by Barbara Berkeley, MD
We hear a lot these days about listening to our bodies. The body is presumed to speak the truth. The problem, we are told, is not that the body speaks falsely but that we don't heed its messages.
As I've discussed in previous posts, the underlying assumption of bodily wisdom is not always correct. If the body is putting out signals that are distorted or simply wrong-headed, following that particular body's direction is not going to lead to any good place. Underlying metabolic problems, such as those created by obesity and its comorbidities, are responsible for scrambled signaling. I'm particularly fond of this analogy: If you plan to drive to California, you will certainly need to trust a reliable map. But suppose the map you bought leads to Alabama?
As the Russian proverb notes, "Trust....but verify."
My ambivalence toward intutive eating and other "trust your body" movements might suggest that I don't think that we have an innate sense of what is good for us. In fact, I believe just the opposite. The problem as I see it is that one has to be healthy to project and read the correct messages. It is very difficult to use the messages of an unbalanced body (and or mind) to get us to a healthy place.
In fact, I very much believe in intuitive living, but I believe that such an approach is a skill that comes from practice....and by practice, I'm using the word to mean a continued life belief; the way we use the word when we are talking about the practice of yoga or religious practice.
In a technical age, our idea of finding health seems to revolve around dissecting it. How many milligrams of vitamin D? How many fat grams? What percent of carbohydrates? How many steps per day? And we can go ever deeper. How much omega 3 versus omega 6? What balance of saturated fat, polyunsaturated fat and monounsaturated fat? (See my earlier post on "Nutritionism")
You can look at a magnificent painting and see a glorious whole, but if you hone in close enough you'll see nothing but colored dots and strokes. Which experience is the one that is meaningful? Which teaches you something?
You might be interested in an article called The Wired Man that appeared in today's New York Times. The author starts off this way:
"For years, health advocates have been telling us to move more. But just how much more? A multitude of activity tracking devices now promise to answer that question. Generally, these digital monitors, which can be worn around the wrist, on collars and belts, even as jewelry, record how and how much you move throughout the day. Some aim to do a great deal more. Makers of the devices have begun intensive campaigns aimed at convincing the large population of “worried well” consumers to get wired and start recording their every move."
The article goes on to describe the multiple monitoring systems tried by the author along with their good points (motivating greater activity) and limitations (not picking up the intensity of exercise or remaining silent during fidgeting and biking). Most disconcerting for me is the basic assumption that devices know what is best for you. If a device tells you how much to sleep or how much to run, can we believe that it possesses some kind of uber-knowledge? Does it know rules that you don't? The author liked the fact that his "Jawbone" app gave him the following information and coaching:
Jawbone’s smartphone app offers personalized tips that are actually interesting. For instance: “When you go to bed 30 minutes later than average, you tend to take 971 fewer steps the next day.” And after several late nights, I was told: “Go to bed before 12:44 a.m.” Well, O.K.
Is this information really useful? Yes, it comes from some kind of "expert" study, but is it relevant to YOU?
Despite the fact that a number of medical programs and research trials have shown increased activity with monitoring devices, the author ends his piece by admitting that he has personally abandoned monitors. It seems almost like a moment of surprise and self-discovery when he proclaims, "I don't need a monitor anymore. I'm tracking me."
While I'm sure that many readers are devoted to their apps and trackers, I worry about the direction these devices are taking us. With the increasing capabilities of technology, we will eventually be able to monitor not only our perspiration, body temperature, heart rate and movement, but our moment to moment blood sugar, vitamin levels and biochemistry. Do these things need moment to moment attention? Or do we need to be listening to the whole symphony rather than a thousand separate instruments?
Here is my advice. Stop. Heal. Then listen. If what you hear is peaceful, if what you feel is contented, if what you measure is within healthy parameters, if what you eat is primary and not too much, if what you do is enough to make you sigh with happy exhaustion, if what you look like is strong...you don't need a gadget to tell you that you've arrived at your destination.