You’ve probably heard it said before, “just eat a balanced diet,” or “strive for balance, not perfection.” But what do these phrases really mean? As someone who tends to have a very all-or-nothing approach to health, I know that living a balanced lifestyle is easier said than done. I have many times found myself firmly planted on one side of the spectrum, either eating whatever I wanted with very little discretion or subsisting entirely on smoothies and salads. It has taken me a long time to realize that neither of these extremes are sustainable, the former just making me sick and tired and the latter causing me to feel restricted and deprived. And it has taken me a long time to find that balance, to become aware that a life more towards the center of that health spectrum can be good too, or to even understand what a “balanced” lifestyle entails.
So what does this healthy medium look like? The best answer that I can give to this question is that it is going to be different for every person. We all lead different lives, and have different schedules, habits, preferences, and challenges we face. There are countless factors which vary from person to person and play an integral part in shaping the perfect balance that is unique to us. So keep in mind that while for some people theirs might be allowing themselves to eat less healthy foods on the weekends or special occasions, yours may be something entirely different.
However, there are a few core components of a balanced lifestyle that can be universally applied. Put simply, these are nutrition, rest, and exercise. Everyone needs to be fueling their bodies with healthy foods, being active when they can, and getting enough sleep and downtime. Of course, this is not possible one hundred percent of the time. Sometimes you are going to eat French fries, skip a workout to sleep in, or stay up too late watching Netflix. And having a balanced mindset is about realizing that that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
If this is confusing, and you’re wondering how neglecting some core components of a balanced lifestyle at times can actually be part of balanced lifestyle, then allow me to explain. I’m only saying that nutrition, rest, and exercise have to at least be part of your life, and that they should be emphasized to the extent that you personally are capable of. So if you’re a college student who is constantly staying up late to study, you may only be able to make up for that lost sleep on the weekends. Or if eating out with your family every week is a tradition, you may want to be less strict about your diet for that meal. It’s about doing your best, while also enjoying life and being gracious with yourself.
But what are the benefits of taking a balanced approach to health, as opposed to trying to be perfect all of time? Research suggests that this approach “can lead to reduced stress, improved health, and greater life satisfaction” (1). This shouldn’t come as a surprise. It makes sense that a person will worry less about “cheating” on their diet if they aren’t holding themselves to an impossible standard of perfection, and that they’ll feel less guilty and more satisfied once that stress is gone. Research also shows that a more relaxed approach to health can be more sustainable long term (2), and that “sustainable and enjoyable eating practices” are key to successful weight management (3).
Essentially, if you’re someone who struggles with finding a happy medium between a perfectly healthy lifestyle and an extremely unhealthy one, start by focusing on the simple stuff. Eat nutritious foods when you can, get moving as often as possible, and rest when you need to. If you begin to incorporate these three things into your life, without obsessing over them or allowing them to get in the way of living, you’ll begin to reap the benefits of a balanced lifestyle not just short term, but for the rest of your life.
1. Matuska, K. M., Christiansen, C. H. (2011). A proposed model of lifestyle balance. Journal of Occupational Science, 15(1) 9-19.
2. Hawley, G., Horwath, C., Gray, A., et al. (2008). Sustainability of health and lifestyle improvements following a non-dieting randomized trial in overweight women. Preventative Medicine, 47(6) 593-599.
3. Seagle, H. M., Strain, G. W., Makris, A., et al. (2009). Position of the American Dietetic Association: weight management. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 109(2) 330-346.