Idle bodies, overloaded minds a modern problem
BY DELISE DICKARD
Believe or not, I picked out today’s column topic—our sedentary, technology-driven lifestyle—before the recent storm knocked out power in my home for three days. Like many others who rely on well water, no power for us also meant no water.
Before the storm, I’d planned a restful weekend with nothing to do but laze around on the couch with my laptop and a delectable, probably microwavable, treat. After the Friday night storm, my plans changed.
Ironically, I was already thinking about the idea that our bodies are not really designed for the sedentary lifestyle most of us live. Even a hundred years ago, it took much more physical exercise just to get clothes clean and a dinner on the table.
Could it be that our bodies—built for a different lifestyle—are screaming at us to the tune of high blood pressure, gastrointestinal distress, migraines and obesity? In the mental health profession, complaints like depression and a myriad of anxiety disorders are prevalent.
Could it be that some of what we missed out on during the power outage—TV, Internet access, microwaved meals—actually contributes to our modern health woes?
After the storm hit, it became clear that a lazy weekend was not in the cards for me. I was among the many people moving tree limbs and scrambling for water, ice and flashlight batteries. Then there was the project of hauling all the necessary stuff to the basement, where the temperature was mercifully bearable.
By the time I got to sit down to my writing—which, by the way, was now going to be scribbled on a yellow notepad with a pencil—I was simply too exhausted. And, of course, it was dark.
All of this reminded me that in a relatively short period of time, the human race has experienced radical changes to the way we live.
Consider how our relationships with four cornerstones of good health have changed:
Exercise: I’ve often thought the early settlers and the American Indians would certainly agree on one thing: that our need to create an opportunity for exercise is just crazy. For most of humanity, life involved so much physical exercise, it would be ridiculous to carve out an extra hour to lift weights or take a jog.
Diet: At lunchtime, I had the opportunity to read the ingredients in my salad dressing and wonder: So how long have humans been consuming potassium sorbate and calcium disodium EDTA and calling it “food”?
It doesn’t hurt to read a list of ingredients in the products we eat. You might be surprised at how many ingredients just don’t sound like food at all.
When I was just learning to live gluten-free and still struggling to get my gut in order, a good friend said, ‘Just eat whole food.’ What a concept. Just eat a single ingredient food like an avocado or a banana. It was astonishingly good advice.
Some of the best foods we can put into our bodies don’t require a microwave or even an oven, something I was reminded of during the outage.
Brainwork: For many of us, there’s an imbalance between the workload of our brains and our bodies. Our brains are overloaded, while our bodies are mostly inactive.
Many of us spend our days and even our leisure time barreling down the information superhighway or plopped in front a video game or a movie.
In addition to the traditional snail mail and newspaper, we now have text messages, Facebook and Twitter—just to name a few tasks requiring our mind and our fingers, but little other bodily movement.
Dare I suggest that for many of us, the body parts getting the most exercise are our fingers?
Nature: As a psychotherapist, I am trained to do a relaxation technique called “the safe place exercise.” Within the context of this exercise, the client is supposed to remember or imagine a place where there is no anxiety. It needs to be a place where the client feels perfectly at peace.
I’ve done this exercise for 10 years and, while some clients chose places like the beach or the woods or the mountains, no one has ever chosen their chair at work, staring at a computer screen or even a lazy day on a comfy couch watching a favorite show. Nature, even in our imagination, tends to be the place that calms us.
It is still out there—outside a window or just beyond our cubicle. The irony that we feel relaxed just thinking about nature when we could really just get out into it is probably not lost on most of us.
I cannot lie. I squealed with delight when my power came back on Monday afternoon. The weekend had left me with a newfound appreciation for the comforts that make our lives easier.
We have the luxury to choose our favorite exercise routines and to choose to eat more fresh fruit, nuts and vegetables that don’t require refrigeration.
The weekend also made me think we should have some technology-free zones, where conversation is not interrupted by text messages and where our brains can get a break from taking in so much information.
We also should take a walk around our office building at lunchtime, not just because exercise is good for the body, but because it might release a little tension.
Most importantly, the weekend made me think about nature. If it has such a calming effect on so many people, we really might try to spend more time there. But just not when it’s 100 degrees outside.
SIDEBAR: EXERCISING HELPS OFFSET STRESS
I’m certainly not the first to ask: What happens to us when our bodies and minds make this evolutionary shift from physical work to mental work?
I think the answer is that our minds can go into overdrive, overwhelmed with information and communication, while our bodies cannot politely release the physical tension as it arises.
When we’re stressed, our brain tells our body to go into “fight or flight” mode. Most of us know how uncomfortable that shallow breathing, rapid heartbeat, stomach churning feeling can be.
If we were running from a tiger, it would help us. But to use a more modern example, when our boss gives us a warning that our job is on the line, we can’t exactly dash out to do three laps around the building or beat him on the head with our laptop.
So instead, we smile politely and go back to our desks feeling an adrenal surge and knowing our blood pressure is rising.
What can we do? Exercise later in the day, or first thing in the morning, so that as tension rises during the workday, we do have an outlet.
Dr. Delise Dickard welcomes reader comments and questions. For contact information, see riversidecounseling .org.