What is Holistic Wellness?
Updated: Dec 14, 2020
Hey Readers! I am so glad you are here. Holistic wellness is the guiding principle in my life. I whole-heartedly believe in wellness for my entire being, not just for my muscles or cardiorespiratory system. So, what is holistic wellness anyways? Well, "holistic" refers to treating the whole person, including all facets of a person's existence (e.g. mental, physical, spiritual, etc.). And, "wellness" refers to actively achieving a state of good health. Holistic wellness, then, refers to actively achieving good health for ALL the parts of you - not just physical. Sure, physical wellness is incredibly important for your overall functioning, but so are many other areas of wellness.
I think it is misguided to train only certain parts of our being, while neglecting other parts of ourself. I have spent many years learning and researching health and wellness, both from a physical standpoint and from a psychological/cognitive standpoint. The common theme that always emerges is that to be the healthiest version of you, you must take care of all parts of you. Neglecting one, or more, components of your existence can negatively affect all the other parts of you. In this blog post, I will go over the various components of holistic wellness, and why they are so important to include in your overall wellness routine. The following areas are essential components of holistic wellness, in my opinion:
Physical fitness training
Mindful movement practices
Rest and recovery
Healthy outdoor activities
Connection to friends and family
Guilty pleasures (in moderation, of course)
Physical Fitness Training
Physical fitness training includes all forms of physical exercise, including cardiorespiratory training (e.g. running, cycling) and resistance training (e.g. weightlifting). Physical fitness training exercises your physicality - that is, your heart, lungs, muscles, bones, and joints.
Cardiorespiratory exercise improves the health of your heart and lungs and essentially involves any activity in which you increase your heart rate for a sustained period of time (click here to learn more about cardiorespiratory training). I am a runner at heart, and I have been a runner for most of my life. However, I partake in other cardiorespiratory work in addition to running. I typically go for a long hike once per week. The fresh air, sights and smells of nature, and distance from cars is really rejuvenating to my body and mind. Plus, hiking provides my physical body with novel challenges that I cannot always access with road running (e.g. stepping over roots or rocks). I also do stand up paddleboarding (SUP) year-round, where I typically SUP weekly in the summer months, and 1-2 times per month in the cooler months (I wear a wetsuit in the winter months). SUP provides my body with an excellent core and shoulder workout, while giving me the serenity of being on the water under a big, beautiful sky.
It is much better for your overall conditioning to engage in different types of physical activity. Your body will eventually adapt to the specific exercise you are doing, and at some point, you will get a diminishing return on the benefits for that exercise. By participating in various types of cardiorespiratory activities, you continually give your body varied sensory and motor experiences so that your body will not become "complacent" in a particular workout. Plus, engaging in different types of cardio exercises can be really fun. You can also add variety within the same type of cardiorespiratory exercise. For example, if you absolutely have to run every day and you cannot possibly imagine doing any other type of cardiovascular exercise, then change up where you run (e.g. run in a different neighborhood or go to the park), do some interval training (e.g. periods of running really fast followed by periods of running slower), add a day of hill repeats (i.e. where you run up/down a particular hill several times), or go running with a friend.
Resistance training involves using some type of external load (e.g. dumbbells, barbells, tubing, body weight, etc.) in order to increase the strength, stability, and power of your skeletal muscles AND to improve how efficiently your nervous system recruits muscles for various tasks. Resistance training is also really food for decreasing body fat because lean body mass, in general, is more metabolically active at rest than fat mass. I keep a set of free weights in my home yoga/fitness space (click here for ideas on how to create your own home fitness space), so they are easily accessible to me. I typically resistance train at home 1-2 times per week, focusing on all major muscle groups (i.e. chest, back, shoulders, triceps, biceps, and legs), and I also resistance train at my local Pure Barre studio 1-2 times per week. I also practice yoga daily, and my personal yoga practice often involves resistance training with my own body weight (e.g. chair pose, chaturanga dandasna, etc.). Both cardiorespiratory training AND resistance training are incredibly important for your physical health and wellness.
Mindful movement includes exercises performed with maximal awareness and includes examples such as Yoga, Tai Chi, and Pilates. As a yoga teacher and practitioner, I am biased towards yoga, but truly any mindful movement practice can help you to become more aware of your body, how it moves best, and what it needs on a given day. Yoga can be a great physical workout, depending on the type of yoga, but it has the added benefit of providing you with increased awareness of yourself and your surroundings. This helps to improve your overall focus and attention during the day. I practice yoga nearly every single day - whether it is a more vigorous flow or just some simple restorative postures (click here to learn more about restorative yoga). Mindful movement practices help to unite your mind, body, and breath, so you function more holistically during your day. Trust me, if you do not currently practice yoga (or some other mindful movement practice), you will FOR SURE want to add this to your wellness routine. You will find improved performance in all the other physical workouts you engage in as well as in your daily life.
Meditation is a practice where an individual uses a technique (e.g. breathing techniques, mindfulness on a certain object/topic, etc. - for more information on various breathing techniques click here) in order to train attention and awareness and to achieve mental and emotional clarity. Prayer is also considered a form of meditation because you are focusing your attention on a specific cause, person, or event. There aren't really any set "rules" for meditation. You can meditate in virtually any position, in any place, at any time. You can meditate for short bouts (such as seconds) or longer bouts (several minutes or more). It has been repeatedly documented that a regular meditation practice (which can include prayer if that is part of your daily routine) can improve your physical, mental, and emotional health. Some research has even shown that a just single bout of meditation can significantly improve your overall health. I usually try to do multiple short bouts of breathing meditation throughout my day, and this helps me to stay centered, focused, and attentive. I truly notice a difference if I do not meditate before teaching my yoga classes or seeing my speech therapy patients. If you are new to meditation, do a quick Google search because there is a ton of helpful information out there.
Rest and recovery
Rest and recovery is an absolutely essential component of any wellness plan; however, it is often the most overlooked and underused component. Of course exercise, yoga, meditation, etc. are fabulous for your overall health, but so is resting and taking a break. The number of "off" days you have in a given week totally depends on a variety of factors, such as age, fitness level, or the intensity of your most recent workouts. No matter how many days you choose to take off from your workout routine, one thing is clear - the human body requires time to repair and heal. I would recommend that you take at least one day off per week. On your off-day, I also recommend that you take a restorative yoga class (click here to read more about restorative yoga). Restorative yoga gives your body the time and space in which to repair damaged tissue, build new tissue, carry out essential life-sustaining operations (e.g. digestion, elimination), and clear your mind of unhelpful or negative thoughts. Quality sleep (and enough of it) is also highly restorative for your body and mind. And some type of myofascial care is super important, especially if you exercise a lot. Myofascia (i.e. muscle and the surrounding connective tissue) is prone to getting trigger points, or knots, reducing the mobility of the muscle. Using myofascial tools, such as the Roll Model Method therapy balls, is a great way to restore health and vitality to your tissues. Getting a massage from a licensed massage therapist is also an excellent self-care routine (click here to read more about the neurological benefits of getting a massage).
Healthy Outdoor Activities
Being outdoors is so good for your body and mind. The fresh air is awesome for your respiratory health, and sunshine is great for vitamin D production in your body. There are many ways to enjoy the outdoors, even in the colder months of the year. Some examples of outdoor activities that are fun and healthy include camping, gardening, going to a sports game, eating outside, reading outside, taking a nap outside, going to your local botanical gardens, and more. My FAV outdoor activities are camping, going to watch the Atlanta Braves play baseball, reading outside, and going to my local botanical garden. Being indoors all day, every day is simply not good for you. Your entire physiology and psychology requires fresh air and sunlight. If you live in an area that has cold(er) winters, that is okay! Bundle up with gloves, a beanie, a scarf, and a nice jacket and get outside. It is also okay to be outside when it's raining. I know most people balk at the idea of getting wet from the rain, but trust me, as someone who has been caught in the rain many times while running, it actually feels really nice to get soaked from a rain shower every now and again. Being outdoors exposes your sensory system to novel sounds, smells, sights, and textures, and your sensory system craves varied input.
Cognitive stimulation is a requirement for the health of your brain. Cognitive stimulation includes activities that challenge your brain's ability to problem solve, demonstrate flexible thinking, learn new things, or take the perspective of another person. When you provide your brain with cognitively demanding tasks, you increase the density of your neuronal networks (i.e. connection between brain cells and parts of your nervous system). Also, learning new things is one of the best ways to prevent dementia (e.g. Alzheimer's disease) AND age-related cognitive decline. When you learn something new, your brain creates new neuronal networks, making new synapses (i.e. connections) with other neurons. Also, your current neuronal networks become stronger and enhanced. These neuronal changes are known as neuroplasticity - i.e. your brain and nervous system can, and do, change in response to various stimuli. Neuroplasticity is so important because it provides alternate pathways for information to flow in your brain. This keeps your brain healthy and available to solve real-life problems when they arise.
Cognitive stimulation can come from solving puzzles or completing problem-solving games/tasks. You can also challenge your brain by learning something new, such as learning how to play a musical instrument, learning a new language, trying a new type of workout, taking continuing education courses, and/or learning about different topics through reading and listening. My go-to cognitive stimulants include Solitaire and Dr. Mario app on my cell phone, Sudoko, crossword puzzles, and word searches. I LOVE to learn, so I am always engaged in some type of continuing education for work. I also love to read historical fiction novels because I learn about history while also getting the added benefit of reading a good story. My favorite era to read about is circa World War II.
I personally believe that traveling is so wonderful for your health and wellness. Seeing new places, eating different foods, breathing different air, and sleeping in a different place can be so helpful on your wellness journey. Sometimes all our minds and bodies need is a break from our current routine to re-excite us for our job and home life. I know that not everyone can afford to travel regularly, or at all, and that is totally fine! Even taking a day trip somewhere (such as going on a hike a few hours from your home) can be restorative and refill your energy tank. There are also plenty of ways to travel on the inexpensive side - you can camp, stay at cheaper hotels, or drive instead of fly. You could also travel to places in the off-season or places that are not as tourist-heavy to save some mula. When you start to feel bored with your day-to-day routine, make a plan to travel somewhere. Often just knowing that you have a trip coming up can be enough to uplift your spirits.
Listen, I'll admit it - I do not always eat perfectly healthy. However, I do try my best to eat as healthy as I can (for my body), as often as I can. You know that old adage - "you are what you eat?" Well, it is true. Your energy level, mood, and overall health is directly influenced by what you put into your body. If you fuel your body with 20 donuts and 30 sodas a day, your body will react accordingly by feeling sluggish, cranky, and sick. Conversely, if you fill up on all the essential macro and micronutrients for your body, your body will react by feeling strong, energized, and balanced. While there are general guidelines for the recommended daily amounts of macronutrients (i.e. carbohydrates, proteins, fats), micronutrients (i.e. vitamins and minerals), and water needed by the human body, each person is unique and will likely require differing amounts and types of nutrients. Some people are really in-tune with their physiology and can sense what types of foods they need to eat more, or less, of. Other people may have a harder time discerning what their body needs on a given day. If you are unsure of what your diet should consist of, I would recommend that you find a registered dietician (RD) in your area. RDs are licensed professionals that can help create an individualized diet plan for you, based on your own unique physiology and wellness goals. The point is, if you want to feel your best, you need to eat a balanced, healthy diet.
Laughter is SO important for your overall wellness. In fact, did you know there is a whole field in yoga called "laughter yoga?" Yep! In my kids yoga training (Grounded Kids Yoga), some of the poses are derived from laughter yoga. The awesome thing about laughing is that your brain doesn't really know the difference between fake and true laughing. If you just start fake laughing, eventually your brain reacts as if you were really laughing, so you ultimately start to laugh for real. The other super cool thing about laughter is that it really is contagious. Don't believe me? Watch someone who is truly laughing and just see what happens to you. I would guess that you start laughing, or at a minimum, smile. I have always said, "a good friend is someone who makes you laugh so hard that your tummy muscles hurt." Laughing so hard that you actually get tired in your core muscles is not only a good core workout, but if feels so good to your entire being! I actually laugh most of the day, and sometimes this is because I am not sure what else to say or do in a social situation, so I just giggle or laugh. And to be honest, I am happy most of the time. I also love watching funny television shows - my FAVs are "The Office," "Parks and Recreation," "The Simpsons," and "Whose Line is it Anyways." I know it is easy to get swept up in the drama of life, but really, who has time for all that seriousness? Don't take yourself, or others, too seriously. Find the humor in as many situations as you can. And when in doubt, laugh it out.
Connection to Friends and Family
We are a social species, y'all. Our biology quite literally requires interaction with other members of our species, and we require this for our physical and emotional survival. Because our species is social (i.e. we live in groups), our brains have evolved to be addicted to other humans. And I am not joking at all when I use the word "addicted." Studies have shown that when typically developing babies see other humans, their brains release a ton of oxytocin (a hormone). Oxytocin helps the baby to bond with other humans in his/her world, and it helps the baby to become addicted to people, hoping to ensure the baby's survival. Even if you are a "lone wolf" and love alone time, your biology still requires other humans, at least occasionally. Being with family and friends is generally really good for your mental and emotional well-being. During the 2020 COVID-19 shutdown, I think we all realized how much we need other humans. When we were suddenly told not to touch or hug other humans, most of us instantly felt that deficit. This is because, for most humans, our brains are neurochemically wired to be addicted to other people. So even though your alone time might be super amazing, make sure to find time regularly to connect with friends and family.
Financial wellness is often not considered in most wellness programs, but it is really important and should not be overlooked. I do not believe that money brings happiness per se, but I do believe that having a stable financial situation can reduce your stress levels quite a bit. Financial wellness includes saving money in your personal savings for emergencies as well as saving for your retirement. If you are not saving for retirement, you might feel like you will have to work for your entire life. And that can make work feel really overwhelming and suffocating. However, if you regularly set aside money each month for various savings, it might reduce your stress around work. I also think that having little, to no, debt is also important for your wellness. Trust me, I have been in massive amounts of credit card and student loan debt in my lifetime. But I have also worked really hard to pay off much of that debt, and I can tell you, it feels much better NOT to have all that debt. Debt is like a weight that drags you down, literally making your posture slump because it feels so heavy. Similarly, when you reduce your frivolous spending, it can also make you feel more free and healthy. If you are in a ton of debt and have little-to-no savings right now, don't stress. Just start saving today, even if it is only one dollar. Every little bit adds up over time. And the simple fact of knowing that you are setting aside money "for a rainy day" can help you to feel empowered and strong. When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, my husband was out of work for several months, so we had to rely on our savings to get us through that time. And thank goodness we had a savings! Yes, it is always a little bit of a bummer to see that savings account dwindle down to a small number, but it feels really good knowing it was there to help us pay our bills. Now, we are working on building that savings back up again for the next crazy event that life brings our way.
Spiritual wellness means that you do things that are good for your soul. This could include religion if that is important to you, but spirituality is not necessarily synonymous with religion. You do not have to be religious at all to be spiritual. You do not even have to believe in a god, or many gods, to be spiritual. Of course, if you do believe in a type of deity, that is fine too! Many of the other components of holistic wellness described above (e.g. meditation, laugher, time with friends and family, getting outside, etc.) can also help with your spiritual wellness. Taking care of your spiritual wellness involves doing things that are satisfying to your spirit or essence. This may include reading a spiritual text (e.g. The Bhagavad Gita, The Bible, various Buddhist texts, etc.) or volunteering your time or money to a cause/person. For me, spiritual wellness involves engaging in a loving-kindness meditation occasionally, reading about the Buddhist philosophy, and trying to live the Buddhist philosophy in my daily life.
So obviously doing things that are proven to be healthy is good for overall wellness. But, I truly believe in having a balance between the "healthy" things AND the possibly "unhealthy" things that bring us joy. I think this balance is necessary for wellness. We all need our guilty pleasures, but of course, in moderation. Eating chocolate cake every day is probably not the healthiest choice for most people's bodies, but eating chocolate cake every now and again is okay! We all have things that we love to do even though we know they aren't technically "healthy" for us. And, if we engaged in these guilty pleasures "on the regular" our wellness would likely suffer as a result. However, if we never allow ourselves the chance to partake in a guilty pleasure here and there, our wellness is also likely to suffer. This is because we need balance in our life - a balance between work and play, spending and saving, exercising and resting, and so on. Also, these guilty pleasures are like mini-vacations for our body and mind. Eating that occasional chocolate cake is a nice break from always thinking about healthy diet choices. I have a lot of guilty pleasures to be honest, and it takes a lot of discipline on my part to avoid overindulging in them. My go-to guilty pleasures include - the Real Housewives series on Bravo TV, true crime podcasts ("Crime Junkie" is my absolute FAV), sweet tea, coke, ANYTHING CHOCOLATE, snack foods (e.g. chips and salsa, potato chips, etc.), literally any type of cheese, and shopping. I just try really hard to enjoy these sweet pleasures only occasionally.
Holistic wellness involves actively achieving good health for each and every part of your being. It includes: physical fitness, mindful movement practices, meditation, resting and recovering, getting outdoors, challenging your brain, traveling, eating healthy for your body, laughing often, spending time with friends and family, saving money and paying off debt, doing things that feel good to your soul, and allowing yourself the occasional opportunity to partake in your favorite guilty pleasures. As humans, we are so much more than our physicality. Training our physical body is super important, of course, but taking care of our mind and spirit are equally important. Neglecting one area of your wellness has a cascade effect on the rest of your existence, potentially throwing everything out of alignment. If you are not feeling like you are the best version of yourself, try thinking about some of these other areas of wellness. Perhaps you are overlooking something that your body and mind really need. And remember, wellness is a journey - not a destination. There is no endpoint for wellness practices. There will never be a day when you can say, "oh great, I have made it to the the apex of wellness." Nope, holistic wellness requires constant work and recalibrating so that your body and mind are always getting exactly what they need to be successful.
As always, the information presented in this blog post is derived from my own study of neuroscience, human movement, anatomy, yoga, and general wellness practices. If you have specific questions about your health and wellness, please consult with your physician, physical therapist, or private yoga teacher. If you are interested in private yoga sessions with me, Jackie, you can book services on my website ("Book Online" from the menu at the top of the page), or you can email me at email@example.com for more information about my services. Also, please subscribe to my website so you can receive my weekly newsletters (scroll to the bottom of the page where you can submit your email address). This will help keep you "in-the-know" about my latest blog releases and other helpful yoga and wellness information. Thanks for reading!
~Namaste, Jackie Allen, M.S., M.Ed., CCC-SLP, RYT-200, RCYT