Getting a better idea of what health is and how to do it
One of the things that we’ve seen in recent decades is that what healthy means needs to be a bit smarter. We have a lot of cultural hang-ups about what ‘health’ is and how we get towards it with major practices – like exercise, diet, and lifestyle.
- What do we mean when we say healthy?
- What is a healthy food or diet?
- Are you healthy? How would you know?
- How do you get healthier and keep yourself in good shape?
These are some of the important questions we’re going to discuss today as we investigate what health is, how you get healthy, and what you should spend your time focusing on!
How do we talk about health?
One of the biggest challenges to health is how we talk about the problem. It’s hard to get it right when it’s not clear what health is and our discussion doesn’t always get us closer.
Equally, our choices of health measures are important – what is healthy? Is it how you age, how you perform, or how resilient you are to common problems? These are both crucially important and crucially under-discussed.
We don’t have much public education on health and – as a topic – it’s very subtle. When we talk about health, we love to reduce it to black and white questions when it’s more complicated than that – and the result is a challenge to figure out what to do.
For example, when we talk about foods we tend to discuss healthy and unhealthy foods – but things like moderation, quantities, and the big-picture of what you’ve eaten are more important than single choices.
In many other areas of health, this is true: excess and deficiency are problems, but single choices might not be. When we zoom out and discuss health as a whole, it’s important to start with the obvious stuff before getting into the essential details.
Healthy in the negative: not-ill
Health – like so many things – starts with problem-solving.
If you don’t have a glaring medical condition that harms you regularly, then maybe you’re healthy. These kinds of “freedom from disease” are what statisticians might use to consider someone healthy. They’re a big and obvious place to start.
Staying free from infection, illness, and severe injury are all part of health. They’re the preventing-disaster side that so many of us are concerned with on a daily basis and the scary stuff that might shock us into changing lifestyle.
This is obviously just a matter of importance. If you have a broken leg, exercise might not be top of your priority list. Getting better is priority number one but – by itself – isn’t all there is to health.
Health as capacity and sustainability
The level at which we function – and how robust that function is – plays a key role in health.
What does that mean?
Basically, the function of your body – from things like movement to organ function – are where health happens. These are the major factors that let us tell if you’re healthier or less-healthy than someone else who, also, doesn’t have a major illness.
Things like the ability to move without pain, the ability to perform daily tasks, and the regular function of the organ systems are key to a better overall view of health. Consider some of the things that are checked when you go in for an intense medical:
- Heart rate
- Blood pressure
- Lung capacity
- Blood fats and glucose levels
- Hormone levels
- And other metrics
These are the ways that doctors look into how your body is functioning – both at what level and how sustainably.
This is crucial: it’s not just about how you’re functioning now, but also the robustness and sustainability of that function. It’s no use having a great lung capacity if it only lasts 10 more years – longevity is the key to health for most of us.
Longevity and Decline
The healthiest people are those who stay healthy for longer. This is the result of healthy (successful) aging and the build-up of functional surplus over the years.
From things like exercise and a good diet, we can build up surplus functions in key areas that protect us from the dilapidations of time. Things like muscle mass, for example, help protect us from joint injury, metabolic irregularity, and fall risk as we age.
This is why it’s healthy to build more muscle as a younger person and maintain it as we age. The habits at the root of this change – regular exercise and good diet choices – also support functional surplus in other areas like bone mineral density, brain health, and the consistent function of the organs over time.
Successful aging happens when we maintain these habits and the benefits they provide over time. The key factor is controlling lifestyle risk factors for various conditions – from cancer to heart problems to organ failure – through everyday practices like exercise, diet, sleep routines, stress-management, and other healthful behaviour.
Habits produce this change – and it’s important to understand the basics of how they work.
Healthy habits: living holistically
Among healthy people with no pre-conditions, all the control over what bodies do and how healthy they are comes down to daily habits. The health of the body is chronic: it is the result of long-term processes.
When we talk about habits, health happens in balances: input and output, diet and exercise, stress and recovery. We can look at every major healthy habit in this way to really simplify it and take the confusion out.
Exercise and Movement
Movement and exercise are the same thing with different levels of organization. Exercise is balanced against recovery (food, sleep, and rest). Regular exercise is healthy when it’s paired with an appropriate dietary intake and chance to recover.
For example, too little exercise relative to recovery makes us soft, slow, and at-risk from disease, while too much can lead to joint-damage or hormonal dysfunction.
Your body was designed to move and – when you maintain that function at an appropriate level for your experience and recovery – it is healthy.
Equally, a healthy diet is defined by balance. Things like cake aren’t unhealthy – but the way they fit into our diets can be. We can find balance between the needs for calories, protein, carbs, fats, vitamins, and minerals in a diet but when we talk about foods as healthy or unhealthy we get too “zoomed in”.
We have needs that we have to meet and too few (like protein or vitamins) or too many for a category (like sugar) makes us unhealthy. These are, again, relative to individual needs – which are changed by things like exercise, bodyweight, and goals (e.g. weight gain or loss).
Balancing Stress and Recovery/Relaxation
Stress and relaxation might be the ultimate balance for our bodies. Stressors are anything that disrupt our nice, balanced, natural homeostasis. Exercise is a stress, but so is arguing with a loved one.
Recovery, on the other hand, returns us to this state or offers us influences or resources to get there. This usually involves eating, sleeping, down-time, and deliberately relaxing times such as meditation or quiet time to promote mental recovery.
The overall balance of stressors and recovery in your life matters. Things like chronic stress are tied into countless health risks like heart disease, sleep deprivation, and even further into diabetes and other “diseases of disruption”.
Health comes from a balance of regular and deliberate stressors – like exercise and challenge – with their appropriate and abundant recovery counterparts. Find ways to control and alleviate stress in your life and ensure that your “hyped up” is followed by “down time” to try and find balance in these pairs.
The way we talk about health is old-fashioned and out-dated. There are terms and discussions around health that really don’t help anyone and that obscure what is really going on – when what we need to look for is the appropriate balance of lifestyle factors and a type of health-discussion that focuses on getting healthier – rather than if a food or workout is healthy.
Health is not yes or no: you’re not healthy or unhealthy unless we use those very-narrow terms at the start for “ill” and “not-ill”. Health happens by shades and is based on both present function and how you’re likely to maintain that into the future.
Health is a project and a practice and comes from the way you build and balance your life. It’s not just to prevent aging badly or getting sick, but to improve what you can do now, changing how you experience your own life, and exponentially improving what your life looks like next year, next decade, and beyond!
Investing your time, effort, and brain-power into your health provides rewards that multiply each year. The way we think about health and how we pursue it are changing – and your life can change with it if you pay attention and rethink the balance in your life:
Address underlying conditions and problems with your healthcare professional.
Eat in relation to your needs – and wholefoods wherever possible.
Drink in moderation and reduce your intake if necessary.
Sleep 8-9 hours a night in a cool, dark room.
Exercise regularly – or keep your body healthy with regular physical activity.
Balance stress and rest, providing your body with a healthy hormonal environment.