If you wear a fitness tracker, log all your calories or scrutinise you sleep, you could be caught up in the cult of wellness. Here’s why many of us feel that being ‘good’ is no longer good enough.
Your timeline is probably filled with posts from fellow fitties, uploading stats from their latest run or sharing instagram pics of their green smoothie.
Or maybe you tweeted a sweaty selfie after the gym today. But while being healthy is good for us, experts now say it can also trigger feelings of guilt, anxiety and obsessive behaviour. So how can wanting to be good be bad for us?
One Small Step
When you start using an activity tracker or sharing your healthy lifestyle online, the changes are almost immediate; you push yourself to beat you previous day’s cycle target or feel a sense of pride when someone ‘Likes’ the snap of your paleo style lunch. And these are all valuable changes. ‘Self
tracking helps people learn more about their diet and activity levels, and how that can benefit their health. The evidence shows folk do lose weight,’ says Gabriel Koepp, programme manager of research operations for obesity solutions at the Mayo Clinic.
Even if you’re not overweight, the more you understand your fitness, the easier it is to improve it. Hannah Doyle, 38, a writer from London, has been wearing an activity wristband for a year and says the social element of sharing her stats keeps her on her toes quite literally. ‘You got into a league table of who’s taken the most steps that week. If I’m not top, I’ll add a few extra miles to a run, or walk instead of taking the car, to regain my crown!’ she says.
Koepp says most people stop wearing activity monitors after two to three weeks, as they’ve made sufficient changes to their lifestyle, but others want more. ‘They want to find out how fast they’ve run, how many steps they’ve taken or how many calories they’ve burned. It’s more about improving yourhealth than beating a sedentary lifestyle,’ he says. This is when you can cross the line from looking after your wellbeing to suffering from ‘wellnesssyndrome’.
Addicted To Health
Sadly, this expectation to boost your individual wellness can make you feel guilty and anxious if you’re not constantly improving. This is something
Meraid Griffin, 48, a travel blogger from Hampshire (farawayvisions.com) experienced after she started using a cycling app. ‘When I started riding, the app was a great encouragement I could w in “trophies”, with titles such as Queen of the Mountain!’ says Griffin. ‘I loved the fact I could share my rides on social media, but I started feeling embarrassed if I hadn’t gone far enough. I then started getting tetchy if my phone wasn’t fully charged before a ride, as it would die before I finished and ruin my stats. I also refused to answer calls while out cycling as I didn’t want to interrupt the app. It became an unhealthy obsession.’
Indeed, an obsession with being healthy could go on to trigger anxiety and other health issues, says Professor Andre Spicer, co author of The Wellness Syndrome (£14.99; Polity Press). ‘People who use sleep tracking devices can became fixated with sleeping. In the past, they may have just brushed off a bad night’s sleep problems.’ London based psychologist Amanda Hills (amandahills.co.uk) also warns disordered exercise behaviours could, in some cases, lead to disordered eating. ‘If you didn’t swim 20 lengths, for example, you may say you won’t eat something as “punishment”.’
Feeling Good Vs Being Good
We now live in a culture where taking care of yourself is accepted as a no brainer; most of us know that junk food + sofa = bad, but greens + activity = good. But it goes beyond that. We know which type of exercise is best for burning fat, which for building stamina which sugar is ok in moderation, which to cut back on. So much so, things have escalated to the extent that those who are not. Experts are calling this shift ‘the new age of biomorality’, where feeling good is indistinguishable from being good.
‘It’s the idea that trying to maximise your health and happiness makes you a morally better person,’ says Professor Spicer. So if you’re not hitting the dance studio once a week, cooking with quinoa or doing mindfulness meditation twice a day, you think you’re a failure. ‘It’s not just about staying relatively healthy and happy, but turning up the volume to maximum being the best at being “good”, ‘explains Professor Spicer.
Hills agress that we’re increasingly more worried about being healthy, rather than simply living a healthy lifestyle. ‘Health and fitness can become an addiction. It’s a better addiction than other things, such as drugs or alcohol, but it’s still an addiction,’ she says. If you’re fixated on improving your diet and exercise regime, it stops being something you enjoy as part of a balanced lifestyle. ‘If you set yourself the target of swimming 20 lengths, but only manage 18, you can start to feel bad. This then takes away all the pleasure and some of the benefits of having a lovely swim,’ she says.
One surprising reason that experts believe is responsible for the rise in our obsession with wellbeing is not increasing obesity levels or out recent
Olympic success; it’s teh fact that many of us currently feel we lack control over our own lives. ‘We have less control over our work as companies continue to downsize, we don’t feel we can trust politicians and there are atrocities happening everywhere,’ says Professor Spicer. ‘But we have control over our bodies, so we subconsciously focus on them instead.’ The decline of traditional communities means we can also feel isolated, so we look inward, pushing ourselves to eat better, sleep better, be better.
Bringing Healthy Back
So how do you know if you’re just enjoying sharing some fitspo (aka fitness inspiration) on Pinterest, or if you’re caught up in the cult of wellness? Answer the questions below as honestly as you can.
1 Do you constantly check your fitness apps, or post and retweet diet and exercise updates?
2 Is being ‘healthy’ stopping you doing other things that make you happy and crowding out activities you used to enjoy?
3 Do other areas of your life feel out of control?
4 Have loved ones noticed your obsession with wellness getting in the way of your relationships?
5 Is staying fit and well interrupting your work, or affecting the quality of your work?
6 Do you feel like a failure if you haven’t hit your exercise targets or if you’ve gone over your calorie allowance?
7 Is your anxiety about not exercising stronger than the desire to simply do some exercise?
8 Do you look down on those who don’t invest so much energy into their diet and wellbeing?
If you answered ‘yes’ to three or more of the above questions, you may be suffering from wellness syndrome. See ‘how to beat wellness syndrome’ (below, left) for some useful tips on how to get a healthy balance back in your life.
The good news is you can enjoy exercise and eating well again, by seeing it not just as goals that need to be perfected and achieved. ‘I beat my obsession after a very rainy day meant I didn’t want to take my phone out with me, ‘says Meraid. ‘I realised I’d been so focused on improving my speed that I’d missed out on all the wonderful things happening around me. Now, I’m able to relax and enjoy cycling for it’s own sake again.’
While no one is suggesting that staying fit and well is bad for you, obsessing about your wellbeing can do you more harm than good. So why not treat yourself to a day off the training regime and stay away from Instagraming those salads? Try to enjoy being healthy rather than doing healthy, just for one day. Even if you’re doing it better than everyone else…
How to beat wellness syndrome
Psychologist Amanda Hills offers her top tips for helping you regain a healthy balance
Try not to see exercise as ‘work’ it should be something you enjoy. Find something that brings joy and a bit of fun back into your fitness regime.
Are you a runner or a swimmer? These fitness regimes can become very addictive as it’s easy to see your numbers rack up then try to beat them. Mix up your training so you include other sports.
Sign up for yoga lessons. Yoga encourages you to deatch from exercise goals, helping you relax and get away from the numbers game of other activities.
Do something social, such ass dance classes. You’ll enjoy the interaction with other people, and it means you’re not doing an individual isolating. activity. It’s also really good fun!
Be mindful of obsessive behaviour around fitness or healthy eating. If you can catch it, you can stop it escalating.