The Pursuit of Health and Wellbeing

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The pursuit of health and wellbeing requires an intentional and deliberate practice.  Just as physical activity has become a part of our regular routine, so too should the skills needed to promote our health and wellbeing.

Health and wellbeing are determined by more than the absence of disease.  While it is important to manage and treat illnesses and injuries which may arise, if we are to pursue any, and all, of our goals in life the foundation should be the optimization of our health and wellbeing.  Without this, it is not possible to pursue our greatest potential in whatever aspect of life is of most importance to us.  This comprises all dimensions of health, including physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual aspects.

In the past, there was little, if any, emphasis placed on physical activity and exercise for its own sake and for promotion of health.  There was a time, not too long ago, where it would have been considered unusual for individuals to regularly exercise without a particular reason, competition, or event in mind.  The idea of physical activity for promotion of overall health was not commonly discussed.  This changed over time and, currently, physical activity is not only a regular component of a healthy lifestyle, but there are daily recommendations from health organizations related to the minimum necessary amount.  A similar paradigm shift is needed for the promotion of health and wellbeing across all domains.

Health and wellbeing are the necessary foundation for sustainable high performance.  There is no possibility of pursuing our best in any area of life over an extended period of time without optimizing our health and wellbeing.  Our health is dependent upon, to a significant degree, recovery and restoration back to homeostasis within our physiology.  Wellbeing, at least in part, is further expressed through our growth and development.  In order to fully pursue these goals, we must also push our limits.  It is not possible to develop as an individual or grow as a person if we do not challenge ourselves.  An analogy can be drawn to physical fitness.  Without pushing our limits, within reason, we are not able to increase our physical strength or cardiovascular fitness.  The same philosophy applies to our growth and development in all aspects of life.

While challenging ourselves is necessary for our growth and development, the key becomes our recovery following such challenges.  Inherent within these situations is the consumption of resources.  If we are able to replenish these resources, then we are able to restore our minds and bodies, develop additional skills and capacities, and optimize our growth and development.  This contributes in a significant way to our health and wellbeing.  Recovery, therefore, becomes a key element in our pursuit of health, wellbeing, and sustainable high performance. 

Recovery and restoration are dependent upon ventral vagal activation, which requires the implementation of an intentional and deliberate practice to increase vagal efficiency and ventral vagal tone.  This activation is necessary for our bodies to recover and maintain homeostasis.  Chronic and sustained sympathetic and dorsal vagal activation have been associated with negative physical, mental, and emotional health effects.  These include cardiovascular ailments, systemic inflammation, impaired immune function, anxiety, and depression.  The impact of these persistent physiological states on our health and wellbeing provides an important rationale for the need to ensure sufficient recovery through ventral vagal activation.

In addition to promotion of health and wellbeing, the principles of recovery and restoration become more crucial in the setting of an illness or injury.  In this circumstance, it is not only recovery from daily events or challenging our capacities that is needed.  Recovery from injury, illness, treatment, or surgery is also needed.  This situation likely requires a greater degree of restoration.  In addition, the added demand of this circumstance is likely to result in greater sympathetic or dorsal vagal activation which not only is not conducive to recovery but, for the reason discussed above, can lead to further negative health effects.  In these situations, a particular emphasis on skills and strategies to promote ventral vagal activation is important in order to shift our physiology towards that which will better support recovery and restoration.

The specifics of training our nervous system have been described in past articles in this series, as have the principles of intentional and deliberate habit formation which are needed to integrate new skills into our daily routines.  It is important to emphasize that this requires development of mind-based and body-based skills and strategies and training a wide variety of these skills is important as some will be most effective in certain circumstances while other strategies may be needed in other situations.  This perspective works with, leverages, and supports our biology in a comprehensive and holistic fashion which is evidence-driven and real world tested.

There are technology devices which can be implemented within our routines to further support and contribute to our recovery regimen, thereby supporting our health and wellbeing.  Broadly classified, there are devices which provide data and metrics related to our level of recovery and those which support and promote our recovery.  Within the category of devices providing data and metrics there are wearables for daily use and those for periodic assessments.  The daily use devices provide important information, typically related to sleep, heart rate variability, activity, and recovery.  This information can contribute to our adjustment of routines on a day to day basis and can also be used to tailor daily activities on the basis of our recovery status.  The periodic assessment devices do not provide daily continuous data but rather provide more detailed data over the duration of time they are used, typically 2-3 days.  This deep dive can provide further insights into the impact of our activities and recovery routine. 

In addition to data collection and analysis devices, there are those which directly contribute to our recovery.  There are devices that are designed to directly activate our parasympathetic nervous system, specifically increasing ventral vagal activation.  There are also more general devices that function to reduce muscle tightness and soreness which assists in recovery from physical strain and promote circulation.  Both types of devices can be incorporated within daily routines to assist with recovery and restoration.

With each of these devices, it is important to recognize that the data provided is information that can be used to understand our physiology.  It is important that we do not overemphasize the significance of the information.  Rather, they are best implemented as a source of information indicating our physiological state, similar to recognition of our breath, muscle tone, posture, voice, and thoughts.  The data provided by these devices can be used to improve our understanding of our current physiological state, our starting point prior to any changes, and the impact of any skills and strategies we have incorporated.

The principles and fundamentals of polyvagal theory provide an important framework for promoting our health and wellbeing in addition to sustainable high performance.  This perspective informs the most holistic and comprehensive strategy to optimally integrate the mind-based and body-based skills, thereby optimizing health and wellbeing and setting the foundation for sustainable high performance.  This not only is beneficial to ourselves but assists us in supporting and co-regulating those around us.  Each of these benefits are key components to The Practices of the Healthcare Athlete.

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