Most of us want to be healthy, but there’s a lot of confusion about what makes for a healthy lifestyle. The worst of the confusion is around diet and nutrition, but we’re forever getting different opinions and messages about what makes us healthy.

I have had a long fascination with what makes for a healthy lifestyle. I’ve practiced Chinese internal arts like qigong and taijiquan for around 15 years and treated people with acupuncture and its associated techniques for around 10 years. The conclusion I’ve come to is that we tend to focus on certain areas of lifestyle too much while neglecting others, and generally overcomplicate things.

A holistic approach

I so often see people who work incredibly hard to be healthy but end up making themselves ill because they fail to see an area of imbalance. Most people, therapists, practitioners and health experts focus their attention within one or two areas of health and wellbeing. For example nutritionists work exclusively with nutrition and personal trainers tend to work on fitness and strength. Specialisation in certain areas is important, but what is so often lacking is a holistic overview.

A holistic medical system

One of the strengths of Chinese medicine is its holistic approach to health. It is a system of medicine that comprises acupuncture, herbal medicine, massage and other techniques, but also dietary advice and exercises.

Chinese medicine considers the causes of disease as follows:

External – climatic factors, infectious diseases.

Internal – emotions, stress.

Miscellaneous – constitution, overwork and fatigue, trauma, diet, exercise, sex, incorrect treatment, parasites and poisons.

Understanding that these various factors can cause imbalance and illness is why lifestyle advice is a major part of the treatment approach for acupuncturists.

A holistic approach to healthy lifestyle

From Chinese medicine, the internal arts, the Yangsheng (nourishing life) tradition and a little modern research, I have compiled the following model to describe the elements of a healthy lifestyle.

A holistic model for healthy lifestyle, comprising body, energy and mind

This model identifies three main areas of wellbeing – body, energy and mind.

Each area is split into three qualities, which can be trained to some degree. The qualities for each area are as follows:

Body – strength, fitness, flexibility

Energy – nutrition, rest, breathing

Mind – mindfulness, purpose, compassion

The outer ring shows 15 attributes that are the positive result of training the 9 qualities. These attributes are:

Balance
Power
Agility
Fluidity
Suppleness

Energy
Vitality
Endurance
Motivation
Equanimity

Awareness
Clarity
Fulfillment
Happiness
Kindness

Simple principles

Seeking balance

For optimal health, we need a degree of balance between and within the different areas of health. For example, just looking at the area of body, it is possible to be very fit and strong without being at all flexible, and the result is that our body is stiff, inflexible and not particularly healthy. It’s equally possible to be very flexible without strength, but that can lead to weakness of the joints. We can be both strong and flexible, but have very poor levels of fitness.

Meanwhile if our body is strong, fit and flexible but we don’t get enough rest, we’ll soon be forced to rest by an illness or injury. If we are constantly stressed or lack purpose, we can expect to be affected by mental or physical illness. Each of the 9 qualities is required, to some degree, for us to be healthy. Neglecting any one quality will adversely affect our wellbeing.

Personalised

Each of us are different, with our own unique combination of genetics, body shape, preferences, goals and imbalances. There is no one-size-fits-all training regime or lifestyle approach that will be suitable for everyone. But with an understanding of the underlying principle of seeking balance, we can identify where best to focus our efforts.

You can start by looking at the 9 attributes on the model and identifying which area you feel is weakest or most neglected. You will likely make greater improvements to your wellbeing by focusing on this area than by working on something you already do reasonably well.

Using these simple principles for a healthy lifestyle

Using the underlying principles of balance and personalisation can help you determine how best to cultivate any one quality. Here are a couple of examples:

What should you eat? In general, you should eat a varied, balanced diet that also identifies and seeks to address any imbalances you may have developed.

How should you develop strength to be healthier? One major reason strength can be an issue for health is when weakness or chronic tension in muscles affects your posture. This in turn can cause imbalances elsewhere, or encourage joints or other tissues to take on more loads than they can handle. The answer is to identify where is weak and where is tight for you personally, then restore balance by releasing tension and strengthening weakness.

These basic principles are really very simple, though implementing them can sometimes require a degree of expertise and advice from specialists.

I hope this encourages you to think about areas of your lifestyle you may have been neglecting to help you improve your health and wellbeing.