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March 24, 2015

When it Comes to Health & Wellness, We’re Missing One Key Thing.

Community_Circle_at_OUR_Ecovillage

There’s a secret to achieving health and vitality that many of us are ignoring or not aware of.

It’s the strength that has seen humans thrive in some of the world’s harshest habitats for thousands of years. It’s the very thing that has allowed us to progress and develop and evolve to achieve such phenomenal feats.

It’s the glue that has held us together through world wars, through famines. It’s the reason individuals choose to live. Choose to fight…even when the odds are stacked against us

I’m talking about co-operation. I’m talking about connection. I’m talking about relationships. I’m talking about love.

I’m talking about community.

Although it might not seem that way, we all live our lives intrinsically connected to other people. We are part of communities, whether we aim to be or not.

The communities and environments that we occupy affect our individual behaviors. The extent to which we are supported, or not, and the people are around us, affect our health to a far greater extent than we realise.

The problem is that most of the health literature today fails to recognize this fact. Instead, it addresses us directly, as individuals.

It tells us to change our behaviours without taking into consideration the very specific set of circumstances that we find ourselves in. It teaches us to modify our behaviour without understanding that our environment and community affects our health just as much as our own individual dietary or lifestyle decisions.

How can there be one set of health advice that can apply to an Eskimo living on the tundras of Alaska, and a middle-aged, sedentary desk worker in Sydney, Australia?

The Eskimo thrives, for starters, on protein. Genetically adapted from thousands of years of living in arctic conditions, the Eskimo can digest large quantities of fats and protein derived from whales, seals and fish. With limited plant matter, the Eskimo has little choice. If the Eskimo read a blog post entitled ‘seven ways to incorporate more vegetables into your diet’ it would be very difficult to apply the learning that he might have garnered. But the Eskimo has a secret weapon. He has a community. Forged together through necessity, the Eskimo survives only because he is part of a tight-knit community that hunt, cook and care for each other. Alone, he would have little chance of longevity.

Together—even in the harshest of conditions—they survive.

The sedentary office worker in Sydney, on the other hand, faces alternative challenges. He lives on a high carbohydrate, high fat, high salt, high sugar diet necessitated through long work hours and unavailability of fresh food close to his office. He has a gym nearby but rarely gets out of the office before 7pm. His mother calls often to remind him to eat his vegetables. He’d like to go on a health kick if only he had more time.

Unlike his friends in Alaska, the office worker is surrounded by calorie-rich, but nutrient-poor food. Everywhere he looks is another advertisement for trans-fat laden treats. The stress of his job means that he is distant from friends, spending more time with colleagues than anyone else. His community is weak—and even if he could reach out for help with his health goals, he feels that he would be rejected or teased.

These examples demonstrate both the absurdity of the majority of advice written by health experts these days, and the importance of connections in nurturing us.

Every human on the planet has their own individual, highly specialised set of connections.

My aim is to raise awareness about how we can harness the power of those connections, those communities to drastically improve our overall health and wellbeing, and do some good for the world at the same time.

It is a firm belief of mine that connecting with and giving back to our communities can take us beyond just being “well.”  The link between positive emotions and overall physical health is now well established and the research that is emerging is explosive particularly as we learn more about the mind/body connection.

Here are some of the benefits that researchers have discovered so far:

  • Being part of a community encourages social integration and enhances our sense of self.
  • Expressing positive emotions including gratitude and kindness decreases our risk of developing chronic diseases including degenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s.
  • Helpful, compassionate acts improve our self belief and competence.
  • When we belong to communities, we increase our chances of receiving love and kindness, which in turn improves our immunity, helps us heal and lowers the chances of developing chronic diseases including heart issues.
  • Belonging and supporting others lowers stress which in turn lowers blood pressure, inflammation and the risk of disease. Lowering stress has also been shown to play a role in protecting against ageing at a cellular level.
  • Studies involving seniors have shown that those who volunteer have reported a higher level of life satisfaction and willingness to live, lower rates of depression and anxiety.
  • Having peer support has been shown to increase a person’s ability to meet their health and lifestyle goals.
  • Volunteers and those who are active in their communities live, overall, a more physically active lifestyle.
  • Connecting with others improves mood and can decrease the likelihood of developing depression, anxiety or insomnia.
  • Giving back to communities and participating in co-operative activities can reduce the preoccupation with the self and thereby reduce anxiety and fear.

It is no wonder, then, in light of this compelling evidence, that a new generation of change-makers are turning to communities rather than hospitals, to change the health of our nations. In London, a network of researchers and community groups have established ‘Well London’–a community health programme integrating community gardening, cooking skills and physical exercise in some of the poorest neighbourhoods.

The magic is in the connections. When we are connected, when we are co-operating, we are alive. When we are disconnected, we are deflated, dead. Like an appliance that isn’t plugged in. When we forget the healing power of the other, when we try and forge ahead alone, we fail.

I often say when I’m teaching yoga classes that it’s not the only the practice itself that transforms. It’s the connections that are fostered when people from all different backgrounds come together in one room to practice. In my wellness coaching, I ensure that my clients receive both individual and group sessions, as I have seen first hand how transformative connecting women can be in their healing journeys.

It is, I believe now, my purpose to find ways to bring people together. To give people the opportunity to connect. To enliven. To grow.

I also believe it’s high time we move the wellness debate beyond individualism—to accept that there is more to health beyond just being well. But most of all, I believe it’s time we accept our togetherness as a remedy not only for society’s ills, but for our own health too.

 

 

 

Relephant: 

There’s No Cure Except Community.

 

Author: Meg Berryman

Editor: Renée Picard

Image: Wikimedia Commons 

 
 

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