Physical self-care is often the first domain that comes to mind when the concept of self-care is brought up. Typically, people think of eating well and making time for regular exercise. Sometimes, people may think of bubble baths, spa days and massages. All of these activities (and more) live under the physical self-care umbrella. In this post, I will outline the 5 pillars of physical self-care and share some ideas (and resources) for supporting physical wellness. I hope you find this post helpful and practical.
Physical self-care encourages activities that help to revitalize and protect the physical body. To make the concept of physical self-care as simple as possible, I like to break this dimension of wellness down into 5 pillars. A pillar provides reliable and essential support, thus these 5 pillars support our physical wellness: sleep, nutrition, movement, medical care and physical nurture.
In my opinion, good quality sleep is the cornerstone habit when it comes to self-care in general. Quality of sleep has an impact on everything else. Of course, every aspect of self-care impacts other aspects of self-care (self-care is interconnected). However, hear me out. If you are sleep-deprived, can you really engage with your other self-care activities? No, not really. At least, not sustainably. We don’t function at our fullest potential if we are lacking good quality sleep. For this reason, sleep is a great place to start if you’re looking to strengthen the foundation of your self-care practices. Here are a few ideas on how to improve sleep quality:
Sleep efficacy refers to the quality of your sleep, rather than simply the duration of your sleep (how many hours you’re sleeping or in bed). If you are getting an adequate and consistent amount of sleep, but you still don’t feel fully rested, then taking a look at sleep efficacy can be really helpful in improving your overall physical wellness. You might find it helpful to talk with your primary healthcare provider to see if you need to be evaluated for a sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea, and/or obtain treatments for other medical concerns that impact sleep, such as mental healthcare needs. Sleep psychologists use a sleep log to help you determine your sleep efficacy and track progress toward better sleep. They can help with behavioral changes that can improve sleep and also help to work with other medical providers, such as your primary healthcare physician and/or sleep specialist.
In addition to the three basics above, I also find it helpful to create a soothing bedtime routine and/or morning routine to help provide a consistent source of extra self-care that supports good quality sleep. This helps me to transition better when it is time to get in and out of bed as well as to manage some typical circumstances that disrupt sleep (nighttime anxiety, anyone?) (click here for more in-depth sleep hygiene and bedtime routine tips)
Physical self-care also entails appreciating the connections between nutrition and how your body feels and performs. I am not a dietician and cannot recommend any specific nutrition plans, but I do recommend making an effort to learn about what foods and drinks support your body. This is different for everyone, although there are a few general guidelines that most healthcare professionals recommend:
If you’re interested in additional resources relating to nutrition, I would highly recommend taking a look at Abbey Sharp’s content over at Abbey’s Kitchen. Abbey is a registered dietitian and creator of a plethora of informative video and written materials containing recipes, intuitive and mindful eating resources, reviews of current literature in her field, and more. If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, food allergies, or anything that requires a more individualized support approach, please reach out to your doctor for referral options.
Movement is another cornerstone habit of physical self-care. Many people have claimed that physical activity motivates positive change in other areas of self-care and overall health. Physical wellness encourages us to build strength, endurance and flexibility in our bodies to the best of our ability.
I usually prefer to use the word “movement” rather than “exercise” or “working out.” Movement feels more flexible, inclusive and available to me. Sometimes, I have felt intimidated by working out at the gym. I also live with fibromyalgia, so some days I find it painful to move my body and I may need more rest than usual. I have found that reframing physical exercise to “movement” has allowed me to access more options that I may have otherwise dismissed as “not really exercise”.
Movement could also include activities such as stretching, yoga, swimming, bikeriding, walking with dogs, hiking, kayaking, dancing, playing sports, yardwork and gardening. Participating in these activities has allowed me to build a relationship with my body and with movement in a way that feels accessible and interesting to me at this time in my life. So, if you’re anything like me, please don’t feel like you cannot exercise because you aren’t very interested in the gym. If you have chronic pain and/or other conditions that impact your ability to move, it is also helpful to give yourself permission to rest and modify activities based on what you can do on any given day. Get creative and try new things until you find options that you actually enjoy! Our bodies love to move in ways they are able.
Physical wellness also includes the appropriate use of healthcare systems (for both preventative care and for when there is a problem) as well as access to affordable medical services. This might include learning skills such as first aid, CPR and monitoring your own vital signs. This also means taking medications as prescribed and following up with appointments to make sure treatments are effective. It’s important to know when you can care for yourself and when to seek professional care. Moreover, we need to know how to access care and where to seek help if we are struggling with affordability. A few basics to keep in mind about medical self-care include:
Physical nurturing is the pillar that most people think of, especially for women-identifying folks, when it comes to self-care. This might include self-care such as face masks, body scrubs, hair masks, other general skincare and hair care, massages, float spa therapy, and so on. You may also wish to consider wearing clothes that you like. Sexual pleasure and physical touch (hugging, cuddling, kissing, supportive touch) may also be included in this pillar along with boundaries and consent. Personally, I consider nervous system care to be part of physical self-nurturing. This might include the management of physiological stress through trauma-informed yoga, craniosacral therapy, coping skills, arousal reduction, mindfulness practices, etc.
I hope this post has helped you to deepen your understanding of the physical self-care domain and perhaps given you some ideas to strengthen your physical self-care practices. Self-care is an incredibly personal journey, so remember to be as honest as possible with yourself when exploring what works (and what doesn’t work) for you.
If you’re interested in further reflecting on your physical self-care habits, please download this free journaling worksheet I’ve created as a guide!