Written by Executive Director Claire Louge

A few months ago, I had a checkup with my new primary care provider. Since it was our first visit, she asked me a series of routine questions about my health habits. When she asked about exercise, I told her I ran about four miles, two or three times a week.

“How long does that take you?” she asked.

“About 30 minutes,” I replied.

“Well,” she said, “for heart health, you should be exercising at least 45 minutes.”

I looked at her and raised my eyebrows. She went on to her next question. I chuckled to myself.

As a working mom of an active toddler, I’m glad when I can get any exercise in at all. I’m proud that I can run several miles. I consider it an achievement when I can make it to the gym twice a week, let alone at all.

The reason I’m sharing this story is not to debate the merits of a full 45 minutes of cardio. It’s also not to bash my primary care provider. It’s to reflect on a very common thing that we do as people who work with people: we apply the same idealized standard to everyone. And though well intentioned, that can do more harm than good.

When we hold everyone to an ideal, it tends to ignore the real obstacles to achieving that standard. Telling people they should simply surmount those obstacles is the opposite of empathy: it assumes that the only thing they need to do is try harder, and it may ignore that the standard isn’t healthy, realistic, or culturally relevant for the person in front of us.

Think of all the standards we’re held to as adult human beings. We’re supposed to get 8 hours of sleep. Three healthful square meals per day. Work 40-hour weeks. Have clean homes. Do 45 minutes of cardio three times a week, apparently. Pay our bills. Connect with our communities. Shower. Look nice. Vote. Fix what breaks. Care for ourselves. Care for our families. The list goes on.

There are plenty of ideal standards we’re held to in our work lives, too. How many times have you attended a training on something that sounds great in theory, but is completely unrealistic to implement?

I don’t know a single person who achieves all the standards we all know are there. Do you? Probably not. That’s because meeting all these standards is humanly impossible. That’s because standards are things that can be achieved under ideal conditions.

Friends, I don’t need to tell you that conditions nowadays are rarely ideal.

Standards are there for a reason. They have a job. Their job is to guide us to being healthier, happier versions of ourselves, and to keep ourselves and others safe and well. They may be evidence-based. That’s great.

But standards can also be wielded as tools of shame, and they can breed dishonesty and disconnection. We need to meet people where they are, in the conditions that they’re in. We need to meet ourselves where we are, in the conditions we’re in. If we actually want to guide towards an ideal, we need to affirm and encourage progress towards it, rather than celebrate it only when it is achieved.

And as helpers, our role is not just to point out what would be ideal. Our role is not to tell people to simply overcome the obstacles to getting to ideal. Our role is to support people to use their strengths to remove obstacles to meet the standards they want to achieve.

And it is to advocate for conditions to be changed, so the obstacles aren’t there in the first place.

So, the next time someone tells you that you should be running 45 minutes for heart health, remember that we’re all running different races in this complex world. Let’s strive for progress, not perfection, and work together to clear the obstacles on the path to our own standards of health and happiness.