I have long felt conflicted about the body self-optimization frenzy that seems to have taken over our society by storm. That is until I borrowed a Fitbit from a friend and found myself eagerly analyzing my body’s data and how it correlated with my experience. Did I sleep well last night? Let me check. The satisfaction of reaching an arbitrary 10,000 steps and the nerdy excitement when my watch detected my flu symptoms before I did—HRV and sleep quality down, heart rate up—had me hooked.
To agree on the terms: body self-optimization refers to the intentional and ongoing efforts people make to enhance and maintain their well-being by improving fitness, nutrition, sleep, etc. to achieve optimal physical health and performance. Often it is done with the help of a wearable device that tracks physiological data and activity.
As a keen member of the optimization gang I find it fascinating, exciting and meaningful. And yet, it’s potentially problematic for mental health. So, in this blog post let’s take a look at some of the psychological considerations associated with body self-optimization and try to formulate some safety guidelines.
Wearables and body-mind connection
First thing to keep in mind is that the primary source of information about your body and well-being is your internal, felt body awareness – what we usually call “being in touch with your body”. It is a prerequisite to emotional regulation and is one of the skills that I most often teach people in therapy. It allows us to know when we are tired, hungry, sad, anxious, happy, etc. – and act accordingly.
Now for a lot of us it’s not such an easy task. Our relationships with our bodies are clouded by internalized societal expectations, perfectionism and sometimes – trauma. Often instead of listening to the body, developing awareness and acceptance of felt sensations in order to adjust our actions and fulfil our needs – we embark on a journey to control it. Think for example about counting calories vs listening to the cues of hunger/fullness.
When we strive to control our bodies, we often turn to tools like calorie charts, strict diet or exercise plans, or the data from wearable devices. These tools tend to consume our focus, diverting attention away from the sensations our bodies convey. This occurs because wearable devices provide information that appeals to our intellect—numbers, graphs, and progress tracking. It’s compelling, straightforward, and clear. I might prefer digging into this data to a very different and subtle type of intellectual effort: directing my attention inwards, sensing and taming my mind to observe and listen without reacting, telling stories and fighting against my sensations. Simply noticing. Am I full? Hungry? Experiencing a satisfying fatigue after exercising? Or have I pushed too hard? Am I truly rested?
The tools that we use can become a substitution of the felt experience and instead of enhancing – replace our mind-body connection.
Action points: Prioritize the felt mind-body connection as your primary body information source. Practices like body-scan mindfulness, yoga and other forms of slow conscious movement or simply developing a habit of check-ins with your body throughout the day can help foster this connection.
The driver of your self-optimization matters
To be a psychologically safe endeavor, body self-optimization needs to stem from a place of kindness and nurture rather than criticism or shame toward oneself and one’s body. Distinguishing between these mindsets can be challenging but these questions might help:
Do you believe you’re not good enough as you are, and do you think improving your body and health will bring self-acceptance? Do you feel you only deserve love or attention if you become a better version of yourself or look a certain way? If you answer yes to these, focusing on self-love and self-care before diving into any optimization efforts is crucial.
Self-love and acceptance form the bedrock of meaningful self-improvement. Without them, challenges along the way may feel like evidence of our inadequacy, triggering cycles of shame and self-criticism. This can lead to unrealistic expectations, feeling of failure, shame, and a belief that feeling better is only possible by becoming a “better” version of oneself.
Compare it to learning to accept yourself as ok you are now, removing the pressure to become someone else and practicing taking care of your needs. You might discover that growth, change and improvement are among your needs and in addressing them, discipline and optimization become acts of self-love, supporting and nurturing your present self rather than a whip to force yourself to change.
Action points: In the process of self-optimization, check in with the feelings you have towards yourself as you are now. If there’s little warmth and acceptance or if you notice shame – take a moment to feel them and practice selfcare. Start new optimization projects (exercise, nutrition changes, etc.) when you feel good and warm about yourself.
Avoiding the pitfalls of achievement mentality
Our bodies provide a space and framework for being instead of doing and achieving and in the modern world – god knows – we need these spaces. And we need to be careful not to transform these spaces into another form of achievement. Have I reached the best sleep? Have I achieved the meditative state I was striving for? Did I walk my 10 000 steps?
Awareness and mindfulness of being are vulnerable to immediate conversion into the achievement of doing. So how do I foster my growth without losing a safe space within myself where I don’t have to run after my next golden star (or my watch celebrating me hitting my goals) but instead can lower my shoulders? Prioritizing rest is something that we need to see as part of optimization. If you are doing more you also need to be non-doing more, keeping doing and being in balance.
Action points: Actively schedule rest and activities that don’t lead to any achievement but rather create a flow state in your days. An aimless walk in the forest, a one-person dance party, a blocked off hour in the calendar with nothing in it – they are just as important as your active hours.
All in all, body self-optimization requires a careful balance. It involves both leveraging the power of technological tools we have and preserving, nurturing and developing our natural mind-body connection. By prioritizing self-acceptance and embracing moments of non-doing, we pave the way for a more balanced and fulfilling journey towards both physical and mental well-being.