In Hard Times, Good Nutrition and Physical Fitness Are Often Among the First Casualties

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 heavily 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 3 miles, ate nutritious food and controlled his weight.

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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.

Take as a case in point the movie Eat, Pray, Love, which is currently playing in movie theatres and is based on the bestselling memoir of Elizabeth Gilbert. I heard and read numerous comments about the film as well as the book that downplayed the importance of the author’s personal journey. The idea that someone would travel around the globe in search of her personal identity – after having gone through a nasty divorce, loss of financial security and another heart ache from a brief romantic encounter – does not present itself as a reality-based scenario. But if we are to believe that this is the actual life experience of the author, then we are confronted with a case study of someone trying to carve out her individual hierarchy of needs. For Liz Gilbert, leaving the world she once knew behind and exposing herself to customs, cultures and new relationships in far-flung places was apparently what she needed the most – and it determined her responses to a significant crisis in her life from top to bottom.

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.

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