Think of the healthiest person you know. How would you describe them?
- The absence of specific diseases or illness?
- Healthy behaviours that they follow e.g. eating well or exercising?
- Healthy appearance e.g. good skin or shiny hair?
- Emotional stability i.e. happy and stress free?
- A good social life or family network?
The World Health Organisation defines health as:
“A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”
This is quite a holistic approach but still definitely brings up some questions!
Can someone with a disability be healthy? What about someone with a lifelong genetic condition? If someone has a chronic disease which can be managed and does not affect their quality of life, are they healthy? And what does complete well-being mean anyway and who can actually achieve it?!
The answer to these questions is that there is no answer. Defining health is actually a really difficult thing to do as it has various meanings depending on the individual. People tend to describe health based on their own situation and experiences. Someone with a chronic disease or disability that they are managing might be less likely to describe health as the absence of physical infirmity and focus on the emotional and social aspects instead. A shy person who might not have the most active social life can still feel healthy and happy and might describe health as fitness or the lack of disease.
Functional definitions of health include the ability to participate in and enjoy life. In this sense, it is also necessary to consider the influence of social, political and environmental factors on health as particular conditions may or may not impact the quality of a person’s life, depending on the systems which are in place to support them. Healthcare and medicine also plays a huge role as modern developments allow people to live much longer with chronic conditions and maintain a high standard of living.
Regardless of the specific definition, it is important that we see health as a resource for a fulfilling life, rather than the ultimate aim or achievement. A problem with the current health and wellness industry is that it abuses the use of “complete” health to keep people trapped and chasing an unattainable goal. Good health is a priority for many of us and we are willing to pay crazy sums of money for nutritional supplements, fitness programs and other products which promise to bring us closer to this panacea. We can quite easily revolve our life around “being healthy” but this obsession can take away from our emotional and social well-being.
I know for sure that my definition of health has changed over the last few years. I used to think I was healthy as I was slim, I looked reasonably well and exercised like a fiend. People around me thought so too and I was complimented for being the fit one! But looks aren’t everything and inside, my body wasn’t functioning like it should. I was stressed and anxious and my obsession with food and exercise was detracting from my social life. These days, I take a much more holistic approach to health and definitely focus more on keeping my stress levels down over everything else.
Good health is something many of us take for granted and we don’t think twice about neglecting our bodies until things start to go wrong. But a small amount of time and effort spent on learning how to look after ourselves and actually going out and practicing it can really make a difference. Think about how you would define health and what changes you could make to make the most of this valuable resource!