Typically, when we want to check our health-and-fitness progress, we step on the scale or look in the mirror. But when it comes to well-being, what you see isn’t always what you get — or at least, not all that you get.
We’ve been inclined to believe that pursuing health and fitness is predominantly self-focused, and that we alone stand to profit from the results.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Certainly, whenever we change our lives for the healthier, there’s a lot in it for us as individuals: more energy, strength, confidence, vitality, mental clarity, better moods, improved appearance, lower disease risks, and so on.
But there’s just as much in it (if not more) for all the people, places, and projects that we touch during the course of our daily lives.
Weirdly, this is not something we are typically encouraged to reflect upon, or to draw on as a potential source of inspiration.
Instead, most of the health-and-fitness messages we receive via mass media (“Flat Abs Now!,” “Lose the Flab!,” “Drop 4 Sizes”) are aimed at the vulnerable narcissist within each of us.
They imply that the central rewards of health and fitness are largely derived from appearing healthy and fit, and by extension, from impressing others (or avoiding their judgment).
And so, within the vast and deep slipstream of positive results created by healthy lifestyle changes, we’ve tended to focus on only a comparatively narrow and superficial band.
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to achieve appearance-related changes. In fact, the aesthetic rewards that go along with healthy-body transformations have some very real superpowers. (I’ll get to those in a moment.)
But in many cases, some of the biggest payoffs of our healthy changes have less to do with us than with the people, places, and things that matter most to us.
The reality: When you make even a modest improvement in your health status, or in even a single health habit, a whole bunch of people around you invariably benefit — regardless of whether they (or you) happen to realize it at the time. And being even marginally aware of this dynamic can serve as a powerful intrinsic motivator.
Psychological research suggests that intrinsic motivators (those connected with our sense of enjoyment, value, or meaning) are dramatically more powerful and long lasting than extrinsic motivators (those connected with our desire to impress others, win material rewards, avoid punishments, or comply with social expectations).
By expanding your awareness of the potential intrinsic rewards embedded in the fabric of your life, you can tap into a new reservoir of motivation. The kind of meaningful motivation that comes in very handy on those days when bikini-body and flat-abs promises seem to have lost their luster, and the appeal of eating caramel corn in front of the television seems especially strong.
Here are just a few bigger-picture factors to keep in view.
- Relationships. Your level of health, vitality, self-esteem, and equanimity all powerfully influence how you show up for other people. Reflect on what you are like to be around when you are healthy versus unhealthy. Think about how your needs, resources, and capacity shift, and the potential support or pressure that shift creates for others (family, friends, kids, coworkers). As you get healthier and happier, the people closest to you are the most likely to benefit — and to be inspired by your example.
- Professional Chops. We tend to accomplish a great deal more when we are strong, clear-headed, and confident than when we are sick, tired, and “meh.” Which is why most employers today are less concerned about absenteeism than “presenteeism” — an increasingly common dynamic in which people physically show up at work but don’t contribute much. The level of drive and focus you have available to bring to your career and creative pursuits depends heavily on your level of physical, mental, and emotional health.
- Community. The healthier you are, the more surplus energy and attention you can contribute to causes and community efforts. It’s much harder to get out and volunteer, to be engaged with your neighbors, to focus on communal concerns, when you aren’t feeling your best. Which is why health-motivated people are often the ones who start community gardens, launch local walking and yoga groups, advocate for healthier school lunches, and crusade for other healthy causes.
- Storytelling. As you shift your life, and as you share the story of your journey, you create a bread-crumb trail for others to follow. This can have surprising and long-lasting effects — many you will never know about, and, likely, some that will outlive you.
- Silent Influence. As you go about your healthy business, other people notice and may begin to model their behavior on yours. The visible changes in your body can function as a superpower catalyst for others (“You look amazing! What are you doing differently these days?”), but ultimately it’s learning what you know, and seeing what you do, that winds up having the biggest impact. And don’t forget about your healthy diaspora: All the people you inspire will ultimately go out and inspire a whole bunch more people. I had a neat experience recently that illustrated this last point for me. A woman I helped many years ago — an overstressed nurse practitioner who was then going through a health and life crisis of her own — wound up getting some coaching that I recommended based on my own experience.
She shifted her daily priorities and choices, started taking better care of herself, got trained in functional medicine, and, to my surprise, wound up becoming one of the first members of the medical team at Life Time’s new LT Proactive Care Clinic. (For more of her story, see “The Nurse Who Learned to Heal Herself First“.)
She now provides the kind of life-changing care that lights her up, and that empowers other people to reclaim their health and optimize it.
I did my annual physical with her a couple months ago, and as she helped me interpret some labs and offered me great nutritional counsel, I was struck by how we’d come full circle: The simple health support I’d offered her so many years ago was now directly benefiting me, and being multiplied through thousands of other patients.
None of this would have happened had I not embarked on my own health journey decades ago. None of it would have been possible if there weren’t a whole lot of other inspired people out there working on creating healthier lives, sharing what they know, and creating the demand and delivery mechanisms necessary for more healthy stuff to get out into the world.
So go ahead: Look in the mirror — and see the bigger picture. When you change your life for the better, everyone around you changes for the better too, even if only by having witnessed the changes you’ve made and realizing they are possible.
“The Better Good Life” — What nature’s laws can teach us about personal sustainability, and how our individual choices contribute to larger systems — creating either beauty and abundance or toxicity and waste.
“The Art of Self-Care” — How nurturing your own body and mind empowers you to be more present and generous with others.
“A Healthy Kind of Contagious” — Scientific insight on how individual changes trigger a huge and unexpected ripple effect.
“Fitness-Buddy Transformations” — How I became an unlikely fitness mentor to my then-overweight niece, and how she carried it forward (includes audio and video).