“Self-compassion is the most important foundation to build a healthy life from,” says Ariel Johnston, RD, LD, a registered dietitian. Without it, it’s hard to make progress toward better health, she adds.
It’s also a particularly relevant skill to have in this moment. “Self-compassion is so hugely important during this time in our lives because we are experiencing a collective trauma,” Johnston explains. “This stresses our bodies out and we enter fight-or-flight mode, which can impact our health and burn us out.”
So what is self-compassion exactly? According to Kristin Neff, PhD, the foremost researcher on the topic, self-compassion is treating yourself the way you’d treat someone else who is suffering. That might sound a little “soft” for someone who wants to get fitter, but what many don’t realize is a little kindness and compassion toward yourself can actually make it easier to achieve your health goals, particularly when stress is high.
Ahead, health and fitness pros explain their favorite ways to practice self-compassion, plus how these methods can make it easier to stay on top of your mental and physical health.
You might not be able to go outside as much as you want right now, but getting some interaction with nature is one of the best ways to be kind to yourself because of the health benefits. “So many scientific studies show us that even listening to sounds of nature or looking at a photo of a natural scene significantly and quickly lowers stress hormones and anxiety,” explains Elesa Zehndorfer, PhD, an author and certified personal trainer. “A great tool is listening to thunderstorm, rain or ocean sounds as you fall asleep.
Most of us were overscheduled before social distancing entered our lives. “It’s a major shift for many of us to pause,” notes Maya Feller, MS, RD, CDN a registered dietitian. Many of us feel pressure to continue to be productive — and meeting our health and fitness goals is no exception. But for many, motivation is taking a hit. “One way to practice self-compassion right now is to honor your body and take time to rest,” Feller says. “That may mean implementing off days from home exercise, as well as creating ‘nothing time’ during the day so you can be in your body and with your breath.”
If trying to lose weight while spending more time at home than usual, you might be running up against issues like being in the kitchen more often and not getting as much everyday movement. That may be an argument for backing off of weight-loss goals for a while and just focusing on doing exercise you enjoy and doing your best to eat well. “Too many people are constantly on the hunt to lose weight, slash calories or punish their body into being exactly what they think is ‘perfect,’” says Adrienne Herrenbruck, PhD, a professor, researcher and personal trainer. “By reframing our perspective to one of health, we can then see the value in taking rest days, pushing it hard when we feel great or indulging in treats when we need social connection.”
It’s also worth noting there’s some evidence that practicing self-compassion could help people avoid bingeing. So, focusing on being kind to yourself could help you meet that weight-loss goal in an indirect way.
Letting go of certain types of goals might be helpful, but that doesn’t mean you have to avoid goal-setting altogether. “If you’re someone who does want a goal during a time of stress, mobility is likely one of the best things you can work toward,” Herrenbruck says. “Since most are moving less or potentially sitting more, now is the time to get down on the floor and work on our range of motion. My favorite mobility exercise of all time is the 90-90 hip opener. I don’t know anyone who couldn’t benefit from incorporating this exercise.”
To try it: Sit on the floor with one leg in front of you, bent to 90 degrees, bring your other leg behind you, also bent to 90 degrees. Lean forward and stretch, then switch sides.
Stress triggers cortisol, also known as the stress hormone. So to feel less overwhelmed, it can be helpful to focus on getting cortisol under control. “Uncertainty is, interestingly, what spikes cortisol the highest,” Zehndorfer says. Her recommendation? “Remove uncertainty and surprise bad news by significantly limiting social media and news exposure to something like one hour per day. If you replace an early morning and before bed ‘Facebook check’ with stretching, you are also lowering cortisol.”
“One of the hidden benefits of being quarantined and spending more time at home is more frequent proximity to your own kitchen,” points out Jamie Bacharach, a licensed medical acupuncturist and health coach. “Take advantage of this by preparing yourself tastier and more indulgent foods than you typically could,” she suggests. By spending a little more time and effort on indulgences — finally trying that complicated recipe you’ve always wanted to make, for example — you’re more likely to appreciate them in a mindful way. Mindful eating can lead to more enjoyment and less guilt around indulgences.
“With lack of equipment and fitness facilities, now is a great time to make use of items around your home during exercise, and to focus on bodyweight movements to improve quality of movement,” says Kristen Gasnick, DPT. “This will result in a better mind-muscle connection, taking the concentration off of the amount of weight that you are lifting.” Not only can this strategy of focusing on form take some of the pressure off of working out at home, but it can also reduce your risk of workout injury, and even translate to better performance when you start lifting heavier loads again.
How we breathe has a big impact on how we feel, which is why breathwork might be worth experimenting with. “Every morning before I meditate, I dedicate about five minutes to breathwork,” says Grayson Wickham, DPT, a certified strength and conditioning specialist, founder of Movement Vault. “This helps pump my body full of oxygen and get my nervous system in a relaxed, parasympathetic state to start my day.” Wickham recommends rapid breaths in and out of the nose for about three minutes, then two minutes of very deep breaths which helps stretch out and contract the lungs and respiratory muscles, including your diaphragm. Here are some other ways to incorporate breathwork into your routine.
There’s something to be said for being OK with how your habits are changing right now. “You’re probably not the best version of yourself right now, and that’s 100% OK,” says Louis Laves-Webb, LCSW, an Austin-based psychotherapist. “Now, more than ever, our world can feel upside down. Embrace this absurdity, and go ahead and have that donut, drink that glass of wine or use a little more profanity than you might otherwise. Do so without judgement or shame, and truly allow yourself to indulge and transgress. You may ‘need it’ in ways that you wouldn’t under normal circumstances.”
You’ve probably heard of a gratitude journal. This is like that, but specifically about your body. “Identify what your body has done for you each day or how your body has allowed you to experience peace or enjoyment,” recommends Whitney Russell, owner and founder of Brave Haven Counseling. “Shifting your perspective from being critical of your body to having appreciation for it will help you to take better care of it.”