This post is a bit different than my others, as this is an excerpt from my book Six Teachers. This is one of three chapters in which the main character Leanne, a high school science teacher in Northern Saskatchewan, learns from Johnny – a mentor assigned to her by her administrators. Johnny is a First Nation personal trainer and junior hockey player who offers a refreshingly wise-but-simple perspective on health and wellness. A special thanks to Jared Iron for being the face of Johnny and letting me use his pictures. 🙂
There is no Neutrality
“Good health is a crown on the well man’s head that only the sick man can see.” – Proverb
I anxiously dragged my feet as I walked into the gym in the workout clothes Johnny requested I wear for our second meeting. He looked sweaty as if he had just finished another workout, but at least this time he was standing as opposed to collapsed on the ground due to exhaustion like when we first met. He faced away from me as he wiped the sweat from his brow and tilted his head back to take a big gulp from his protein shaker.
“Hi,” I interrupted.
“Oh, hi!” Johnny turned to me, startled, but with a smile. “How are you?” he quickly gained his composure.
“Good, but a little nervous since you asked me to show up in my gym clothes!”
“Oh, don’t worry about that!” he replied, “I thought we could just walk and talk as I cool down, but if you want to do a workout, we can do that at the end.” He smirked with that kind of evil grin only a personal trainer is capable of.
“Oh, well we’ll see.” I internally let out a sigh. I was relieved. I had always felt I was fit, but I did not feel prepared for the type of workouts I saw Johnny doing. “So what’s on the agenda for today?” I refocused as we started walking laps around the gym together.
Bringing his protein shake down from his lips he answered, “Well, I thought we better talk about health and wellness since I am a personal trainer and all.”
I let out a half-forced laugh in an attempt to be polite and replied, “I suppose that would be appropriate, wouldn’t it.”
“Yes,” replied Johnny, matter-of-factly. I had already learned he had the perfect combination of confidence and compassion; he was not cocky – he was authentic, and obviously eager to share from his area of expertise. “Well, we might as well start by talking about the difference between those two words I mentioned – health, and wellness.” I nodded, and he continued, “Health to me is the physical. It is about our body and how well it can respond to the stimuli around us – you must get that; you’re a science teacher.” He looked at me for agreement, and I guess my smile was enough for him to go on, “Health is about how quickly our body can recover from illness; or more importantly – how strong we are to fight off illness. Health is about how physically strong we are to accomplish daily tasks – to lift our children; to run to catch a bus on time, or to help our friend move his couch. That is health.” Johnny was back in his universe, speaking a language he was more than proficient in. He walked with a swagger in his step as his gaze alternated between passing through the floor in front of his feet and the wall in front of him as he spoke, “It is important to mention though, that health should not only be defined in modern terms and with our modern day-to-day lifestyle. How tired we feel while we sit at a desk all day is an indicator that our health is not good enough, but we should also consider our health in relation to the challenges our ancestors had to face. Our predecessors had to run vast distances for extended periods to hunt an animal. They had to be able to move swiftly through obstacles. They had to be able to carry with them everything they owned. Our ancestors had to be fit to survive. It is of my belief that we should not take our modern day fitness any more lightly.” I was enthralled. I could do nothing but listen, and he seemed happy to continue to speak. “That is the principle behind my workouts – functional fitness. I perform movements that my ancestors and some modern-day people have to perform daily. I do deadlifts – this is the same as picking things up. I do pull-ups – these are what my ancestors would have had to do to get up into a tree to avoid a threat, or what someone might have to do to climb over something. I believe our fitness should be practical and help us overcome any obstacle life might throw at us.” He turned to me seeming to seek some sign as to how he should continue.
I was riveted by his words, but this was a new way of thinking for me, so “Interesting,” is the only reply I could comprise.
“Wellness, on the other hand, is quite different,” said Johnny. I suppose my response was enough for him because he quickly expanded on his lesson. “Wellness takes into account our whole being – physical, mental, spiritual, and emotional.” Johnny stared into his world through the wall. “I do believe though, in order to take care of the mental, spiritual, and emotional aspects of ourselves, we must first take care of the physical. If we ever lose our health, it is more than likely that we will also lose the ability to take care of our mind, our spirit, and our emotions. There is a lot of science behind this. Various schools are implementing programs where children exercise before their lessons because it increases their capacity to learn. Exercise affects our hormone levels and this allows us to feel more happiness. I believe overall wellness begins with the body. I heard a quote that applies to this – would you like to hear it?”
“Yes,” was my quick-and-easy response.
“Health is the crown on the well person’s head that only the ill person can see.” He paused for a minute to let it sink in. “It is an Egyptian proverb.”
I reflected for a moment. Had I been taking my health for granted? What would I do if I lost it? I felt an immediate sense of gratitude for the healthy life I had enjoyed mixed with remorse and a sense of guilt for not having expressed my appreciation enough.
Johnny interrupted my thoughts, “That leads me to my next point: we must first and foremost invest in our wellness.” He was skilled at knowing when to pause to let a point sink in. “Many people come into the gym I train at in La Ronge and complain about our prices. To those people I say one thing, and for many of them you can see it hits a nerve. This is what I say:” He again paused for dramatic effect, “You may be healthy enough now, but we are either working to become healthier, or we are becoming unhealthy; there is no neutrality when it comes to well-being. You can invest in your wellness now, or sooner rather than later you will become ill, and both you and your loved ones will spend every penny you have to get your health back.”
He must have seen the shock in my expression, but he just smiled back, “Ya, you can’t believe I say that to potential clients, can you? Well, to me this is the most serious issue people face, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly. I might piss a few people off, but I practice what I preach and people’s health is more important to me than their feelings.” That beautiful combination of confidence and compassion rang out from his words.
He was right – although I couldn’t believe he actually said that to people. Still, his lesson sunk deep into my being – did I want to live my life just being healthy enough? I was likely doing only the sufficient amount of physical activity and healthy eating to maintain my current level of well-being. Was that adequate? I certainly could not accomplish any of the tasks he had referred to when speaking of his ancestors.
We continued walking and he stared off as he spoke. I tried again to look where he was in hopes of gaining even more wisdom than what I was hearing. “My basic beliefs about wellness are this: take care of your physical self first and foremost; if you lose your physical health, you cannot take care of your mental, spiritual, or emotional health.” He turned his gaze to me, “You will notice I have said nothing about looking good. Does that surprise you?”
“Now that you mention it, it does.” I replied.
It was Johnny’s turn to let out a forced laugh, only this time it was combined with a breath of disheartenment. “Our society is so flawed in its focus. People want to look healthy rather than actually be healthy. They want to be able to eat junk, sit on the couch, and take some magical pill that makes them have beautiful skin and a ‘toned’ body. Most people who walk into my gym come in with an appearance goal: ‘I want to be thinner,’ or, ‘I want a six pack.’ I understand where these people are coming from, but I immediately try to adjust their focus from appearance goals to performance goals.”
He turned his gaze toward me, as a good teacher does, for an indicator on how I was processing his wisdom. A lot was going through my mind. What were my fitness goals? Why did I run and lift weights? I dreaded the answer that came to my mind: “to look thinner.” I also felt guilty that I had always wanted a six pack. When I realized he was still gazing at me, all I could say was my new word of the day: “Interesting.” I was sure I was blushing as a result of the shame I felt for having such shallow goals.
He took that as permission to continue and the redness in my cheeks must have been a tell-tale sign of my thoughts, as he responded to them with precision, “I ask the person who wants to be thinner, ‘If you could run 5K without stopping, do you think you would be thinner?’ I ask the person who wants a six-pack, ‘If you could do 200 sit ups and skip 400 times in four minutes, do you think you would have a six pack?’” He paused again, “Now, it obviously isn’t that simple, but do you see how this shifts the focus from appearance goals to performance goals?”
I nodded. I was happy to be soaking up Johnny’s knowledge. I made a quick mental note to spend some time that evening developing performance goals.
Johnny collected his thoughts, “This brings me back to the ideas of health and wellness. If we have performance goals, and not appearance goals, these desires encourage holistic well-being. And remember, whole wellness starts with taking care of the physical self. In order to grow in the areas of mental and emotional toughness, it is essential to push ourselves well beyond modern-day physical challenges. Our bodies were not designed to sit in desks and drink diet pop all day. You must test your limits. One of my favourite authors, Robin Sharma says, ‘When you go to your limits, your limits expand.’ We must try to lift more. Run faster. Run further. We must do more each day than we did the day before. By doing this, we do not only develop in a physical sense, but our mental and emotional capacities also grow. If I begin to learn that my physical capacity is far greater than I had ever imagined, do you not think this realization will transfer to all areas of my life?”
I was unsure if he actually wanted a response and I was busy trying to process everything and almost wished I had a notebook, but he continued without skipping a beat, “Of course it will! If we learn how to push our limits physically we will begin to believe we are capable of so much more in our careers, relationships, and all other arenas of life. It’s truly transformational!”
His booming enthusiasm transferred to a more calm tone, “That must be taken with a grain of salt, though. Rest is also so important. When we rest our muscles and bodies that is when they have time to recover and grow. We must learn how to push past our limits, and then give our body, mind, and spirit the things they need to recover from that exertion. When we learn this, every challenge becomes a building block for becoming our best self. If we do not allow ourselves to recover, this ‘lifting more, running faster, running further’ just adds more stress to our already-taxed being and we will wear ourselves out. It is a delicate balance and it looks different for everyone.”
“That sounds hard to do,” I finally managed to have a somewhat insightful comment as I tried so hard to keep up to Johnny’s thought process. He was right in saying he “practiced what he preached” – his mental capacity was impressive and he delivered his message like a true expert. He was not your typical “jock.”
“It is difficult at first,” Johnny responded, “but after awhile you learn to know when it is appropriate to push, and when it is right to rest. When your body is crying out, ‘no’ or when the thought of a workout makes you feel stressed, it is probably time to rest. Unless, of course, you are one of those people who has never worked out,” he laughed, “it is important to push your limits before you rest, or again, we are back to becoming unhealthy. There is no neutrality.” He restated his thesis then returned to his summary, “Anyway, it is important to push our limits, but it is also important to rest and recover.”
I smiled and nodded to show I understood, and he continued, “There are two more things I want to talk about in the area of health: sleep and nutrition. I will start with sleep. Our modern lives are very stressful. We have bills and careers and finances to worry about – we never used to have these pressures. Present day Western society also celebrates working ourselves to the bone. Worrying and working this hard are not healthy habits and both have effects not only on our mind, but also on our endocrine system – the system that regulates hormones. I am probably preaching to the choir, since you are the science teacher,” – he wasn’t, I worked really long days and felt very stressed a lot of the time – “but being under tension like this all of the time leads to increases in the stress hormone Cortisol. High levels of Cortisol cause our bodies to retain water and can lead to weight gain, and also reduce our ability to learn. Do you know the best way to help our bodies lower Cortisol levels?” Johnny answered his own question before I could, “To sleep – we need to allow our bodies to sleep as much as possible. We need to take care of our physical self first in order to feel calm emotionally and able to focus mentally.” I just nodded as I knew I didn’t sleep enough or do an acceptable job destressing. I was completely guilty of trying too hard to be productive. I woke up at 5 am and often stayed up until midnight just to get as much done as possible, but how did I feel? I often felt overwhelmed. I knew I needed to improve my sleep and exercise habits.
“Obviously, the last and maybe most important thing – and also the answer most people try to avoid is eating a healthy diet.” He let out a sigh, as if this was a challenging topic to address, and I understood that. People hate talking about what they eat because there is so much judgment, not to mention confusion over what’s right. “I could write a whole book about this alone,” he said, “but I will sum it up like this.” He took a big breath as if he was getting ready for a long speech, “I believe we need to get rid of the concepts of healthy and unhealthy food – pizza is unhealthy; salad is healthy – for instance.” This sentence alone challenged me; I definitely used these labels. “We need to look at the ingredients in our foods – are they organic? Are they unprocessed? Are they something we can pronounce? If yes – eat them. If we must ‘label’ our foods, we should call them ‘real’ or ‘unprocessed’ and ‘processed.’ We must choose real fuel for our bodies. We need to choose foods that are closer to what our ancestors ate. To do this my simple recommendation is to shop the periphery of the grocery store – if you can’t make it to a farmer’s market. Buy fresh meat, veggies, nuts and seeds. Eat things where the ingredients are its name – like a sweet potato. The ingredients list is: sweet potato,” he smiled, “or at least eat things with ingredients you can pronounce and know what they are. ‘Modified milk products’ – what’s that? ‘Carageenan’ – what?” We both laughed; it seemed simple, but this is something many people failed to think about.
“And lastly, about food – I believe in the 80-20 rule. 80 percent of what I eat is ‘whole foods’ – foods where the ingredients are its name, and 20 percent of what I eat is whatever I want – I simply eat for joy! That is where ice cream or a beer, of course, falls in. It is so important to live a healthy lifestyle and have a sound relationship with food. If we are constantly stressing about what we eat that alone is, I believe, qualified as an eating disorder.”
I nodded, and he kept on as we walked one final lap around the gymnasium. I thought I was on the right track with my nutrition; I ate mostly whole, unprocessed foods, but I knew I could improve on labeling foods and attaching emotions to eating. I needed to see foods as “real” or “processed” and to learn to enjoy processed food once in awhile without any guilt. “Anyway,” Johnny said, “Eat real food like your ancestors did. Exercise like your predecessors. Choose performance goals. Go to your limits. But still, eat ice cream, rest, and have a drink now and then. Take care of your physical self and you will have the energy to take care of your whole self. Take care of your physical being first and the rest will follow.” He grinned, reached his hand out for a fist bump, and walked me to the door. I thanked him and walked home with thoughts about health bouncing around in my head.
Although Johnny gave me a lot to consider today, what I took away most was a sense of gratitude for the state of health I was currently in. Never again would I take my health for granted. And every day from now on I planned to do my best to work towards my health, rather than against it. Afterall, there was no neutrality.