Are Your Putting Your Health In a Box?

Why do we have a doctor for physical health, a doctor for mental health, another for financial health, another for professional development, another for fitness, another when we have a sore knee, another when we can figure out what we should be eating, and another when we are having relationship problems? It seems to be that we are mostly programmed to think that all these areas are separate and independent from each other, or that one can be addressed by itself and that this will affect the rest, and result in a happier state of being for us. Maybe this is correct, but a few things got me thinking about it recently.

In 2009 I was working away on my research thesis at the University of Limerick, when I took a chance and moved to Cork on my own in January. I was hurling away with my club, Na Piarsaigh, and living between the club and a my room on the outskirts of the city. I didn’t know Cork very well when I moved there, and I did not venture to the city much. It was quite a solitary existence for a while as I had left a strong circle of friends behind in Limerick. Shortly after moving to Cork, I got a bad hip injury, which stopped my from hurling, and much of any other form of activity at the time, which had a negative effect on my physical health, mental health, and a lull in terms of my overall ambitions in everything from sport, to my professional career, reading and learning, travel, and making new friends. At the time, everything seemed so separate and independent from each other, but now I see things differently.

The different areas of my life were so connected that its hard to even know what triggered my semi-withdrawal. Was it the hip injury? Maybe. But what triggered the hip injury? Was it being alone in a new county? Or trying so hard to fit in that I put too much pressure on myself? Was it simply from training too hard, or training the wrong way? Whatever the reason, I decided in 2011 to do a 'pattern interrupt' of sorts and went off to Melbourne for 6 weeks and lived with my pal Aisake Ó hAilpín (who I met again for the first time in 3 or 4 years at Seán Óg's wedding last week).  I spent the time in Melbourne hanging out with Aisake, Setanta, and another mate Kevin White, who is a sports scientist with Collingwood footy club. We hung out on the beach in St Kilda, went to footy games, had coffee on Fed Square, went to comedy gigs, tested our luck in the casino, and trained at Doherty's 24/7 gym at 2am in the morning. I also got myself in with the best physio's and practitioners in town. The break in all of my routines gave me the space to relax my body and mind, meet new people, and have my first proper good time since the injury kicked off. While over there, I made a decision to open a training facility, ACLAÍ, and to make more of life, regardless of whether I was able to go back to hurling or not.

When I came back I was in the right headspace to rehab whatever was left of the injury into oblivion, and was set to take on new challenges, and build the kind of life for myself that I wanted. Today, ACLAÍ is going from strength to strength, with great members, great coaches, and great results. More on this later, but the main point is that I believe that physical health, mental health, the environment that you are in, and the people that you hang around with are all interlinked in a way that if one of them is not right, then its going to upset the applecart. Being in a negative environment might leave you scratching your head as to why you are putting on weight, or why you are constantly having back trouble. You might wonder why you have less motivation in general, while stuck away in a house by yourself, when it seems you do not have anyone to call upon for a bit of banter. Today, with a million different things vying for our attention, and a world of information right at our fingertips, we have become much less introspective when it comes to checking in with ourselves, and doing a mental 'stocktake' of what's going on in our lives, and the potential affect that the our current situations are having on our general happiness in life. It has become much easier to get lost on your Facebook feed checking out what all the 'happy people' out there are getting up to, and allowing the distraction to take your mind off the thing that you should really be concerned about; your own happiness.

In tribal times, the healer of a community would try to find the root of the problem of an ill member of the tribe, and treat that, instead of treating the symptoms. Oftentimes, a tribe would come together and dance for their sickly neighbour and banish the their sickness. In this day and age, this sounds so weird and alien, but when you think about it, it makes sense. People often become unwell, addicted, unmotivated, or injured while socially isolated, or when they feel like they are not being accepted at work, within their family, or in any peer-group that they are a part of. Community in the sense of the word that each member contributes something to the greater good, and that if one member of the community is in need then the rest of the community chips in to help them out, is all but gone. People live next door to each other for years and never speak more than a simple greeting to each other. When you walk into a restaurant or coffee shop in a city, all you see is people with their heads down lost in some electronic device. You see couples hand in hand, and texting with their other hand. A good sharp blast of community spirit, a strengthening of ties with peers, forgiveness and reconciliation for old disagreements, lovely food, and a bit of music and a dance seems to be a damn good tonic for someone feeling a bit down. During his speech at his own wedding on the 1st of January, Seán Óg said that 'the greatest human need is the need to be loved', and this makes perfect sense in this context as well.

Paul Chek has a very simple model that incorporates this holistic model of health, and shows how the dots are connected when it comes to our overall health and satisfaction with life. He has broken the key areas into four components, each of which has the name of a Doctor that must be visited and heeded. Dr Diet, Dr Quiet, Dr Happiness, and Dr Movement. For more on this check out the book 'How to Eat Move ad Be Healthy'

Over Christmas this year, I went out with my girlfriend Shakira, youngest brother Naoise, and a small group of the latest generation of Belfast Irish language activists. In Madden's Bar, I got chatting to my friend Aodh, who is currently working as a Chef in the Basque Country, and we got chatting about how the compartmentalization of physical health to the confines of the place we called a gym is a terrible model on which to build your overall health on. We agreed that health encompassed much more than simply how much weight you can push, or distance you can run. There is the social aspect, the support of a group, teaching others, learning from others, reading and developing the mind, playing games, looking at art, challenging yourself physically and mentally, and having a peer group that you can relate to. Really, that’s what ACLAÍ is all about. Its why we have a gym space that includes squat racks, gymnastics rings, a slackline and plenty of space for experimentation. Its why we train together on a Saturday, and head to the farmers market for ice cream and coffee afterwards. We have table tennis, jenga, and a chess board. A mini (but growing) library, a book club, and a small art exhibition. Our walls are filled with images of some of the greats of history from Einstein, to Rosa Parks, Nelson Mandela, Ghandi, Buddha, and Mohammad Ali. Each week, it comes together a bit more at ACLAÍ. It really is our way of saying that to be healthy, you must engage with life. Play games, meet people, talk, and enjoy the ride. The way we train encompasses this philosophy as well. We train general movement patterns that get more complex and challenging as we develop ourselves. Even within our own coaching team, we are at different levels, but we train together (upwards of 25 hours a week), and help each other out. Our members are the same in that they are at many different levels, but the sense that we are all much more similar than we are different is coming through more and more each day. But this isn't a promotional blog article. Just a few thoughts on why I believe that to be truly healthy and happy, you must look broadly at your own situation, and address the 4 Doctors that Paul Chek has highlighted for us (Dr Diet, Dr Quiet, Dr Movement, and Dr Happiness). ACLAÍ is our attempt at bringing these things together in a way that can help more people than just ourselves.

This article is by Ainle Ó Cairealláin MSc CSCS.