Staying Healthy in Hard Times: Self-Accountability and Grace

I want to be the type of person who never misses a workout, always prepares healthy meals, gets outside activity in each day, and doesn’t have a wandering mind during mindfulness practice. 

Sometimes my life looks something like that, but sometimes I’m living in the midst of a global pandemic. Or health problems. Or family dysfunction. I’ve been divorced, I’ve lost jobs, I’ve had PMS. In other words, I’m human like you and life is always unpredictable and oftentimes hard.

When the struggle is oh so real, healthy living can become tricky. Particularly when it comes to balancing self-accountability and grace. 

  • On one hand, we are always responsible (even when it’s hard) for making choices to take care of our bodies. We are solely accountable for going farther, pushing harder, showing up, eating more produce than ice cream, and not straying from our long-term goals.
  • On the other hand, that responsibility for taking care of our bodies includes getting enough sleep, enough rest, enough play, enough pleasure. We are accountable for saying no, setting up boundaries, and monitoring our mental health to ensure we don’t overexert our way into the hospital. 

It can be hard enough to strike a balance between pushing ourselves and recharging our batteries when times are good. What about when it’s challenging to get out of bed in the morning? When you are so consumed with immediate concerns that taking care of your health doesn’t seem to fit on your to-do list?

If you’re maxed out and burnt out and aren’t sure if you should force health habits or give yourself a break, here are three concepts to remember.

1. Do Your Best—Nothing More, Nothing Less

In Don Miguel Ruiz’s book The Four Agreements (a little Toltec self-help book that’s truly worth a read), the fourth agreement is Do Your Best

I used to associate the concept of doing my best with always pushing, striving, and forcing. I thought doing my best actually meant needing to be the best at all times. What it really means is doing the best I can do in the unique moment I’m living in right now. 

Ruiz puts it this way:

“Under any circumstance, always do your best, no more and no less. But keep in mind that your best is never going to be the same from one moment to the next. Everything is alive and changing all the time, so your best will sometimes be high quality, and other times it will not be as good. When you wake up refreshed and energized in the morning, your best will be better than when you are tired at night. Your best will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick, or sober as opposed to drunk. Your best will depend on whether you are feeling wonderful and happy, or upset, angry, or jealous.” 

The best you can do when you’re working from home, homeschooling your kids, behind on your bills, and exhausted by the news cycle is different than the best you can do when all is well. 

The first step is accepting that life is seasonal, so perfect consistency in your health journey is never possible. When things are better than average, perform better than average. When things are hard, do what you can and let that be enough.

2. Health Is More Than Sweat and Broccoli

Over decades, one comprehensive study followed the lives of 1,222 men split into two groups: men who lived as usual and those taught health habits like exercising more, eating better, maintaining a healthy weight, and quitting cigarettes. 

You’d think one group would be clearly healthier and less likely to die early. As it turns out, those healthy habits didn’t matter much for men who still:

  • Worked too hard
  • Didn’t sleep enough
  • Didn’t take long enough vacations

In fact, the heathy habits group increased their mortality rate by 37% if they took less than three weeks of vacation each year.

What’s this mean for us? 

Being accountable for your health and offering yourself grace isn’t an either/or equation. You need to do push-ups and you also need to lounge. Taking breaks and relishing in pleasurable activities aren’t cheats—they keep you alive.

3. It’s Never All-or-Nothing

Too often in the pursuit of healthy living, we take on an all-or-nothing model. Either I’m working out hard and eating well each day or I already messed up once—so screw it!—I’m going to dive into a whole bag of chips and skip the gym all month.

An all-or-nothing mindset always ends in “nothing” because “all” is unsustainable forever. There is a middle ground.

  • You’re worn out and overburdened, but you committed to daily exercise. Instead of two extremes—staying on the couch all night or physically overdoing it with a hard push workout—take a yin/restorative yoga class or go for a long, leisurely neighborhood walk.
  • You’re stressed and sad and crave comfort food, but you committed to healthy eating. Instead of two extremes—depriving your taste buds of simple joys or binging on all the fat and sugar—order your favorite take-out pizza, but load it up with extra veggie toppings. Bake a warm dessert, but choose something like an oatmeal fruit crisp.

Always—but especially when life’s tough—find freedom in happy mediums.

Take Care of Yourself 

No matter the season of life, there’s no formula for perfectly balancing healthy habits with giving yourself a break. And nobody else can give you fail-proof directions. You must get good at knowing yourself and then trusting that knowing.

Ask yourself what you need to be well in this present moment. Maybe your answer will be hot yoga. Maybe it will be a hot cookie. Either way, fierce self-accountability and unabashed self-grace are friends … not enemies.

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