Health implies far more than simply “the absence of disease or illness”. Just like peace is more than the absence of war and conflict, joy is not just the absence of sorrow, and love is greater than the absence of hatred or indifference – so too good health is far more than the absence of disease.
Health is a state of balance and harmony at all levels – mental, physical, emotional, spiritual, social, intellectual, and financial. It is wholeness in its most profound sense; it exists when all the elements and forces making up an individual resonate in equilibrium. Recognize that health is a continuum, not an “all or none” phenomenon. Numerous factors may allow us to move from being a little healthy to enjoying a more vibrant life. Good health then, is a delicate homeostasis between factors that trigger illness and others that keep it away.
While genetic predisposition and environmental factors play a role in several health conditions, 70-90% of chronic health conditions are within our control – governed by choices that we make and habits that we follow. It is both empowering as well as a little frightening to know that we are responsible for our own good health!
Since there are several factors that we can’t control such as age, accidents, environmental toxins, and genetic predisposition – it is crucial to focus on what we can change. This includes what we eat and don’t eat, how we exercise, how much we drink, if we smoke or use substances, how we sleep and relax, how we reduce stress and create a good work/life balance.
It is critical to make these choices in a consistent manner, rather than a temporary fix such as following a fad diet. Once healthy lifestyle behaviours become a ‘habit’ they are easier to maintain. Aristotle taught us that “we are what we relatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”
There are ’12 Habits of Healthy People’ discussed in my book “One Minute Medicine: Your Effortless Guide to Vibrant Health” (you can find a link on this website).
The most important of these habits is diet – it is true that we are what we eat, and just like selecting top quality building materials is important when building a house, so too, do we need to be selective when choosing the foods that will nourish us. There have been volumes written about nutrition and diet – much of it self-serving and contradictory. The most honest and consistent dietary recommendation is to Eat Real Food (unprocessed, whole foods), not too much, mostly plants. By reducing consumption of high fat and processed foods, and selecting a wide variety of locally grown, whole foods in a rainbow of natural colours, we can eat lower on the food chain. These strategies ensure that we are getting the best nutrients for our bodies but also reducing our exposure to environmental toxins, harmful fats, and excess calories while at the same time leaving a smaller environmental footprint.
So when looking at the scientific evidence on nutrition, there is more consistency than controversy. The very same diet that promotes optimal health is also easiest on the planet and the kindest to the animals that we share it with.
When looking at the determinants of good health, some are obvious, such as eating well, exercising regularly, and avoiding smoking – whereas others such as relaxation, sleep, social, and spiritual connections may seem less intuitive. However, when looking at the factors that predict survival after a heart attack it may be surprising to learn that it is not just cholesterol level, blood pressure, smoking and family history that matter. In fact the two most predictive factors are being in a meaningful relationship and enjoying your job. This stands to reason if you recall how wonderful and invincible one feels when falling in love, and how despondent and inconsolable one feels when a relationship goes sour. Indeed, love is the strongest medicine there is. So foster good relationships – and nourish them.
While self-care is by far the most important aspect of good health, it is also essential to enlist the services of a good physician to provide longitudinal care and appropriate periodic health screening. This includes a physical exam and laboratory screening as well as pap tests, mammography, colonoscopy, and digital rectal exams for men.
As already mentioned in my comments about health, and as is apparent in the content of Your Better Life, good health means paying attention to various dimensions of our lives.
Our ultimate goal in life is to become the ‘best version of ourselves’ – in four distinct areas; physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual. A useful exercise is to make a Good Health Checklist. Set goals in each of these categories, once a month or even once a week. On a blank piece of paper make four columns and write the headings: Physical, Emotional, Intellectual, Spiritual. Then ask yourself – “What is one thing I can do this week to become the ‘best version of myself’ in each of these areas?”
Physical is probably the easiest – goals may include taking the stairs at work, parking at the far end of the parking lot, not taking second helpings or desserts, riding your bike to work one day a week, cutting back on cigarettes or booze, getting a physical exam, etc.
Emotional desires include improving key relationships at home and at work, increasing intimacy to meet our legitimate needs, and reducing stress. It is in the emotional realm that we can see that we are not independent – we are interdependent. There is a Chinese proverb that states: Shared joy is twice the joy and shared sorrow is half the sorrow.
Intellectual pursuits include courses and books that are helpful to our careers and well as personal growth, learning a new language, musical instrument or skill. These goals should also move us to becoming financially sufficient – that we can meet our personal needs – and just as importantly, share our blessings to help others to fulfill their needs as well.
Spiritual goals may involve visiting a place of worship, studying sacred writings, simplifying your life, spending time in nature – hiking, exploring – or just being.
So start thinking about health in terms of these four planes – set goals in each of them and set new goals when you reach them.
Make a Good Health Checklist – and live your best life!
(References: “One Minute Medicine – Your Effortless Guide to Vibrant Health”, Werner Spangehl, and “The Rhythm of Life – Living Every Day with Passion and Purpose”, Matthew Kelly.)