Summary: We are hardwired for self-care— your instinct to survive so you can thrive. In this guide, I tell you how to tap into that built-in ability by nourishing whole-person self-care. Balance your mental, emotional, physical, and spiritual self-care with the three key skills for whole person health: exercise science, mindfulness, and self-kindness. Discover how these tap into your natural motivation for self-care that supports your healthy habits.

What is self-care for whole-person health?

Self-care is the practice of taking an active role in protecting and enhancing one’s own well-being. It’s not just some optional activity you do when you have the time. It’s based on awareness of the parts of your well-being and using them as your guide to thriving. This mindset about self-care allows you to transform everyday activities into whole-person self-care moments.  

What is whole-person health? 

Health is mainly focused on preventing disease. It’s can keep you in a ‘trying to survive’ mindset as you fight off diseases. Whole-person health is feeling and functioning the best you can every day. You don’t need to be disease free to have whole-person health.   It is a thriving mindset.  

Your whole person has eight parts. Your work, home, relationships, and finances are the external parts. They reflect the state of your internal parts: your mental, physical, spiritual and emotional well-being. These internal parts are the heart of thriving, or in other words, being whole-person healthy.  

All of these parts are hardwired to work together. When all you do considers each part, you tap into your built-in self-care skills for whole-person health.  

Notice that I use the term ‘whole-person health’. You are a whole person. Nothing changes your wholeness. However, many actions that are meant to be healthy end up pitting one part against the other:

  • exercising to ‘fix’ problem areas in the body
  • meditating to overcome your unruly brain or restless body
  • eating healthy motivated by fear of disease in your body

These mindsets are practices in fragmenting the parts of you rather than seeing how they work together. Even worse, they make being healthy feel like a list of tasks you have to do because each part is competing for your time and energy.  

Whole-person self-care is knowing how to listen to and take care of each of these internal parts of your whole person together, in the present moment. 

The good news is that you are hardwired to do this. To survive, so you can thrive, each one of these parts has a role in making sure three core needs are met: to be safe, enough, and connected.   

  • When you instinctively jump out of the way of a falling object, that is your innate drive to be safe.
  • When you do something that brings you an inner sense of joy, you align with what you value and have a sense of being ‘enough’. 
  • When you call a friend who you know is feeling down, you act out of your innate drive to love and be loved.

All of these are self-care. We instinctively are motivated to do them because they fill those three core drives to thrive. That means you are innately ‘good’ at self-care.  

Of course, we also make choices that take us in the opposite direction. You might eat foods that you know are not healthy, avoid exercising, and work late into the evening instead of relaxing. The root motivator is still to be safe, enough, and loved. However, when a choice takes you away from well-being, it’s usually because one or more parts of you have been left out of the choice. 

It may sound complicated to consider each part before you make a choice.  This guide shows you how to make it simple. The first step is knowing the hinge point that shifts each part in and out of the state of being well.

The hinge point: the cycle of the Well state and the Stress state 

When your core needs are met, your whole-person is in the Well state. This is when your physiology puts energy into healing, learning, and growing, or in other words, thriving. When it comes to being healthy, this is where all the action happens! And because your brain is hardwired to repeat what makes you feel better now, doing something that shifts you to this state of thriving also supports lasting habits. 

When your core needs are not met, a feeling of stress let you know there is a threat to your ability to thrive and your physiology shifts into survival mode. Your thoughts search the past and future trying to figure out how to restore the sense of being safe, enough, and connected. Your emotions signal your body that there is a threat. Your body prepares to move to take care of that threat. In that state, energy is redirected to fight, flee, or freeze against the threat.

And because your brain is hardwired to avoid what makes you feel worse, anything that shifts you into this survival state tells your brain to avoid it in the future. That works to keep you safe, but it also shortens the lifespan of healthy habits if exercising, eating healthy, or meditating make you feel worse in one or more parts of your internal well-being.   

The survive state has one purpose: to let you take care of threats in order to get back to the thrive state. Stress by itself is not a threat to your health. It is a vital, whole-person wakeup call that you need to take action to get back to Well state.  It’s when you ignore those signals that stress becomes a ‘problem’ for your health. Knowing how to use those stress signals to take care of each part of your internal well-being is the way to whole-person self-care!  

The single most powerful action for whole-person self-care

In the survive state, your whole person shifts to preparing you to move to escape a threat. You can try to quiet the stress signals by thinking differently, doing a breathing exercise, or distracting yourself, but they don’t address the core element of the physiologic response.  

The single most powerful act then for whole-person self-care is to do what your whole-person is prepared to do—move! If you don’t move, the survive state is likely to hang around for a while, putting your health and well-being on hold.  

But not all movement takes care of this shift. Moving can perpetuate the stress state. There are three key elements to giving your whole person what it needs to shift from the stress state to the well state. 

Exercise science is moving the way your body is designed to move with greatest strength and least strain. You were born with this innate ability.  When moving does not feel good in your body now, it’s a sign it is not aligned with the way you are designed to move well.  

Unfortunately, the cultural definition of exercise has strayed from this fact. It has left us with the notion that exercise is supposed to be painful at the start.  This could not be further from the truth. In addition, we have tried to get people moving more, and that has led to misinformation about exercise being any and all movement, e.g., as long as you get steps, you are getting enough exercise. This too could not be further from the truth.

Getting back to exercise science is the start, but it also needs two other skills to be restored to the act of self-care for whole person health.  

Mindfulness is paying attention in the present moment with openness and curiosity. It ensures your attention is on the signals from your whole-person now. Those signals you need to hinge back to the well state are found only in this moment. This is the only way to know if you are in a survive state.   

Self- Kindness is a key element of mindfulness but has its own scientific evidence and nuances. This is why we focus on it as its own skill for whole-person health. Self-kindness is talking to yourself and treating yourself the way you would someone you care about. Just as when you are motivated to take care of someone you love, self-kindness provides the fuel to respond to what you are noticing in your whole person in a way that is most likely to restore you to a state of being well.  

These three—exercise science, mindfulness and self-kindness—align perfectly to allow your whole person to thrive. They are the most efficient and effective way to shift from the surivive to the thrive state. Each one alone has powerful benefits for health, but each one allows the other to work better. The combination of these three skills are what it means to be Exercising Well, in other words, moving for whole-person self-care.  

The four parts of whole-person self-care

Now that we know what whole person health self-care is, we can look at each part of your internal well-being and how to use these three skills to allow each part to work with the others as designed so you thrive. 

Spiritual self-care

What is spiritual self-care?

At the heart of your motives, or the energy that moves you to take action, is your spiritual self. Whether you have a spiritual practice or not, you have a spirit. It is the part of you that informs you about what is most important, at your core (literally and figuratively). Your spirit is the part of you that knows what it means to you to be safe, enough, and connected.

Spiritual self-care starts with being mindful of when you are safe, enough, and connected. Take a moment to notice what it means for you to be:

  • Safe: you have enough air, food, water, and shelter 
  • Enough: you have a sense of your worth, and the ability to do what brings you joy
  • Connected: you have a “tribe” of people who you care for and who care for you 

These are different for everyone. You have your own one-of-a-kind blend of values, talents, strengths, and passions. Mindfulness and self-kindness keep you aware of how these are influencing your choices and habits.   

The sense of being safe, enough, and connected are your Core Motivators. They are your elemental Why for doing anything. Start to look at your motivation, or lack of motivation, to eat healthy, exercise, and manage stress through this lens. It gets to the heart of why you are easily motivated for some healthy habits, and why you struggle with others.  

It is beyond the scope of this guide to get further into how to use them, for now, simply notice what it means for you to be safe, enough, and connected. At the end of this guide I will let you know how to use what you notice for whole-person health.  

For example, when you are not motivated to exercise, eat healthily or do what you know will reduce stress, rather than beating yourself up and calling yourself names like ‘lazy’, get curious. Is your sense of being safe, enough, and connected right now missing from that action?

For example, if you are worried about back pain when you lift weights, not doing it makes you feel safer than doing it. You might choose to work late rather than go to a yoga class because work fills the need to be enough and valued, and the yoga class is a reminder of how inflexible you are.

How to use the three whole-person health skills for spiritual self-care

Mindfulness  

When you are not doing what you know you should to be healthy, it’s because your logical brain has not aligned with what you know at your core about what strategies really work to fill these needs right now. Noticing your sense of being safe, enough, and loved in the present moment lets you tap into your spiritual well-being as your guide.

Self-Kindness  

Calling yourself names like ‘lazy’ blocks what your spirit is trying to tell you.  Being Kind Inside is knowing that low motivation is simply a signal from your spiritual self that what you are doing is not restoring a sense of being safe, enough, or connected right now. 

Exercise Science  

Your spirit resides in your body. It’s where you know you are safe, enough, and connected.  Moving the way you are designed allows you to listen to the signals from your Core Motivators with greater ease and restores your physiology back to the thrive state. 

Mental self-care

What is mental self-care?

Mental self-care starts with knowing how your brain is hardwired to keep you surviving and thriving.

There are three qualities of your brain that let it do its part in your self-care:

  1. Time-traveling: Your brain has the ability to time travel, back to the past, into the future, and to imaginary places never to be found on your calendar.
  2. Negativity bias: Your brain’s job is to scan the past, present, and future for potential threats to your survival.
  3. Information storing: Your brain takes all that information and stores it to be used in deciding what is worth your time and energy, and what is not.

Each one of these has a key role in your surviving and thriving.   

Each time you do something, the survival parts of your brain decide if it is worth doing again because it made you feel better, or if it is better to avoid because it made you feel worse. It stores that information to be retrieved next time you consider doing this activity.  

Even if your logical brain knows it is good for you, it’s your survival brain that will create habits. This is the process neuroscientists call “the Habit Loop”

Habits, then, are not formed by simply repeating something for a certain period of time. Habits are a whole-person process. They are created by the information your brain receives from your physical, emotional, and spiritual parts. When trying to get enough exercise, trying to eat healthy, or trying to reduce stress takes you away from being well in the present moment, your whole person ends up in a stress state. You

  • Fight: Push through pain, boredom, and fatigue to get to a goal
  • Flee: Distract to ignore what your body is telling you
  • Freeze: Put ‘being healthy’ on hold until things calm down and the time is right.

Low motivation is not ‘being lazy’ or ‘slacking off’, it’s simply a sign that while your logical brain knows what you should be doing, your survival brain knows it will keep you from thriving. This is how the ‘all or nothing’ cycle forms with exercising, eating healthy, and managing stress. This cycle is one of the biggest drains for mental well-being.  

How to use the three whole-person health skills for mental self-care

The three skills for whole person self-care flood your brain with the right balance of ‘feel better’ chemicals. This makes it not only easier to shift out of the stress state and back to the thriving state, but it also gives you a buffer against future stressors too! I cannot think of anything better for mental self-care than moving with mindfulness and self-kindness.  

Mindfulness

Mindfulness is the ability to see what is happening here and now rather than distracting from it. Self-care doesn’t work if you are using it as a distraction because it doesn’t make the problem go away. The unmet need is still there, keeping your physiology in a survive state. 

Notice when you are doing something for your health with the mindset you just have to ‘just do it and get through it”. Shift to being present, trusting what your whole person is telling you in the present moment as your guide to thriving. The more present you are, the more you can choose self-care action that shifts your physiology back to the thrive state.  

Self-kindness 

Kindness is often thought of as ‘soft’. There is the belief you have to be tough to be motivated and reach health goals. But research shows the opposite!  Criticism leads to short-term motivation and sabotages long-term motivation.   This is one of the toughest mindsets to shift when it comes to The Big Three for being healthy. Our culture favors a much harsher approach, using self-criticism and fear as motivators. However, fear of a health threat or criticism of how ‘out of shape’ you are as motivators keeps your physiology in a stress state. When you flip the script to seeing healthy choices as acts of self-care, your physiology starts the shift back to the state where they can lead to health.  

Notice when you are using fear, anger, or criticism as a motivator and instead see eating healthy, exercising, and managing stress as an act of kindness. In this way, you are allowing your whole person to work as it is designed, aligning with your innate drive to thrive.

Exercise science

There are four main principles to exercise science that ensure you are moving as designed. Unfortunately, marketing science has defined ‘good exercise’ as what gives quick results for looking better. They keep us thinking that exercise has to be hard, especially at the start, if you want to ‘see results’.  

Mental self-care is getting back to knowing the way you are designed to move well.

Restore muscle memory. You were born with built-in muscle memory to move well. Many common exercises have strayed from this foundation. Whether you are an avid exerciser or don’t move much at all, restoring this muscle memory is the way to ensure that exercise can shift your physiology back to the state of thriving. 

Keep the three skills for moving in daily life. Once you have restored muscle memory, you can use it to ensure you have and keep the three skills needed to move in daily life: strength, mobility, and stamina.  Doing these three types of movement in a balanced way ensures you are telling your cells you want to be well now, and stay well in the future. 

Trust your Inner Trainer™. Pain and energy are your two best guides to knowing how much is enough. When you have more energy and less pain, your physiology is in the optimal state to grow, learn, and heal. When you have less energy and more pain from exercise (even muscle soreness), you have slowed growth, learning, and healing.

Start Well. When you meet yourself where you are, you speed up progress.  Trying to push yourself to get stronger faster actually slows progress. Your body is like a plant—it can only grow at the rate it is hardwired to grow. Just like more water and sunshine than it needs won’t make a plant grow faster, more exercise than your body is ready for won’t make your body stronger.  

These are principles of exercise science, so they make sense. But they go the mainstream messages about exercise, which makes them difficult to remember.    

Using these three skills together transforms the word ‘exercise’ into a form of self-care. This is what it means to be Exercising Well. 

Now with that mental shift about exercise, we can move on to physical self-care.  

Physical self-care

What is physical self-care?

You might know in your head the logic behind the concept of ‘put your own oxygen mask on first’. Why, then, do we struggle with taking time for ourselves to exercise, eat healthily, and manage stress? 

I believe it has something to do with these conflicting images in our culture—exercise means pushing your body, eating healthy means having self-control around all those tempting comfort foods, and managing stress means trying to be mindful and control your ‘monkey mind”. These sound more like work than self-care.

Since the hinge point for health is doing what shifts your physiology back to a thrive state, exercising, eating healthy, and managing stress can’t feel like work!  

Using the three whole-person health skills takes the work out of exercise and puts the enjoyment back in moving to be well now.

How to use the three whole-person health skills for physical self-care

Exercise Science

There are three physical skills your body needs in daily life. When you do them in combination with mindfulness and self-kindness, you have the ability to move well, nourish well, and rest well.  

Each type helps the others but one does not replace the others.  

  • Mobility: the ability to move freely without limitation from tightness, stiffness, or fear of falling. This is improved stretching and ‘trust building’ exercises (AKA balance exercises).
  • Strength: having the ability through muscle memory and muscle cell equipment to move against gravity with the greatest ease and least strain.
  • Stamina: having and keeping the cellular equipment that allows your body to turn food into energy so you can move for extended periods of time without getting tired.

Your body needs all three of these skills. Physical self-care is doing each one of these in the right balance. That gives you the best chance to feel and function well in daily life. It also makes getting enough exercise as simple as 1, 2, 3

  1. One time a day or more, practice mobility by stretching mindfully each part of your body.
  2. Twice a week, practice the six functional strength movements for your upper and lower body, 1-3 sets of 8-12 repetitions each
  3. Three times a week practice moving your body for extended periods of time at a moderate to comfortable challenge for your breathing for 30 minutes or the equivalent in at least 5-minute bouts that add up to 30 minutes.

Doing more of one and not enough of another usually results in injury or pain.   If your exercise history has trained you for the athletic mindset that you have to push through pain and fatigue to make progress, it may take time to shift to a whole-person health approach to exercising to be healthy and well. 

Mindfulness

Awareness of what you’re doing and how it feels is what makes exercise a habit. Consistency is the most important part of exercising, more important than intensity. You can use mindfulness to balance the three types of exercise and make adjustments so that each one leaves you in the state of being well now. As a result, exercise becomes a resource for not only improving physical health but improving mindfulness skills.

Self-kindness

Self-criticism is often used as a motivator for exercising. It works but is known to be short-term. Adding kindness to your exercise makes it a resource for active self-care.

Knowing about these skills is only part of physical self-care.  Experiencing it in your body is what restores the muscle memory that allows you to move well, not only in exercise but in daily life. 

Emotional self-care

What is emotional self-care?

If someone sent you a message that said, “I need to tell you something important”, what would you do? Well, if it was from a business trying to get you to buy something, chances are you would ignore it. If it were a trusted friend, you would contact them right away.

Emotional well-being is not about feeling great all the time, it’s about listening to your emotions because you know they are important messages about your well-being.

Emotions are your thoughts held in your body. Sometimes it is subtle, sometimes it is overwhelming, but what you think is always felt in your body.

This happens through a vast network of nerve cells that run from your brain to every corner of your body. That information from your body goes back to your brain. This is an instantaneous, continuous, inseparable feedback loop.

You experience this all the time. The moment you remember a frightful event or imagine a pleasurable event, your body responds—brain to body, body back to the brain, faster than you can blink.

The changes in your body are feelings, or emotions used to let you know what is going on inside. When there is a real or potential threat to your surviving or thriving, emotions like fear, sadness, or anger arise. When your brain and body sense you have enough of what you need right now, emotions like joy, peace, and confidence come up.

Using the feelings wheel

A helpful tool in tending to emotional well-being is the feelings wheel. 

Studies show that naming your emotions starts the process of taming them.  Knowing emotions are messengers about the conversation between the parts of your whole-person means you can use them as a guide to exercising for self-care.

As a licensed psychologist and author Guy Winch, Ph.D. shares in this powerful TED talk, when we see emotional hygiene as essential as washing our hands when around someone who is ill, we can truly be well. When you choose to respond to emotions as you would to a trusted friend who sends you an urgent message—immediately with kindness and care – you are tapping into your natural motivation to take action.

The critical information about emotions being thoughts in your body is that whether they are positive or negative, emotions prepare your body for movement.

When you think of doing The Big Three for your health as a moment in your day to check-in and tend to the effects of these thoughts stored in your body as feelings, it becomes a natural way to not only boost your emotional intelligence, which has a direct effect on your health.

That is easier said than done.  Strong emotions like guilt, fear, grief, shame, and anger are uncomfortable.   That is where the skill of self-compassion come in!  Kindness creates a soft place for those uncomfortable emotions to land. This way rather than running away from them, you respond with kindness and give your whole person what it needs to shift your physiology back to the state of healing, growth and learning.

How to use the three whole-person health skills for emotional self-care

Exercise science

The state of your body has a direct impact on the state of your emotions. The state of your emotions has a direct impact on the state of your body. Emotions are thoughts held in your body. They are there to make you aware of what you’re thinking. The ‘feeling’ of emotions are your whole person preparing to move.

Your physical ability is innately tied to your ability to survive. For our ancestors, it determined their ability to be part of the tribe and protect themselves and others around them from threats. This strong connection to our physical abilities and innate drive to be safe is still in our physiology. For example, notice how vulnerable you feel when you are injured or your body is limited. 

Moving based on the science of how you are designed gives you the best chance for using your body to be safe, enough, and loved. You experience how you can move with the least strain and the most strength. That builds emotional confidence and calm. 

Mindfulness

Your emotions are often caused by the time-traveling, bad-news-biased skills of your brain. They are there to keep you safe but can generate feelings that are not needed or match what is happening right now. 

When you have those emotions, mindfulness lets you see clearly whether they are a product of past or future thinking, or if they are in the present. Either way, they mean that your body is ready to move now. Combining mindfulness with movement allows you to clear emotional tension that happens when the threat is perceived from the past and future thinking.  To get back to the thrive state in the present, mindful movement is what your body needs now.   

Self-kindness

Emotions let you know what you’re thinking and what’s most important right now. Self-kindness allows you to see them as messengers about what may or may not need your attention right now. 

When you know how to move the way you’re designed with mindfulness and self-kindness, you are able to move well to clear emotions from your body and flood your brain with chemicals that help it to focus on the present moment with greater ease. 

Summary: Exercising well for whole-person self-care

Self-care skills for whole-person health come down to the ability to shift your physiology from a stress state to a well state. That ability is based on moving your body as designed, with mindfulness and kindness.  

How to use this whole-person health guide to transform exercise into self-care

  • Mentally: Stay aware of your self-talk to discover if the way you are expecting to exercise is up-to-date for the needs of your body and your life right now.
  • Physically: Be a savvy exercise consumer so you’ll know if what you are doing is based on movement science, so you can feel and function better from day one.
  • Emotionally: Use your emotions as messengers to alert you to what is important right now, so you can use science-based exercise, with mindfulness and kindness, to calm emotions and protect against chronic stress.
  • Spiritually: Stay present to what restores a sense of being safe, enough, and connected for you in the present moment.