to survive as an Introvert in a heavily Extroverted profession. It may require sacrifices and a carefully considered social-life, but it can be done. So if you’re reading this, and feeling the same struggles, know that you can overcome it—if this is truly what you want to do.

Introversion aside, you might be the most durable and outgoing Extrovert imaginable, however working with people still poses problems. 

Part of being a good coach is caring. In order to care, you must be sensitive and sympathetic to other people’s goals, feelings and overall life circumstances. Unfortunately though, the world can be a rough place, and a lot of unpleasant things will happen to good people, whether they deserve it or not. This includes the people you coach and care about. They will all tell you things that are hard to hear regarding the problems they are facing in life, and by the end of the day you will have likely acquired more problems than you have solved. This can be a significant burden and can take a serious psychological toll if left unchecked.

These are just a few of the elements that make coaching, at times, a difficult profession. It’s certainly not the worst job in the world though and I’m not suggesting that at all. I am just trying to highlight the typical challenges it poses. 

However, they aren’t insurmountable, and you shouldn’t necessarily feel sorry for yourself for experiencing them—it could be a lot, LOT worse. I am just making the point of noting them as this means we may just need to be a little more proactive with our “self-care” and sustainment processes.
 
As a general rule, most people are pretty shocking at maintaining adequate self-care. However the people who end up in professions such as personal training, where you must give a lot in order to provide your best service, tend to be even worse than most. The same goes for almost all health-care professionals, which is a sad irony. We get stuck in a cycle of giving, because that’s what the job demands.

Because of thiss self-care will always wax and wane as a priority. You make it priority until you forget again, and it’s typically not until something really hits you and you realise that you had been neglecting it before you start to refocus on it again. It requires a process of constant monitoring and refinement—so consider this article a reminder. Don’t get it twisted, none of us are invincible.

In addition to this, self-care shouldn’t be thought of as inherently selfish—quite the opposite in fact. If you do not operate on the assumption that you must take responsibility for your own sustainment, you are expecting that either someone else, or no one else will. This means you are either relying on other people or going to decay so rapidly that you cannot provide any assistance to anyone else. Both of these are ultimately more-selfish/less-selfless than a little bit of you-time is. As the saying goes: you cannot pour from an empty cup.

The Concept of Eudaemonia

In the title of this article I used the word eudaemonic, which admittedly isn’t a widely known word, but one that I think aptly describes what we should be striving for—whether you’re a coach or not. 

The word originates from ancient Greece and has more a conceptual translation than a completely literal one. Eudaemoniaroughly means holistic wellness, human flourishing and/or conducive to happiness.

This isn’t only relevant to self-care, but also, as far as the Greeks thought, is the ultimate goal of living. They recognised that a good life was never accidental but required careful cultivation. Furthermore, elements that had to be addressed extended beyond just the physical, but also to the mental, ethical, spiritual and intellectual. Eudaemonia required the health and development of all these categories. Keep that multidisciplinary approach to well-being in mind.

Now, remember how I mentioned that stepping up your self-care typically only comes after you realise how much you let it slip? Well, I’m no different.  

The reason I decided to write this piece is because I recently found myself at the bottom of a self-care valley, and I thought it might be worthwhile sharing some of the steps I took to overcome it. 

The following is a little description of where I found myself a few months ago, followed by some of the processes that I put in place to rectify the situation, which I will split across a two-part series.

I didn’t do anything drastic, and the steps were all pretty obvious ones, but reading this might be a nice reminder for you about some things you may have been neglecting of late. Even if you feel like you have been maintaining adequate self-care, remember that the year is young, and it’ll be 12 months long—just like the last one, and the one before that. Put good systems in place now, if you can, before you find yourself in a deeper hole than you realised you were digging.

Where I Was At

Now, this isn’t a “Dear Diary” type blog-post, where I tell you all about my emotions, I just want to give you an idea of my physical and mental state when I recognised I needed to do something about it. Some of it might sound familiar to you, and thus the steps I took may be appropriate or at least informative.

As is common practise for fitness enthusiasts, I had been intentionally gaining some weight over the autumn/winter/spring period so that I could bring a bit more lean mass to the summer shreds. While the weight gain was slow—and I was acquiring a worthy degree of muscle tissue along with it—I wasn’t looking my absolute best. As it typically goes, when you are gaining weight and you’ve concluded that you aren’t trying to look your absolute best, your nutrition becomes pretty lax too. I was getting sufficient protein in, and moderating my calories (you know, the only things that apparently matter if you’re “evidence-based”), but there was a significant proportion of my diet that was composed of convenience, high-palatability foods. Think: oven-pizzas, 2-minute noodles and flavoured milk. 

Now, I’m certainly not condemning myself to succumbing to such dismal levels of “dedication” to my goals or thinking that I shouldn’t have been eating in such an “unclean” manner—all I am doing is trying to illustrate the context of where I was at during this time. Both in what I was consuming and my attitude towards it. 

In addition to the above, I was performing 4-5K steps a day on average, most of which was accumulated in a bout of coaching. The rest of the day was spent at my laptop, mostly either working or finishing off my studies. And while I was spending a lot of time on my laptop, the quantity and quality of the work I was by my own standards, rather low. 

The icing on this melancholic cake, was I got my blood pressure tested, and it was 145/95 (also known as Stage-2 hypertension). Elevated blood pressure is pathological at any age, but at 26, this was a serious wake-up call—without even considering that I work in the health and fitness industry, where I am supposed to set a good example. I had consistently been turning a blind eye to my cardiovascular health, convincing myself that some resistance training 5-6 times a week was adequate exercise to keep all my internal organs and systems operating sufficiently. But as any adult should be able to comprehend; neglect doesn’t make a problem go away.

To summarise this time, my mood was grave, and that’s where my cardiovascular health indicated I was heading. Earlier than scheduled, too.

Once I recognised how deflated my sense of health, happiness and general well-being had become, I decided I had do something about it. While warmer weather was on the seasonal-horizon, and I was confident my mood was going to pick up regardless of an active intervention, I thought why waste the time? I may as well be productive, rather than passive, and take ownership of my own health and happiness. Which are more closely linked than people tend to realise. 

It is often said that “laughter is the best medicine”. I believe this to be false, but not wildly off the mark. Laughter is a great temporary alleviator of symptoms, but if you want to address the cause, happiness is the best medicine. And being happy is a lot more easily achieved if you are also healthy; the bi-directional relationship between happiness and health is profound. The two feedback into one another, compounding results—happy individuals tend to be healthier, and healthier individuals tend to be happier. 

So no matter whether you want to be happier or healthier, you must address both if you wish to ensure you make any progress. So that’s what I did.

Refilling My Cup

In this section I will outline the first broad intervention that I utilised to pick myself up from my slump, which was nutrition. While there was a number of other strategies that I employed, I have tried to reduce the discussion to the ones that are most relevant to our purposes here. Along with Nutrition, I will also made changes to my Exercise & Activity, Working Hours and Leisure Time. These latter categories I will discuss in Part 2.

I will attempt to communicate a sense of generality amongst these interventions, and highlight that many, if not all of you, would benefit in implementing the principles of them, in one way or another.


Nutrition

When people are trying to lose weight, it’s all too common to hear “I’ve been eating healthy” as the pretext to someone telling you they’ve been eating smoothie bowls for breakfast and then having a fruit juice and mixed nuts for lunch. 

We are all guilty of then jumping down someone’s throat and saying “that won’t help you lose weight; those things are all packed with calories. It doesn’t matter what you eat, you just need to eat in a calorie deficit”.

This is all mostly true, but then we go and fallaciously over-apply this logic. Just because a calorie deficit is the primary concern for weight-loss, as opposed to what someone considers to be eating healthy, does not mean than eating healthy is frivolous or that a calorie deficit is a good way in order to achieve health. 

Yes, health and weight loss are linked in certain populations­—such as the overweight and obese—but if you’re already a pretty normal bodyweight, then improving your health requires a more thoughtful nutritional approach. Undertaking this process first requires a slight adjustment in the typical fitness-enthusiasts mindset.
As an example of this, let’s use the lollies we often have on hand behind the desk at JPS. 

The typical internal dialogue I would have with myself when considering if I want to have some lollies was either cautious, and something along the lines of“can I fit this into my calories?”or the complete opposite, free-for-all approach that I found myself in late last year where you tell yourself “I’m gaining, I can eat whatever I want”

Neither of these are super-conducive to healthy eating habits, nor health in general. So instead, I changed the lens through which I was viewing nutrition. I started adopting more of an opportunity-cost mindset. If I eat this, what can’t I eat now instead?

The opportunity-cost mindset certainly isn’t uncommon to informed-eaters, and you may read that and think: I know how flexible-dieting works Lyndon, however I’m not talking about flexible-dieting. What I did was planned, and thus had minimal flexibility, and also wasn’t calorically restricted, and wouldn’t be considered a diet. Regardless, let’s first examine the variables that flexible-dieters use when employing an opportunity-cost mindset: food-quantity and calories. This results in a consideration of a food that looks something along the lines of…

“I will/will not eat X amount of lollies, based on the knowledge that I would be able to eat 10-times the amount of cucumber for the same amount of calories—if I should so desire.”  

As I said, this is a strategy employed by most flexible-dieters, and it’s a reasonable one too. Viewing food in this manner helps many dieters forgo certain unsatisfying and calorie dense foods, like lollies, for more satiating and voluminous options, like a salad, for the same caloric expense. This has established adherence benefits, among other things. 

However, I wasn’t having any adherence issues and thus it wasn’t the right tool for the job. I made a slight alteration to the opportunity-cost approach, and the variable I inserted into this equation instead of food-volume/quantity, was food-quality. I wanted to see just how many nutrients I could possibly squeeze into my body with each mouthful, meal and entire day of eating. I pretty much turned it into a competition with myself.

For example, a simple substitution I made was instead of tuna (a food that I can tolerate but isn’t overly nutrient-dense) I started eating sardines. And you know what; I don’t like sardines! 

I know the common flexible-dieting wisdom is you don’t have to eat any foods you don’t like, because there are no “magic foods”, however I don’t find that to be a convincing argument. The statement is logically true, but pragmatically irrelevant. 

For starters, I am an adult (apparently), which means I do things I don’t want to do every week, day and even hour. I brush my teeth, I pay my bills, I show up to work when I’m having a bad day, I exercise, and I do the dishes. These are all examples of things that we don’t necessarily want to do but offer superior trade-offs over the long-term. You learn to tolerate them because as an adult, you’ve developed the ability to sacrifice short-term pleasure, for a more valuable gain in the future. Sardines instead of tuna was no different.

The rest of my dietary habits followed a similar a rule. One of the meals changes I made was my afternoon snack. My deli meat and low-fat cheese sandwiches became low-fat Greek yogurt with honey, berries and nuts. 

Original Meal
Wholemeal bread
Deli Chicken
Low-fat cheese
Low-fat coleslaw dressing

Macros: Appropriate
Protein – Enough
Carbs – Plenty
Fat – Not too much to blow out my calories

Micronutrients: Could do with some work
Vitamins & Minerals – Nothing flash
Fibre – Minimal
Sodium – A fair whack

Improved Meal
Low-Fat Greek yogurt
Honey
Mixed Berries (Blueberries, Raspberries, Blackberries & Strawberries)
Mixed Nuts (Almonds, Cashews & Brazil Nuts)

Macros: Still Appropriate
Protein – Enough
Carbs – Plenty
Fat – Again, not too much to blow out my calories

Micronutrients: Significant Upgrade
Vitamins & Minerals – Put a major dint in my daily requirements
Fibre – Enough
Sodium – Much less than before

This change in meals meant a significant increase in the amount of vitamins, minerals, polyphenols, flavonoids and other nutritious compounds I was consuming. Additionally, while I was eating roughly the same amount of total fat a day, my mono and poly-unsaturated intake was way up, while my saturated and trans-fat intake was way down.

Do not misconstrue my wording here though. I am not saying: saturated fat is the devil and should be avoided at all costs. The poison is in the dose.However, what I am equally not-saying is: your saturated fat intake doesn’t matter. 

Unfortunately, people often jump from one extreme to another, once they learn not to demonise saturated fat, they become nutritional relativists provided protein and calories are in check. While this is a simple method for understanding a large swath of nutrition science, it does not mean it is the most precise version of the underlying, granular reality. 

The common rebuttal of, “it won’t kill you”, is illogical prima facie. 99.999% of variables encountered in your life won’t kill you, but an overwhelming majority of those variables impact the quantity and quality of life you have. Something to think about, maybe.

This focus on nutrient intake seems to offer relatively obvious health benefits, I mean, we all know micro’s are important for health—but what about mood and happiness benefits?

To shed some light on this topic, we can look to a 2012 paper titled: Nutrition and Depression at the forefront of progress [1]. 

(Note: I am not saying I was depressed or that fixing such a complex issue as depression can be done entirely through nutritional means. I am simply saying that this article is informative to the topic at hand.)

The paper overviews a range of nutrients and intake habits that have been linked to mood disturbances and depressive disorders, in both observational and mechanistic studies.

To quote from the article:

“there is evidence supporting the importance of nutrition in maintaining good mental health. We emphasize multiple findings that support adherence to healthy dietary patterns, taking into account that the production of neurotransmitters need, among others, right amounts of nutrients, a lot of which can only be supplied through diet. Not only certain nutrients are needed for proper brain functioning, but also others can be harmful, promoting depression. The Mediterranean diet has been linked to a low prevalence of depression while fast-food consumption has been found to increase the risk of developing and aggravating this disorder, hence the need for nutritional interventions”

The paper then goes on to examine the role that various nutrients play, including:

Amino Acids such as Tryptophan, Tyrosine, Glutamine and Phenylalanine.
Fatty Acids such as the Omega-3s.
Vitamins such as B6, B12 and Folic Acid.
Minerals such as Zinc, Copper, Iron, Magnesium and Selenium.

In isolation, you may think that none of these nutrients may do very much. But we know the body is a complex organism and requires a wide array of materials to function in an even close to ideal manner. If we realise this and provide it with a plethora of nutrients coming from high-quality foods, I think this paper shows the compounding effect of addressing various nutrient deficiencies could add up to something rather substantial.

I believe this adds significant plausibility to the idea that adopting a more quality-focused nutritional approach can aid much more than just your physical health. To the degree that psychological health is impacted by physical health—and the research does seem to show they are significantly linked—eating a more nutrient dense diet may be one of the best things you can do for your mental well-being.

Closing Time (For Now)

I will stop there for today, but in the next piece of this series I will outline the ways in which I improved my exercise, work and leisure-time habits.

I will leave you with this relevant and discerning quote by Bruce Barton as I sign-off, which is a nice reminder that the little habits we often let slip in our self-care can often have significant and substantial impacts… 

“When I consider what tremendous consequences come from little things, I am tempted to think: there are no little things”

References:

  1. Popa, T.A. and Ladea, M., 2012. Nutrition and depression at the forefront of progress. Journal of medicine and life5(4), p.414.

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