In hard times, good nutrition, fitness first to go

To Your Health

Part of my daily schedule is a workout at the gym. Over the years, I have come to know a number of other regulars there, and in some cases our shared interests have lead to close friendships. A while ago, one of my fellow fitness enthusiasts whom I consider a friend lost his job and remained unemployed for an unnerving period of several months. The stress of existential uncertainty wore heavy on him. Yet, he maintained his regimen the same way he used to when he was working. Every day he continued lifting weights, kept running his three miles, ate nutritious food and controlled his weight.
I was impressed. Despite of his dismal situation, this man refused to let himself go. He knew that taking good care of his health needs was especially important now. Besides, maintaining his personal fitness was among the few things he still had control over. It also became his greatest asset in the grueling process of trying to land a new job.
Not everybody acts like this. There are plenty of horror stories of people facing economical difficulties and hardships who end up abusing their bodies with junk food, smoking, alcohol or drugs.
Of course, priorities change with circumstances. Cost cutting measures become necessary. Yoga classes and Pilates sessions are the first to go. Gym memberships are soon abandoned as unaffordable luxury items. High quality foods may be deemed unaffordable and are replaced with cheaper fares.
The psychologist Abraham Maslow described in his famous study, "A Theory of Human Motivation," how we all form our priorities and adapt them to the different situations we find ourselves in. He called it "the hierarchy of needs."
Maslow's theory is often depicted in a pyramid-style graphic consisting of five distinct levels. The lowest level concerns the basic needs for survival. Once the most fundamental necessities for survival are satisfied, others come into play, such as safety needs, emotional demands and, eventually, aspirations for personal growth and self-fulfillment.
As the shape of a pyramid suggests, all these needs are present in every one of us, but they don't necessarily come to the forefront at the same time and with the same urgency. For instance, if somebody has to worry about food or shelter, he or she may not be as concerned about exotic vacations or philosophical issues at that time. "Higher" interests, like the latter, only come into focus when the more basic elements of the hierarchical order are satisfied. If lower-level needs remain unmet, e.g. sufficient financial security, some higher-level demands or interests may never be addressed at all.
I believe that Maslow's theory has great merits and has deservedly been acclaimed as a milestone among psychological concepts. However, as in the case of my gym friend, I also realize that people are indeed able to establish their own hierarchies - not only of needs but also of beliefs and values - and maintain these even in the face of dramatic challenges in their lives.
The lesson we can learn here is this: Yes, circumstances do dictate some of our choices - but not all of them and not all the time. Even under the most dire circumstances, we can still decide what we are willing to fight for and what we let go. Therefore, we should consider carefully what goes where.
Timi Gustafson is the author of "The Healthy Diner - How to Eat Right and Still Have FunĀ®." Find more tips for a healthy lifestyle in her book, which is available at and on her blog at
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