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Moving to wellness while practicing body neutrality
Elizabeth Pegg Frates, MD, FACLM, DipABLM,
Most people want to feel energized and experience a sense of vitality. In the 1970s, Dr. John Travis created a spectrum of wellness, with illness on one side, a point of neutrality in the middle (when a person has no signs or symptoms of disease), and on the other side wellness.
Wellness is a state of health and flourishing beyond simply not experiencing illness. In this state people feel confident, open to challenges, curious, and thirsty for action. They are thriving. People who experience wellness may seek to hike a mountain, read a new book, learn how to play a new instrument, or actively connect with new people.
The most common health conditions facing people today include heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and cancer. When people are experiencing these (and other) conditions, they fall into the illness side of the spectrum. Lifestyle factors that put you at risk for developing these conditions include smoking, alcohol substance use disorder, lack of exercise, sleep deprivation, and a diet rich in processed foods, sugar, saturated fat, and artificial flavors. An unhealthy weight is another factor that can put one at risk for these conditions, especially carrying extra weight around your midsection.
To move to the wellness side of the spectrum, you can include more movement in your day; enjoy a whole-food (unprocessed), plant-predominant style of eating; avoid smoking; sleep seven to nine hours a night; practice stress reduction techniques like deep breathing, yoga, meditation, tai chi, and mindfulness; and spend time with family and friends.
Think about what your body can do for you — and what you can do for your body
People of many sizes and shapes can be healthy and well, especially when they are connected to a calm mind that is practicing mindfulness, self-compassion, and a growth mindset. A body that is in the neutral point on the wellness spectrum can move to the side of thriving and flourishing when healthy lifestyle habits are adopted and sustained, and that has little to do with your body’s shape or size.
The body neutrality movement emphasizes the incredible functions, actions, and physiology of our bodies without regard for how our bodies look. We can see, hear, smell, taste, and feel. We can jump, skip, sing, hug, and dance. Our muscles have mitochondria that give us energy.
Our digestive system is one example of the wondrous process of the body. The digestive system has billions of microbes living in it that help us to ferment fiber from vegetables, fruits, and whole grains, and create short-chain fatty acids that help us with energy metabolism, glucose metabolism, lipid metabolism, inflammation, immunity, and more. This is why it’s important to eat fiber, including whole grains, vegetables, and fruits.
Connected to our bodies are our brains, and they are full of neurons (brain cells), synapses (connections), neurochemicals, and hormones that help to protect brain cells and make new ones. Moving our bodies helps to increase these chemicals. In addition, moving our bodies regularly helps us to increase serotonin, which may help us feel less anxious and depressed. Hugging increases oxytocin in the brain, and this "love hormone" helps us feel a sense of belonging and bonding. The body’s actions have a powerful impact on the brain, and vice versa.
Body positivity versus body neutrality
Body positivity is a movement that invites people to appreciate the body size and shape they have now without worrying about unrealistic body standards. With body positivity, society’s unhealthy standards for body shapes and sizes are challenged. It’s also important to remember that cultural norms and what’s considered an ideal body change with time.
The goal with body positivity is to honor and appreciate all body types, especially your own body. Feeling confident about the way you look feels good and can be empowering.
With body neutrality, the focus is on the function of your body: finding happiness and fulfillment, appreciating the power of our muscles, the strength of our bones, the protection our skin offers, and the rewards of the dopamine system in our brains. Connecting with friends and family, reaching small, meaningful goals, and enjoying physical activity are healthy ways to approach your body. A focus on finding pleasure in the wellness journey will serve your body — at any size — and your brain.
Remember all the things your body can do for you
- Transport you from one place to another (quickly or slowly)
- Release neurochemicals that give you pleasure, like from hugging a loved one
- Move your arms and/or legs with joy following the rhythm and beat of music
- Take deep breaths to calm your mind
- Perform stretches that release endorphins
- Practice yoga, tai chi, or qigong, which can help calm the body and mind.
About the Author
Elizabeth Pegg Frates, MD, FACLM, DipABLM,
As a service to our readers, Harvard Health Publishing provides access to our library of archived content. Please note the date of last review or update on all articles.
No content on this site, regardless of date, should ever be used as a substitute for direct medical advice from your doctor or other qualified clinician.
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