Are we guilty of being too individualistic in our approach to health and wellbeing? Claire Munnings looks at why it’s time to focus on the bigger picture…
It’s no exaggeration to say the health and wellbeing industry has seen monumental growth in recent years. As we learn more about how to nourish our bodies and minds, an increasing number of us are adjusting our lifestyles accordingly – making sure we eat well, exercise regularly and prioritise self-care. But could we be overlooking the bigger picture in our quest for ultimate health?
Environmentalists such as David Attenborough have made it clear that humanity’s future hangs in the balance if we continue to misuse our planet’s resources, and health experts have long talked about how the wellbeing of others affects our own lives. So, do we need to take a more altruistic approach in our individual wellness journey?
“Our health as a species is dependent on the biodiversity of the planet – from the air we breathe and the produce we consume, to the water we drink,” says environmental psychologist and wellbeing consultant, Lee Chambers (leechambers.org). “When we look at the wider picture, damaging the earth damages our health, and we are at risk of destroying some of the constructs that keep us healthy.”
It sounds obvious, but it’s still something many of us forget – or brush over – when pursuing our own healthy ambitions. Do you ever stop to consider the processes involved in getting quinoa onto your plate, or your new yoga leggings delivered to your door, for example? It can be easy to turn a blind eye when we think we’re doing the best for our bodies.
Sebastian Pole is the co-founder of Pukka Herbs (pukkaherbs.com) – a herbal tea and supplement company that prioritises organic farming, fair trade and conservation. He agrees that we can’t forget our place in the wider world when considering our health.
“There is a great quote: ‘you can’t live a healthy life on a sick planet’ and I think this explains things perfectly,” he says. “We cannot talk about our own health without understanding our place in the environment and this means being more conscious of nature and how it affects us and how we, in turn, affect nature.”
We don’t just depend on our environment for physical things such as oxygen, water and food either. Factor in the emotional benefits that our natural surroundings offer and it’s clear we should be helping it flourish.
“While in nature, all our senses are engaged in a way that rarely happens in manmade environments, and this realigns us in a way that only nature can,” Lee says, quoting studies that show it can assist with emotional regulation and cognitive function, boost our moods and creative output, and even result in improved immune function and less stress.
So, what exactly can we do to look after the planet and boost our own health? Preventing climate change is key.
“Deforestation and rising temperatures have not only increased the risk of extinction for wild species as part of the global ecosystem, but they’re affecting humans too,” Sebastian explains. “In fact, the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that global warming could cause an additional 250,000 deaths between 2030 and 2050.”
It’s a frightening statistic but small lifestyle changes can promote big change. As well as reducing our energy consumption and reusing and recycling when possible, our eating habits can make a significant impact. Luckily, it is generally true that consuming what is good for us is also good for the planet – in fact, last year a study from the University of Oxford revealed that foods associated with improved health (such as wholegrain cereals, fruits, vegetables, legumes and nuts) have among the lowest environmental impacts, while foods with the largest impact— unprocessed and processed red meat—are consistently associated with the largest increases in disease risk.
However, it’s not always clear cut. Fish, for example, is known to be a healthy dietary choice, but much has been said about the unsustainability of fishing practices. Avocados, too, are well known for their benefits but the food miles and growing practices associated with them has been criticised in recent years. The answer? Do your research and eat mindfully.
Sebastian is a keen advocate of organic farming – both for our individual health and that of the planet. “It is now well documented that organic foods and herbs have higher levels of primary nutrients than conventionally grown crops,” he says. “Recent research also shows that organic farms deliver more wildlife, healthier soils, climate mitigation, clean water, lower pesticide use, lower antibiotic use, more jobs and better food security.”
Dr Anne Hayden of Your Planet Doctors (yourplanetdoctors.org), who has an MBE for her work involving mental health, is a huge proponent of home-grown produce. She set up Your Planet Doctors to help reduce the impact of climate change on a local level and her vision is to bring small organic growing groups together in her county. She says that sustainable organic growing in the community is one of the best ways to improve mental and physical health, support ecosystems and reduce the impact of climate change to some extent.
Through the work of Your Planet Doctors Anne makes another key point – that the physical and mental health of the people around us is important for our emotional wellbeing.
“In order to have good physical health and wellbeing, we have to look after our mental health,” she says. “And the only way to look after our mental health is to create sustainable, compassionate and resilient communities.”
Supporting your friends, family and neighbours has untold benefits, and anecdotal stories emerging from this year have shown the importance of such support bubbles.
“Since the start of the pandemic, communities and individuals have had to rethink their values and have come together to look after each other,” Anne says. “People have formed Whatsapp groups in their streets and got to know where their vulnerable neighbours live. We’ve come together to deliver food and medicines, help with others’ shopping and keep in contact with the lonely. I have met many people who have started to feel much better about themselves because they are beginning to realise that caring and sharing is so important.”
Studies back up the idea that our communities have a key bearing on our wellbeing. One research project led by Nottingham Trent University found that individuals who feel a strong sense of belonging to social groups are much happier people and other investigations have shown the mood-boosting benefits of altruistic acts such as volunteering and donating.
The message, then, is simple – look after the planet and the people on it, and they will look after you.
Simple steps to build a happier and healthier world…
Move towards a plant-based diet
“Farming animals requires space as well as a huge amount of water and feed and one of the biggest causes of forest loss is the expansion of agricultural land for animal feed production,” says Sebastian, who adds that producing meat also creates a large volume of carbon dioxide.
Eat more locally-grown, organic food
Organic farming methods support a healthy soil microbiome, while choosing locally-grown seasonal produce reduces your food miles and emissions released through importation.
Get on your bike
“Walking or cycling whenever you can burns fewer fossil fuels, takes vehicles off the roads and in turn, decreases air pollution. Plus, exercise has been proven to be an extremely effective way to alleviate stress, reduce anxiety and improve your mood,” says Sebastian.
Support ethical companies
“Brands that have received the B Corporation certification have met rigorous social and environmental standards across measures including energy, waste and water, diversity and corporate transparency,” advises Sebastian, adding that other marks to look out for include Fair for Life, FairWild, Soil Association and PETA.
Share the message
“Talk about sustainability while showing the way,” says Lee. “Nothing binds a community together like a sense of purpose, and people follow the messenger before they follow the message. So show what you’re doing, and talk to them about it, so they can educate themselves on just how important it is.”
Look after your neighbours
A study published in the journal City & Community found that being a good neighbour and engaging with those around us is linked to increased happiness and satisfaction – something that’s beneficial for both our mental and physical wellbeing.
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