Can you be healthy without knowing anything about how your body works?
That’s an interesting question. I don’t usually step that far back, because knowing about how the body works has been central to my life for nearly two decades.
What do you think? How much do we need to know?
I’d say some people probably can be healthy by just going through life eating what they want, drinking what they want, sleeping and being active how they want. There are some correlations between having a laissez faire attitude and having less pain.
I’d say for most of us though it helps to try and make informed decisions about eating more kale and fewer hot dogs. And it would help to know something about the mechanics as well as the living relationships within one’s own body.
I know that when a person encounters something that’s not working for them, for instance they end up with a persistent, sharp pain in their thumb, they’ll put some energy into understanding what’s wrong.
In essence this is coming out of the question, “How do I feel good?” which in turn is coming out of the need for health.
Actually I might back up and retract what I just said, the person with the thumb pain might not be putting their energy in the direction of understanding what’s wrong, they might just be putting their energy into finding a way to fix it.
There’s a fine but important line there.
The person looking at understanding what’s wrong with the thumb would be looking at relationships between elements, for instance thumb ligaments and keyboard ergonomics, or joint position during sporting events, or dietary factors. These are the things we might uncover which are setting up a disposition for one’s thumb pain.
Whereas the person oriented to fixing their thumb will look at achieving their marker for success, for instance, not having their thumb cause them pain anymore. If one measures success by the absence of pain in the thumb they could potentially achieve that by blocking the offending nerves, resurfacing the articular surfaces in the joint or just ceasing to use the thumb.
I’d say culturally we’re a bit of a jumble when it comes to solving health problems.
Even that phrase, “solving health problems” smacks of having a more reactive approach to caring for ourselves. Meaning that culturally we might be more disposed to disregard the relationships between elements until they’ve progressed to the point that they can no longer be ignored. At that point they become “problems”, and one can get confused over whether the problem is the relationship between the ligaments and the keyboard, or whether the problem is the pain. The way we identify the problem affects how we move toward a solution.
The degree to which we might orient toward fixing or covering over the pain and carrying on, might be predicated on the degree to which we feel we have control over changing the relationships that disposed us to that pain. If we think that pain is the inevitable result of our breaking down we might not be coming from a place of feeling like we have the power to affect our situation. But if we think we have the power to make a significant change in our body, we would be more inclined to try.
The alternative to reacting to, and trying to fix problems is sometimes called “prevention”. But even that word is oriented to the problem, for what else is it that we’re trying to prevent? There’s something kind of uncompelling about putting one’s energy into stopping problems that will likely crop up down the road if we do nothing. How would you ever know if all your efforts were worth it? I suppose if the problem you were trying to avoid doesn’t happen then you were successful.
Such ambiguous feedback can’t be motivating. We need to see some result from our efforts in order to stay motivated.
If the energy exists in the individual to look up their thumb pain on WebMd then there must be energy for learning how best to support one’s health. It just doesn’t help us that our culture is encouraging our natural inquisitiveness in a reactive direction.
Let me paint an alternate picture.
Let’s say we had some foundational knowledge, maybe acquired in school while we were learning other important life skills like how to communicate and how to manage our finances.
This foundational knowledge would teach us that health isn’t simply the absence of disease or pain, but rather, at its most robust it is a state in which we feel energized and powerful. It’s a state in which we feel equal to the challenges of life and we have a sense of being able to affect our environment. We would also be able to experience and communicate a depth and range of lived experiences.
Knowing that health is something more than not feeling bad we wouldn’t look at health treatments as avenues for fixing a problem, but rather as ways that we could explore our potential. There wouldn’t have to be something “wrong” that needed to be “fixed” in order to go from our starting point to something even more vital.
With vitality being the new gold standard we would start to question episodes of feeling blah or a little bit achy and start to look holistically at our entire life to see what these “blah” feelings attached themselves too, and we would look for treatment in the realms of Social, Physical, Mental/Spiritual/Emotional, as well as Mission and Purpose. We would see the entire environment we were embedded in and our responses to it.
Now that I’ve said all that I can get back to what I started this article to say, which is what do you need to know about how your body works?
There’s the caveat that I’m just one person embedded at a point on the human timeline of knowledge, so everything I say is incomplete.
Assuming slightly above average aspirations for physical ability, meaning hiking, biking, paddlesports and gardening, but not competing in national sporting contests.
You’d need to know that most things are still debatable and understanding the body is still a growing body of knowledge.
You’d need to know not to stretch your hamstrings before playing ultimate frisbee.
You’d need to have experienced, that is to say, know in a way that goes beyond the academic, that however your body is now, whatever it is capable of, it can change. In fact it will change, but with some intentionality you could change it in the direction that you want it to change.
You’d need to know how to feel what you feel like inside, because this is the foundation for knowing whether you’re healthy, and for starting to see how one part of you relates to other parts of you.
You’d need to know to move your joints everyday, which is more important than stretching. This includes the joints in your feet.
You’d need to know that your body can feel far more than it’s ever been given credit for, but you wouldn’t need to know all the details.
Though it would help to know that your body senses motion, position, tension and preference, in addition to touch and pressure, heat and cold.
You’d need to know the difference between nociception and pain. (Nociception is a sensory nerve impulse. Pain is an interpretation of all the factors, which is coming from the top down rather than periphery to center.)
You’d need to experience that you have depth and take up space in an environment, and that you have needs, and you have preferences.
You’d benefit from knowing that you have volitional control over much of the movement of your body, whether you practice using it or not.
You’d need to know what weakness feels like, so that you don’t interpret it as pathology, and also so that you know you could feel something different.
And as part of that you would need to understand that much of the movement restriction that occurs at a joint is due to weakness, or your body’s awareness of its inability to control a motion, rather than short muscles and fascia.
You’d benefit from knowing the difference between pain that comes from inactivity versus pain that comes from overactivity.
And you’d get a lot out of learning how to breathe.
This isn’t yet my exhaustive list. I’ll need to give it a bit more reflection.
I’d love to know your impressions of what I’ve said, which things joggle your curiosity and whatever else comes up for you.
I love the idea of teaching folks some of what I’ve learned through the years that seems to make the most difference for living well in our bodies. In fact I do that when I work with people, but having a bit more space to get into learning and practicing would be delightful. Maybe I’ll make a curriculum…PE for adults. 🙂