What is Deep Health?

Megan Dahlman
September 30, 2015

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​I've been ruminating on a concept that really rings true with me, and it is the concept of deep health. It was Precision Nutrition that brought up this concept, but I appreciate that so many coaches are starting to emphasize this philosophy. Deep health refers to a health that goes beyond the swimsuit and jeans, beyond the food obsessions and guilt-trips, and beyond the numbers in the gym. Deep health is a level of health that is concerned about being strong, free of injury and pain, having appropriate body fat and lean muscle, eating nutritious and beneficial foods that give you energy, sleeping deeply, playing often, and keeping it all in balance.

To be completely honest, I have always experienced an inner struggle as a personal trainer/strength coach. The fitness industry has a tendency to emphasize vanity and sexiness, putting pressure on people to out-perform, out-lean and out-clean-eat your neighbor. If you can see your obliques and you can wear a size 2, we’ve done our job. If you can stock your grocery cart full of spelt, kale, tofu and Greek yogurt (while judging the person in front of you for their box of pasta), we’ve done our job. If we can turn you into a nutrition and exercise snob that lives and breathes fitness, we’ve done our job. These are the prevailing attitudes in my industry, unfortunately. But is this true health?

I’m certainly guilty of promoting some of the above attitudes. As a trainer, I know exactly how to get you down to 10% body fat and look like a swimsuit model. I know how you should eat to get a super lean figure. I know the best exercises to tone your tush, build your bust, and carve your abs. Yup! And sometimes it’s hard to not entice you with that result (because on the surface, that might be what you want, too!). But at my core (no pun intended!), I believe it shouldn’t be about how you look and how others view you. It really needs to be about deep health.

I learned this once years ago with one of my clients. She had hip arthritis and was in constant pain. Her goal was to include regular exercise into her lifestyle to lose some weight and strengthen some muscles so she could be free of pain. I worked with her for months. During a re-evaluation I brought up the fact that she had only lost 10 pounds (her goal was 30-40) and hadn’t gained much functionality. I asked her if she was happy with where she was. She told me that she could finally sleep through the night, could walk up and down stairs without pain, and had more energy than she’d ever had. My standards were not her standards. She felt strong, wasn’t in pain, and had learned how to eat healthfully. She had found a level of deep health that totally changed her world.

I feel rejuvenated as a coach by helping to promote a deeper sense of health than just having a tight body. I can stand behind my work when I know I’m not pushing someone to focus on shallow and vain mindsets. There’s so much more to fitness!

So, my charge for you is to strive for deep health in everything. Ask yourself the following questions to see what areas you might need to work on.

1. Do you feel strong, or do you always consider yourself a wimp? Do you lack muscle tone and feel mushy? Are you injury-prone? If so, you really need to do some form of resistance training on a regular basis, whether it’s with free weights, kettlebells, a suspension trainer or your own body weight.

2. Are you in constant pain? Does your back, knees, hips, or shoulders hurt? Do something about it! A few visits with a massage therapist or physical therapist could seriously alleviate pain that you’ve been suffering through for a long time. Or you may simply need some corrective strengthening exercises. It’s probably a really simple fix!!

3. Are you carrying excess body fat? Of course being overweight is uncomfortable and it’s hard to feel confident about yourself, but it’s also very unhealthy to have excessive body fat on your frame. Women should be between 18-22% body fat, and men between 15-20%. Remember, the scale doesn’t matter as much as the calipers.

4. Do you eat well? Do you stay away from processed and packaged foods and eat fresh vegetables & fruits, lean proteins and fats, and whole grains? Or do you eat haphazardly? Get it under control. You can enjoy those less nutritious foods, but limit it to a rare occurrence. Change your mindset to eat foods that will make you healthier by eating them. (“Will this chip make me healthier?” It’s an easy question…)

5. Are you a good sleeper? Do you get at least 6 hours, preferably 8 or 9, every night? When you don’t get enough sleep, your body has a really hard time repairing itself after workouts or even injuries, your stress hormones stay elevated leading to unnecessary fat stores, and your energy levels may be in the tank. Aim to go to bed earlier and at a regular time. If you struggle with sleep, seek strategies that will improve your sleep habits. It’s more important than you think.

6. Do you play often? This one is hard for me. I tend to follow a rigid exercise program and rarely miss a single workout. Last week I substituted cross-country skiing for a regular workout, and I felt great. Gyms can get stuffy and boring. Do something different. Remember, it’s about being healthy and active overall.

7. Do you have a balanced viewpoint? Does what you eat and whether or not you get your workout done consume your thoughts? Are you constantly weighing yourself or pinching your fat, upset with how you feel? Do you have a hard time enjoying a day off or an indulgent dinner without thinking about how chubby it’s probably making you? Part of having deep health is being able to hold it all in balance. Eating nutritiously, but not obsessively. Working out frequently, but not letting it rule your life. Step back and make sure you know what’s really important to you.

You probably have some health goals. Perhaps you want to lose a little weight, tone up, eat better, stress less…that’s great! But, I challenge you to step back and see the big picture. Make sure deep health is part of your goal. Looking at the above questions, what areas do you fall short? Take the necessary action steps so you can finally find a deeper level of health for yourself.

Hey, guess what? You can start showing up for your body in simple ways, right now.
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Trainer, nutrition coach, and Christian mom — in a culture that’s obsessed with “gym-selfies” and a number on the scale, I’m passionate about helping moms discover what it feels like to actually love their bodies and thrive in them.
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