No rest for the health conscious

Peter Kammerer says it's easy to tire of the media hype about the latest health advice and fitness regime. Just listen to your body and be sensible

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 August, 2015, 2:06pm
UPDATED : Monday, 03 August, 2015, 2:29pm

I've been bombarded by so much information about health and fitness that, too often, I'm not sure which way to turn. Having a son who is a fitness instructor only makes matters more confusing; there's always something new in the fridge or on a kitchen shelf I'm being encouraged to try.

Whether it does any good isn't certain, but the words "listen to your body" are sometimes added for good measure. The trouble is that taking notice of such messages and knowing what to do when you hear them is easier said than done.

Fast food, soft drinks and high-calorie restaurant meals are not supposed to be healthy, yet they are everywhere. I live near a McDonald's, and the other night, I was feeling like a rare treat; in the end, I talked myself out of it. An overwhelming desire for a Coke at work too often ends with my finger hovering over the button on the drinks machine and then hastily darting to a soda water. In a culture that has become so health conscious, I'm well aware that people with sedentary jobs like mine should eat a well-balanced diet and get regular exercise, perhaps by going to the gym four times a week; I drag myself there no matter how weary I feel.

The trouble is that listening to your body is not as easy as taking a quick-fix pill

But emotional cravings are only part of the equation. We're blitzed by information in traditional and social media and knowing the good from the bad is for health and nutrition experts. Checking the source doesn't always help - behind every posting, press release and news conference is a purpose. Then there are myths that have been proven wrong, such as eggs raise cholesterol levels, chocolate causes acne and butter and salt should be avoided.

The pharmaceutical industry doesn't help, either. Its lobbying marketing and advertising have influenced us to reach for a pill, syrup, tube or patch whenever we feel something is amiss. Later, if it doesn't work, we'll try something different or see a doctor. The size of the industry is such - the World Health Organisation estimates it's worth US$300 billion and will be US$400 billion within the next three years - that it's clear a lot of people first turn to a medical cure.

A broken toe a few weeks ago was good reason to make me start listening to my body. There's not much you can do about such an injury other than take medication or use ice to reduce the swelling and wait for the break to repair itself.

But what made me really want to take notice was a colleague's recounting of a friend's battle with breast cancer. The friend had got the disease in her 20s and had undergone successful treatment. Close encounters with life-threatening situations often change outlooks, and in this case, it was about making better choices. That burger may not be good for you, but having one now and then doesn't hurt. If you eat one a day for a week, though, your body will let you know you're overdoing it.

A light feeling in my head the other day was the first test. In the past, I would have gone for a sugar burst with fruit, a sweet or a cola, but it's better to think of the cause. I was in a closed room near a street with heavy traffic; opening a door and turning on a fan to stir the carbon dioxide-laden air was the solution.

The trouble is that listening to your body is not as easy as taking a quick-fix pill. There are no warning lights as on a car. Stopping that craving for an occasional treat is not your body talking, more the voice of denial. It is akin to the stick-thin model who makes herself vomit after every meal to stay thin.

My son has advised me that it's time to rest a body part that's in pain. Our bodies are always telling us something, and deciphering the signals is a process of patience, trial and error, and personal kindness. But there also has to be a good dollop of moderation.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post