‘Listen to your body‘…We hear this phrase a lot when it comes to health and fitness – but for many of us, we’re not 100% sure what we are listening to, or what it’s telling us.
Firstly – the body is complex and constantly changing, so reading it’s signals can be really difficult and secondly – every single body is different. I think that’s even more important to remember. Your body is unique to you and you should NEVER compare the way it looks, responds or behaves with anyone else’s.
One of the most challenging aspects of knowing how to listen to what our body is telling us, is actually understanding and knowing a bit about it first.
This may be an area where women are possibly more ‘attuned’ than men and only because of some of the physical changes our bodies endure over our lifetimes. Monthly changes, pregnancy and menopause all bring on enormous changes to the body they are occurring in – and again, they are different for everyone.
Also – for those involved in the health and fitness industry, or just those who have made it a big part of their lives – we do tend to learn more about the body and how it works, and as a result, understand it a little better. That, however, does not mean we don’t abuse it as a result! Practising what we preach isn’t always a given!
Pregnancy definitely made me much more attuned to my body than I had ever been before. It was the first time in my life I really ‘listened’ to what it was telling me in terms of food, rest and exercise – as it wasn’t all about me anymore – my job was to grow and nurture this little (must have done an OK job – as now not so little!) person inside me. I actually found this pretty scary to be honest. I used to be a bit of a control freak at that age (my 20’s) so I think pregnancy and motherhood totally slammed that – ‘cos you have very little control over either!
I lived life a mile to the minute at that time in my life. I was young, so figured I wouldn’t be that tired, I’d continue to have a really healthy diet and exercise pretty much as normal with a few amendments for safety ……yeah right!!! I was so exhausted…. 5pm felt like midnight and I developed the ability to fall asleep, standing up, with my eyes open! My body forced me to rest. I didn’t have bad morning sickness, but I did feel pretty nauseous and ALL I wanted to eat, was thick slices of white bread with butter and french fries – usually all at once in the worlds most gigantic chip butty (😋) !!!! Everything I never touched! I was also underweight when I found out I was pregnant, so I was told I had to gain a bit of weight in those first few months, for safety – so I did. It wasn’t about me – it was about the baby. I was able to get my diet back on track from about 16 weeks (fries stayed with me though – after all … I owed them… so we became friends!!) , so it all evened out – but I learned to listen to my body at that time for what it needed. I think my body was actually pretty malnourished when I fell pregnant, as I was going through a tough time, so I started to listen to the foods I craved to aid that re-nourishment . I ate very little dairy pre pregnancy (total fad phase!) and I craved it so badly – cheese especially…. so I ate it. Needless to say my daughter loves cheese as much as I do now! I was really enjoying, for the first time in my life, ‘listening’ to what my body wanted vs forcing on it whatever I thought it needed because of something I had read or heard.
When it came to exercise – the kind of distance running and gym work I normally did, just didn’t feel right at all. In fact – it felt at odds with everything my body was trying to tell me – so I stopped. I didn’t stop exercising (more on that kind of ‘listening ‘ later) , but I started walking, swimming and antenatal yoga instead, which suited my new , highly inflated shape! Some people are lucky enough to continue to train as normal, and as long as you know it’s safe and you were already exercising pre-pregnancy – then no-one should pass judgement on this. For me, this wasn’t possible – who knows…. maybe as I was underweight and not in the best condition going into my pregnancy… it was my body’s way of telling me to take a less ‘aggressive’ approach to exercise whilst I was pregnant.
Pregnancy really let me become attuned to the signals my body was giving me and I am really thankful for this. It has not only made me more appreciative of my body nearly 20 years (lord how did that happen!!) later, but really helped me when I needed that level of understanding again to deal with a serious illness.
When it comes to ‘listening to your body’ with health issues – I become quite serious. You, and only you, know what is ‘normal’ for your body. Your GP, even if you are lucky enough to see the same one regularly (this is more normal in NZ, but not at all normal in the UK) is only taking the information you give them, adding this to some standardised tests and even more standardised charts and telling you their thoughts. If you know something really doesn’t feel right, vis-a-vis your normal , then please, please – push to see a specialist or have further investigation. So many critical illnesses are left too long and become life threatening (or worse) because they were not detected early enough. Make it your role to ensure you take control of this by truly listening to your body and getting answers. This goes for our kids as well.
I learned a whole new appreciation for my body after my surgery. I had been given a second chance so I was going to be kind and honest with it – I owed it a huge thank you! Yoga really helped with this too. Yoga teaches great body awareness and connection between mind and body.
I am the first to admit, I have a tendency to push my body very, very hard. I don’t really know what an ‘off’ button looks like! Hell – when it comes to computers, I barely know what any of the buttons look like – so only struggling with the ‘off’ button is pretty good going for me!!!
After my operation, my body really forced me to slow down and I learnt to listen in a whole new way. For the first time in my life, I discovered rest – real rest. The astonishing thing about the brain, is that it controls EVERYTHING that you do. So, if it is exhausted (which post brain surgery it’s just a tad knackered!) you cannot function properly – physically or mentally. If you push too hard the consequences are not pleasant and pretty scary to be honest, so you have no choice but to do what it tells you. An operation of this size (like chemo and radio) also has much longer term effects, so rest becomes a normal and essential part of life going forward. Don’t beat yourself up about it, as I know there are days when its truly frustrating not to have the energy of those around you, but work with your body and treat it with respect. Be kind. Be gentle.
When it comes to exercise (assuming there are no major illnesses) – it’s sightly different in my opinion. In fact – the honest truth is we are divided into two camps here and you need to be really honest with yourself as to which camp you sit in. Is exercise something you do regularly? or are you someone who knows they need to, but will find any excuse not to?
Firstly – exercise is good for the mind and body – we know this. Therefore, it needs to be a regular part of our lives to keep us healthy and able to live the best life we can. We’re all different and all enjoy different kinds of exercise – so once you’ve found your groove – stick with it. If you train very regularly, and even a bit of a ‘Type A’ (guilty as charged) so you tend to ‘overdo’ it at times, which can cause injury, exhaustion and spiked cortisol levels – then you must listen to what your body tells you and if you feel pain, are injured or just plain exhausted – then rest and know you might need to either slow down or change what you are doing. Maybe incorporate more yoga, pilates or stretching into your regime to give your body some ‘calm’.
Where you need to be cautious of the ‘listen to your body’ and it giving you the ‘no-go’, is for those who are desperate to get into shape, need to lose weight for health reasons or know they really struggle with motivation. For this group you are going to need to block out the mind and body a little and know that a new exercise programme will make your muscles sore (you are not injured), it will be hard work and some days you really won’t feel like training – but hang on in there! I often find the days I least feel like it – I have the most rewarding training sessions… because I persevered. I feel even better about my achievements and that gives me drive, energy and motivation for the rest of the day.
Where we all need to pay attention when we exercise though – are the areas of true pain. Especially breathing, head or chest pain. None of these are OK and you must stop and see a doctor. And when it comes to injury – torn muscles, joint issues and back pain – again, stop and get these treated.
I’ve been a complete idiot at various times in my life and decided to ‘work through the pain’…. yeah… this never ends well! I once literally crawled to the osteo with three slipped discs in my spine – the pain was hideous and I couldn’t even walk! ‘Tell me how you think this happened’ he said…. ‘well’… I say….’it’s been really sore for weeks but yesterday I piggybacked a 6ft, 12 stone man around the park at army bootcamp and I was in pure agony after’. (PS. I am 5 ft tall and weigh under 8 stone!) Now, usually I do the swearing during an osteo treatment (it f**king hurts!). On this occasion, roles were reversed ! ‘For f**ks sake Leanne, are you joining the army?’……’Errr…. no’….I reply, mortified at my stupidity…..’then for f**ks sake find something much smaller to carry…. like groceries!’
You’ll be pleased to know, I have unblocked my ears (!), now listen to my body much more intently, and unless under the influence, really try not to piggyback anyone over the age of 10… cos post that number, they are always bigger than me!