Living a Balanced Life

Finding harmony in mind, body and spirit can be difficult, but not impossible.


November/December 2010

by Jodi Helmer

Life is a balancing act for Allison Orr. She shuttles three children between football, dance and martial arts, serves as a classroom mom and coaches Little League in her hometown of Morris Plains, New Jersey. She makes time for morning runs but has no time to eat lunch. The frenetic pace makes it hard to spend time with friends and the go-go-go schedule forces household chores to the bottom of her to-do list. She often wakes up in the mornings with an upset stomach, worried about fitting it all in.

“I am neglecting things and the guilt gives me stress,” explains Orr, 40. “Still, I’m the first person to say, ‘Sure, I’ll do it,’ even when the voice in the back of my head is saying, ‘Where are you going to find the time?’”

Orr admits that the most difficult part of achieving balance is finding time to juggle her responsibilities with the things that give her pleasure. She’s not alone.

“Most people think balance is a nice idea but a little unrealistic to achieve,” explains Caroline Adams Miller, adjunct lecturer in positive psychology and coaching at New York University and author of Creating Your Best Life: The Ultimate Life List Guide (Sterling). “Living a balanced life is possible but it takes work.”

Balance Does a Body Good

“Being out of balance can cause problems with your mood and your physical health,” explains Judith Orloff, MD, assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at University of California Los Angeles and author of Emotional Freedom: Liberate Yourself from Negative Emotions and Transform Your Life (Crown Publishing Group). Orloff says a lack of balance can cause stress, which can lead to insomnia, headaches, muscle tension, decreased sex drive, upset stomach, fatigue and increased risk of colds and infections.

A study published in the May issue of European Heart Journal found that people who work more than 50 hours per week are almost 60% more likely to develop heart disease or suffer from a heart attack than those who work just 35 hours per week. Researchers believe that spending too much time at work leaves little time for leisure and self-care, and that lack of balance increases the risk of heart trouble.

Deep breathing exercises help restore feelings of balance and calm while delivering the oxygen that helps nourish muscles and organs, increase energy, boost immune function and lower blood pressure, according to Kate Hanley, author of The Anywhere, Anytime Chill Guide: 77 Simple Strategies for Serenity (skirt!).

While standing in line for a morning latte, waiting for documents to download at work, during the evening commute and before settling into bed at night, start with a gentle exhale and then inhale, imagining your lungs expanding in all directions. “It’s better to start with an exhale because we tend to keep a lot of stale air in our lungs because we take such shallow breaths,” explains Hanley.

Taking advantage of small moments to practice meditation, deep breathing, silence or even a few gentle stretches has enormous benefits for the mind, body and spirit. “Finding balance in your life will make you happier and healthier,” notes Orloff. But just as nutritious meals and morning runs take planning and preparation, balance also requires forethought.

Making Time

Just what exactly does living in balance mean? There is no one-size-fits-all definition, but the most popular approach to balance focuses on integrating a mix of relationships and activities that nourish body, mind and spirit.

Rosie Molinary, author of Beautiful You: A Daily Guide to Radical Self-Acceptance (Seal Press), believes that multitasking is an essential part of leading a balanced life. She stops at the post office to mail packages on the way to the playground, catches up on the news while she’s on the treadmill and returns phone calls during her commute. Without combining activities, Molinary wouldn’t be able to accomplish her goals. “Even in the midst of the busyness, there are ways to balance responsibilities with pleasures,” she says.

Molinary schedules time for the things that matter. Everything from book signings and speaking engagements to planning her fantasy football league, making lunches for her son to take to preschool and working out are recorded in her calendar. She admits to feeling a sense of accomplishment when she’s able to check things off but adds, “It’s important to have time in your life that is just not schedulable, time when you aren’t checking your phone or your computer—and you are just being. You have to give yourself stillness in order to sustain the frenzy at other times.”

If achieving balance feels as impossible as finding the single sock that goes missing in the wash, Miller suggests making a list. Write down all the things that require attention, from work and household chores to book club and workouts, and then contemplate what needs to be changed. Are there activities that are taking up too much time and focus? Responsibilities that are getting left out altogether? Once those dynamics have been identified, create an action plan and start making changes.

Sometimes a few small changes such as setting the alarm an hour earlier to squeeze in a morning workout or running errands at lunch to have time to meet a friend for drinks after work might be all it takes to restore balance. Other times, drastic changes, like resigning from the PTA to have more time at home with the kids, could be in order. The efforts, big and small, are worth it.

Setting Priorities

Making a commitment to take a lunch break helped Polly Campbell restore some balance to her hectic life.

Campbell, a mom and writer in Beaverton, Oregon, used to sit at her desk and eat while she worked until she started to feel stressed from the lack of downtime. Now she carves out 30 minutes to eat and relax. Sometimes, she reads a book or meditates and other times she just sits in silence. “It’s not just about the food,” explains Campbell, 42. “It’s about having some time and space to be quiet.”

Campbell is the first to admit that living a balanced life doesn’t mean living a perfect life. She’ll happily ignore the dust bunnies breeding under the couch so that she can play another game of CandyLand with her daughter and chooses to spend Sunday afternoons watching football with her husband instead of pulling weeds in the garden.

“I decided that I was going to stop doing the things I should do and start doing the things that mattered,” she says. “For me, balance is an imperfect thing; it’s something I need to evaluate all the time. Sometimes I don’t achieve total balance but I am making an effort to live a balanced life.”

Embracing imperfection has become Campbell’s motto: Her mind often wanders when she meditates but at least she’s making an effort. She might skip formal workouts for an entire week in favor of breaking a sweat during impromptu dance parties in the living room with her daughter. And she’s never lost a wink of sleep because the sheets and pillowcases aren’t starched and ironed. “I gave myself permission to do it how I wanted to do it instead of feeling like I was failing if I didn’t achieve a certain level,” she explains.

When she spends too much time on obligations and not enough time on the things that nurture her mind, body and spirit, Campbell admits to feeling impatient, irritated and resentful. Restoring balance helps combat those negative feelings.

Life As Process

Balance isn’t something that can be achieved or checked off a to-do list; it’s a process that needs to be reexamined and renegotiated all the time. And sometimes being out of balance has its benefits, says Miller, who points to swimming sensation Michael Phelps as an example. “He lived an out-of-balance life while he was preparing [for the 2008 Olympics] but his rigorous training schedule allowed him to make history,” Miller observes. “Sometimes, we make an intentional choice to lead out-of-balance lives in order to pursue a particular passion or goal.”

As long as a lack of balance doesn’t become a pattern that interferes with happiness, it’s not something to be concerned about. That’s the approach Orr has taken to life: She recognizes things are out of balance right now but knows it’s a worthwhile tradeoff so she can be with her kids. “I think if I could say ‘no’ more often, my life would be a better balance,” she muses. “And yet there are days when I wouldn’t change it for the world because I want to be there for my kids.”

The need for balance isn’t totally lost on Orr. Her latest commitment is a weekend in New York with her girlfriends to indulge in gourmet meals, talk late into the night and engage in some retail therapy.
She says, “Balance is so important, and I’m a much happier person when I’m balanced.”

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