What Is ‘Health’? And How Do We Define It?

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What is health and how do we define it? It’s a pretty complex topic and our interpretations will vary as much as our personalities. In 1946 the World Health Organisation defined health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (1) at the International Health Conference. This definition was put in place as of 1948. I don’t know about you but aiming for complete health in each of these areas feels like quite the daunting task, much like asking your crush out face to face in year 8 it isn’t going to happen.

“It is health that is real wealth and not pieces of gold and silver”
– Mahatma Gandhi (2)

Well-being focus and all the buzz around it is booming. Gone are the days when it’s a popular idea to starve yourself to nothingness in order to achieve a fashionable “look”. The greater the engagement from each of us with our health can only be a good thing. With all this focus on healthy living, healthy eating and “living my best life” what happens when the foundations of understanding what health is and is not are poorly understood? In this sense, striving for health can be like navigating the maze in a Triwizard tournament with an extra catch, you’re blindfolded and there is no cup to be found. Bah ha! You’ve been Tango’d. Except when health is concerned, the consequences can be a bit more dire than a double happy slap. 

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Being aware of and taking responsibility for our health can help us in many ways, whether it’s feeling able and capable, happy and content, experiencing sadness in proportionate bouts and even saving us money on health visits and prescription charges. With the age of the internet however, the health messages we receive can be combobulated and skewed – identifying fact from fiction is a bit of a tough cookie to crack.

So how does the evidence for what is and isn’t healthy translate into simpler ideas? Is it being a certain “ideal” weight? Having the “right” body fat percentages? Is it healthy to living in one emotional state? Is avoiding the GP unless you think you might be legitimately dying mean you’re healthier than everyone sat in the waiting room for said GP? The waters become murky very quickly and it’s easy to lose sight elusive Goblet of Health whilst sashaying amongst the currents and tides of fads, shock factor headlines and public health campaigns that are somewhat not accurate anyway – think Weight Watchers in American schools and the Ob_s__y campaign by Cancer Research UK earlier this year. 

The crux in relation to nutrition and our relationship status with food doesn’t boil down to one measurement, or one aspect of health. What we eat and how we do or don’t eat affects countless aspects of our bodies and functioning. Some very real questions in relation to health and nutrition is currently in an antler head bashing contest amongst those in the field, whether accredited and qualified or not. Is it healthy to marginalise a population group because of a pattern of association without identifying causation? Is it healthy to drill diet culture into young minds, and thus setting them up for a lifetime of living “healthily” on diet culture? Is that even possible? I’m not convinced. I’m also not convinced that everything stocked in Whole Foods is automatically healthy – sorry not sorry. I’m also not convinced about the healthiness of many modern day normalities, such as our phones becoming an extra part of the human anatomy, using social media to gain self worth and validation, or extreme approaches to anything much at all. 

With health food shops donning more supplements than we can possibly afford or swallow, and health influencers donning skimpy clothing to show off abs, glutes that can crush walnuts and who can do more chin ups than an excitable dog can tail wags, does being healthy have to be so extreme? I’m going to go out on a whim here and speculate that there’s no extremes in being healthy. It’s actually more about a balance and happy medium as boring and unexciting as that may sound.

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A little secret not pushed by those cashing in on the trend, you don’t need an extreme diet to eat healthily. You don’t need an extreme exercise regimen to be healthy. You don’t need to always be happy and content to be healthy. Nor do you need to spend crazy dollar on fancy ingredients and farfetched meal plans. Health isn’t even a number on a scale. The BMI is a tool for guidance and definitely not definitive – many athletes have a BMI considered obese and I’ve never seen someone typically considered to be ‘obese’ competing at the Olympics.

Each of us will define health differently drawn from our lived experiences. The most important point to be made though is that health is not a destination but a tool for living. It isn’t the be all and end all, merely a snazzy individualised car for scooting through your days with. Yeah, you want to keep the gear box in check but you don’t want to be obsessing over whether your gears are always sliding perfectly. You also need to keep your oil and waters tanks topped up, but you don’t want to be watching them furtively whilst missing out on the enjoyment of your drive. It would be a shame to not enjoy and take in the views.

Sources:
1. http://www.who.int/about/mission/en/
2. 
https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3705649/

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Let’s Talk: World Mental Health Day

Yesterday, the 10th October, was World Mental Health Day. Oh how that snuck up on me this year? I dare say I am guilty of being so self-absorbed that I totally forgot. For someone with their head very much in the mental health bubble, online and offline, I totally missed its presence on the horizon.

I suppose this could be seen as a good sign. A good sign that for once my life isn’t revolved around mental health activities and mental health events and mental health awareness and mental health appointments and mental health illness and mental health woes and mental health anything, everything, and submersion until myself and my life are drowning in mental health this and that. It means that my life is moving on and becoming more than my mental health difficulties: which is brilliant. That hasn’t really happened for me perhaps ever. It’s nice. I’m enjoying myself.

However, that doesn’t mean that I ignore World Mental Health Day. Nope. It is important because for every single person who is in a position like I find myself this year, getting on with life with little thought towards their illness other than remembering to take their meds each day, is someone else who is like I was 1 year ago, 2 years ago, 6 years ago.

There are people stuck trying to navigate building a life beyond hospitals and appointments and meds. There are people who have been winded by the blow of mental ill-health who have absolutely no idea how to do anything anymore. There are people for whom making it to the toilet is an achievement, for whom showering is an insurmountable task, who may be stuck on the carousel of going in and out hospital wards. There are working people who are feeling unable to speak up whilst they stuff it all back inside themselves, far far away from the surface of their existence. There are people sat in class who can’t even speak up when their name is called in the register.

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There are hundreds and thousands of people motioning forwards in silence of the pain they face each day from their mental health. There are the ones who need to stay strong for others and in doing so neglect their own needs, those who are ashamed to be feeling how they are because of ought to’s and should’s that can quite frankly, go and fuck themselves. No one has the right to tell you how you should be feeling or thinking or living your life.

I could go on all day about all the millions of people who need help that don’t get it, who are receiving help and still struggling, and who stuff it all into the depth of their distant psyche to try to crack on with each day.

It is for those people that we need World Mental Health Day. You are not alone. I think the online world shows that more than ever. Talking about mental health doesn’t need to be a negative experience; you could offload or share the good stuff that you’ve found that helps you. You don’t need a diagnosis to talk about mental health because, and i’m going to go down that old cliché track, we all have mental health just as we all have physical health. We talk about how much it sucks to have a cough or common cold, lets talk just as much about how much it sucks to be anxious, or feeling a bit off emotionally too.

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Go on. Pop the kettle on. Have a brew. Have a chat, have a cigarette if you fancy it, have some herbal tea if you fancy that and let’s just be available for each other so that we can all feel supported no matter how difficult it feels, or how difficult our mental health difficulties make us. Let’s be open and embrace that yes it happens, yes it’s OK for it to happen and no, it’s not taboo.

I promise, if you tell me you’re feeling pretty shit maybe depressed, maybe not depressed I’m not going to start fidgeting with my jumper cuffs in an awkward way as if you just told me you’re sleeping with my brother and here, check out my tits whilst I’m at it. I won’t look at you, or into the distance between us as if you just did that because mental health isn’t shocking, whereas talking to me as if you just did the aforementioned would be a bit, well, uncomfortable.