Tis the season for caring about our own health and well-being. This year, for the holidays, I wanted to share some fun tips I learned from working with animals to promote better self-care and self-compassion.
Sleep is the true foundation for our overall wellness; take a good look at the animal kingdom. There isn’t a single species, from earthworms and anemone to sharks and dolphins, that doesn’t need at least periods of rest. We cannot survive without sleep. Animals will adapt their bodies, brains, and behavior to allow sleep rather than find ways to go without it.
So, if sleep and rest is that important to animals, sleep must be very important for us as well. Develop a shutdown schedule in order to prioritize your sleep, turning off your electronics at least an hour before going to sleep and waking up and going to bed at the same time every day and night. Create an ideal sleep environment that is cool, quiet, and dark. Embrace your sleep, and have some sweet dreams come true.
Know why many facilities have shows or presentations with their animals? The first and primary purpose has nothing to do with visitors. During COVID shutdowns, many zoos and aquariums still ran their animals through the same motions as if they were performing for crowds, only without the applause from guests. That’s because animals are meant to MOVE.
Animals move to find food, find shelter, companionship or mates, avoid becoming food, and they move because it feels good.
WE need to move, too, because it’s in our DNA. If we don’t get up and stretch our muscles, get our blood pumping, and perform functional exercises, we lose those abilities. Then we CAN’T stretch, run, or perform daily activities.
Here’s the thing about movement, too. Animals don’t perform one activity and then sit still for the remainder of the day. Our exercise doesn’t have to be one long session. In fact, for better self-care, let’s emulate the animal kingdom and move throughout the day. Take multiple breaks for better focus, healthier bodies, and overall good feelings.
Why do animals move? Most of the time, it’s in search for food. Whether the animal is hunting or foraging for leaves and plants, animals spend a lot of time focused on their next meal.
We are very fortunate that in today’s society, we don’t have to think so hard about our next meal. But maybe we should.
Eating a more “natural” diet helps our overall health, too. Several studies have shown that by eliminating processed foods, including processed sugars, flours, and vegetable oils, participants not only lose weight, but they also reduce their health risks significantly. Eating healthy also feels better in the long run over the immediate gratification of sweets and indulgent foods.
So, when you are feeling stressed, take a page from the animal kingdom. You can certainly search for food, but let’s make it food that will help us feel better, physically, emotionally, and mentally.
Getting a little fresh air is important for everyone. The health benefits are remarkable. Being outdoors for up to 30 minutes a day helps reduce stress, lower cortisol levels, relax any tension in our muscles, and lowers heart rates. The benefits of going outside range from better sleep, better immune functions, and better exercise. In fact, many experts agree that exercising outdoors can boost the health benefits of exercise by a factor of two. Twice the mood booster. Twice the energy booster. Twice the focus.
No wonder animals are superstars in their environment.
But there is a secondary benefit to experiencing nature that most fitness professionals don’t discuss. I call it passive conservation. When we spend a little time in nature, we begin to appreciate it. We come to love it. And the more we love something, the more we want to protect it, preserve it, and save it.
So take a trip outdoors. And turn this amazing health benefit into a passion to save a piece of our hearts.
Learn Something New
Training animals isn’t just for the animals’ physical health. Yes, it is one of the most important reasons zookeepers spend time building relationships and trust with the animals, so we can take better care of them. But the animals don’t just get a good healthcare system out of training sessions. They also get a really good dose of mental health.
Research shows that laboratory animals that learn new things, such as a new maze, a new feeder puzzle, or new behavior, not only have extended lives, but better quality of life as well. Animals in zoos learn new behaviors throughout their entire lives. That helps the animal grow more empowered and more engaged with their trainers and other animals.
So, I can’t think of a better reason to grab a new book, learn a new skill, try a new activity, or take a new class. Learning broadens our horizons. It enriches our minds. And makes us better all around.
Take a Relaxing Bath
I know, this seems oddly specific, doesn’t it? Well, let’s generalize a little, by looking at how animals take care of hygiene. We don’t always see it as cleanliness, but hygiene to animals tends to be skin care: getting rid of parasites, soothing itches, and protecting from the elements.
Many animals cover themselves in dust, dirt, or sand to “wash”. I used to love watching the elephants dig into the sand, gather a trunkful of sand, and fling it onto their backs. When I worked with horses this past year, we would laugh at how the herd would coat themselves in mud by rolling around in it.
Now, should you take a literal lesson and get a mud bath or sand bath yourself? Well, that’s up to you. But I know when I’ve had a long stressful day, nothing brings me back to a relaxed state than a long hot bubble bath. It might be the perfect pick-you-up that you need as well.
Another important component to animals’ health in a zoo keeping them engaged through play. Zookeepers give the animals activities throughout the day, called enrichment. We give them “environmental enrichment devices” (a fancy word for toys), provide opportunities to practice hunting or foraging techniques, and change their environment in various ways. All in the name of play.
My husband and I find ways to enrich our lives through play, too. Last month, we went ice skating, the first time we had ever done that together in our 25+ years we’ve known each other. Each month, we find a new hike, a new park, and a new adventure in our town. It’s a day together, letting us connect a little more, but it’s also just a lot of fun, exploring the city and finding new exciting ways to play.
So, enrich your mind, your spirit, and your health. Go out and play. Have some fun. And just let go!
Spend Time with Loved Ones
Some of my favorite animals are very social. Elephants. Walrus. Dolphins. Bison. GOATS! I’m sure their social status isn’t what endears me to them, but it does remind me how important community and family is to us humans as well.
We are a social species, and while humans CAN survive completely on their own, it’s not that great for our mental well-being. We don’t THRIVE being alone.
Even if you don’t get along with people (how many of us describe ourselves as animal-people, and not people-people), or even your own family, take some time to connect with them on some level.
As I already mentioned, once a week, my husband and I spend a day together. We share our hopes and dreams, our progress on projects, and bounce ideas off each other. I recognize how important we are to each other.
So, find a soul-mate (no it doesn’t have to be a romantic partner) and connect with them. Spending time can be a life-changer for them, and a life-saver for you.
Don’t Take Life for Granted
Life as a wild animal is hard. Hunters must exert an immense amount of energy in pursuit of prey. Prey species must always be on the lookout for predators. But each of these animals LIVE. They don’t squander precious seconds worried about something they said, or didn’t say, or about the car that cut them off on their way to work. The gazelle doesn’t sit down and wait in despair that a lion might get them. They live their lives, but they are attuned to life around them.
Animals live in the moment.
That is certainly easier said than done. How do we get as good as animals at living in the moment, and not taking life for granted? We practice. With gratitude. With mindfulness. With self-care activities that feel good, fuel our spirit, and help us become the best versions of ourselves. One of my favorite affirmations I practice daily is “I am grateful for today, my life, and everything in it.” Then I do what I need to have an awesome day.
Wisdom from the Wild
The animal kingdom is wild. But it is also wise. Let’s emerge into their wisdom and lessons to take better care of ourselves, so we can take better care of the world around us.
Have a wonderful holiday!