The following guest post was generously created by Brittany Balke, who I bonded with initially over lack of sleep in motherhood and chronic pain on instagram. We share a background in the field of physical therapy and share a similar perspective on health and wellness, so if you enjoy my content, you will value hers as well. Brittany is an experienced mom who helps others let go of the guilt and focus on their wellness according to their values, not what society or someone else is telling us.
Few things turn your world upside down like becoming a parent, whether for the first time or the umpteenth time.
Good health becomes more valuable than ever as you expend your energy between babies and big kids and everything else in your life. And yet, the time and mental energy you have for taking care of yourself is also more limited than ever!
So I’m not here today to add rules to your list. In fact, I’d actually like to tell you about three health rules that you can just drop ASAP. I’ve listed a few guidelines for what you might do instead, but they are exactly that: guidelines.
“There are good foods and there are bad foods.”
We can also replace the words “good” and “bad” with words like “healthy” and “junk” or “clean” and “garbage” (all vocabulary I’ve heard in real life). This is called moralizing of food choices, and it can pack some hefty unintended consequences. There’s benefit to changing to a mindset that food is just food, and there are multiple ways it can nourish us, even if it is not the most nutritious option. Food can and does nourish us nutritionally, but it can also nourish us socially, emotionally, and spiritually.
This is called moralizing of food choices, and it can pack some hefty unintended consequences
Typically, people will label food as “bad” or “junk” because it is perceived as being less nutritious. I say “perceived” rather than “is” because sometimes food moralizing comes with unsound claims about nutrition. For example, carbohydrates are typically demonized; however, they are highly important for multiple functions of the body, not the least of which is mood and energy regulation. Chemicals are another misunderstood component of food, particularly because the definition of “chemicals” isn’t consistent among different claims. If you want to learn the basics of nutrition needs, ChooseMyPlate.gov is a great place to start. If you need more personalized help, a registered dietitian can help you best address your individual needs while honoring science and research evidence.
“Okay that’s fine, but what happens when I emotionally eat this whole box of cookies because I’ve decided they’re no longer bad?” The funny thing about that is restriction—such as occurs when we moralize foods as bad or junky—is more likely to lead to that binge than a more mindful approach. It’s also more often associated with negative self talk: “I ate the garbage food, therefore, I’m gross.” Now of course, that’s not true: eating “bad“ foods doesn’t make you “gross“ any more than eating “good” foods makes you a Nobel Peace Prize candidate. But this is where our minds tend to wander the moment we label our foods this way, and this can also contribute to overconsumption. The book Intuitive Eating and its workbook explain this in further detail.
Now, with that said, I DO understand the importance of not letting social or emotional nourishment overshadow your nutritional needs. Instead of seeing food as good and bad, you can begin to mindfully notice what kind of nourishment you’re seeking and receiving. Spend a couple or a few days recording what you ate and why. (The I Ate app is an awesome way to do this. It’s pre-set with prompts about your emotions and hunger and other circumstances). How hungry were you? How did you feel before and after you ate? If you’re consistently turning to food for emotional or social nourishment and ignoring the nutrition component, that information can help you make more choices to nourish those areas of your life with things other than food.
Rule # 2
“If I’m going to exercise, I need to do the whole workout, as shown, and it needs to feel hard.”
To clarify, I don’t want to discourage anyone from challenging herself, nor do I want to encourage anyone to deviate from an exercise program prescribed by a clinician or a good personal trainer. The issue is in feeling like you have to push through long workouts exactly as shown in the streaming service or class, you have to avoid modifications at all costs, etc. It’s the “go big or go home” philosophy.
There are two main issues with this philosophy: the first is that “going big,” for people beginning a fitness regimen or recovering from injury or childbirth, can result in working out at a higher capacity than what their body can optimally handle. This can lead to injury or unnecessary levels of pain. Instead, know that it’s okay to take advantage of the modifications offered and/or to reduce the time spent exercising. Then time and intensity can be increased as fitness levels increase.
The other problem with “go big or go home” is that, if we know we can’t “go big” for whatever reason, we think the only other option really is to “go home,” do nothing. “I don’t have time for the 45 minute workout today, I guess I’ll just do it tomorrow.” “I’m pretty sore. I should just skip this one.” “Ugh, I missed working out the last two days…might as well just skip today, too.”
There are legitimate reasons to completely skip exercise; however, there are also ways to adjust your work out rather than eliminate it altogether. Exercise is dose dependent, meaning something is always better than nothing! So you don’t need to push yourself to your absolute limits and beyond to see results. You just have to do *something* and be consistent with it.
Exercise is dose dependent, meaning something is always better than nothing! So you don’t need to push yourself to your absolute limits and beyond to see results.
Baby woke up? No worries, do whatever part of the workout that you can safely do with baby around. No time? You can try for ten minutes of the workout or a few counter pushups between work tasks.
If you have clinician-prescribed exercises, prioritize those. Everything else can be modified to fit your needs!
“A fit and healthy mom has a specific look and body size.”
Oh, momma, if I could only tell you how many women I’ve spoken to who have been congratulated on their good health because of their size, only to confide that they lost their pregnancy weight due to extreme anxiety or disease. Conversely, I’ve met plenty of women with a curvier or larger figure who function at high capacity in all the most important areas of their lives!
Health is much more about honoring your body’s optimal function and your individual values than it is about fitting into a certain size pair of pants. That isn’t to say body size is not a factor in our health. It can be. But we tend to overemphasize its importance. Plus, body size can be more difficult to control than we’re made to believe by popular media.
Instead of pinning your health goals to a very specific size, shape, or look, it can be more helpful to look at habits and function and let body size changes come along as they may. Can your body do what you need it to do in order to live your life’s values? Do your current habits support your body’s function, again, in line with your values? What I mean by that is, you don’t have to make yourself a triathlete if competing in a triathlon wouldn’t serve your values and needs. You are allowed to say, “I want to have enough energy to play with children and to do what I can to live a long life with them” just as much as the college athlete is allowed to say, “I want to be strong and agile enough to beat my opponent.” You’re also allowed to have different needs and values now than you did five years ago or even five months ago.
If you are having trouble figuring out your values, you can take a simple version of a values inventory by finding a list of core values online, picking the twenty or so that stick out the most to you, and then listing those in order of importance. From there, you can determine how your current state of health is or is not serving those values. I doubt “looking like J Lo” (though I understand the desire!) will be necessary from this perspective, and it will give you the room to focus on what truly matters the most!
If you are having trouble figuring out your values, you can take a simple version of a values inventory … From there, you can determine how your current state of health is or is not serving those values.
I hope that the permission to let go of these rules gives you the time and space that you need as a mom and as a whole person. Alex and I are rooting for you, and we’d love to hear from you if you need help or have questions.
About the Author: Brittany Balke is an ACE Certified Health Coach and a physical therapist assistant in Colorado. She has dedicated much of her time working in healthcare to understanding the psychology behind wellness, and she enjoys helping clients cultivate their healthiest life from the perspective of their values and needs. Brittany is the director of Annunciation Wellness, an evidence-based clinic for coaching and medical nutrition therapy services. She is also a wife and mom of three.