We’ve all heard that we should strive to be healthy, but do we ever stop to ask, “What does ‘being healthy’ really mean?” Try googling it and you’ll get a variety of answers. You’ll see things that have to do with being active and eating right. You’ll find sites that offer easy ways to “get healthy fast”. It turns out people have very different ideas of what being healthy is! Maybe being healthy looks different for everyone.
At the end of the day, we still have that nagging question. What’s the truth about health? With all the opinions out there about what health is, how can we know who’s right and who’s wrong? In this situation, perhaps things aren’t quite so black and white.
The most basic and well-known definition of health was created by the World Health Organization (WHO). WHO describes health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”1. Health is not just physical. Instead, health is holistic. Our mental, social and physical health are all equally important to our overall well-being. Also, did you notice what they said about health not just being “not sick”? It’s like happiness. If you wake up one day and you aren’t feeling sad, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you feel happy. Happiness and sadness are not simply two opposite emotions – there’s a continuum of emotion with different degrees of sadness, happiness and in-between feelings. The same can be said of health and sickness – the absence of one does not denote the presence of the other.
Now, how exactly do we “be healthy”? Like we mentioned earlier, a Google search will give you all sorts of answers for what being healthy looks like, and they all vary. Most definitions of “being healthy”, however, do include the two overarching themes of eating well and exercising. While it’s true that both of these things can improve our physical, mental and social health, diet culture is making it more and more difficult to know what it looks like to eat and exercise in a way that is truly healthful, not harmful.
Although healthy eating and healthy movement are critical pieces in the puzzle of health, they are not the only pieces. Take sleep, for instance. The amount of sleep we get affects our mental health and social life. For example, when we’re not well rested, our mood and perception of life events can be negatively impacted2. I’m sure most of us can think of a time when we didn’t get enough sleep and everything that happened that day seemed to go wrong! A lack of sleep can also decrease our motivation and impede our judgement2.
Another factor in our overall health is our social relationships. The American Sociological Association published an article in 2010 that looked at the connection between social relationships and health. The article states that both the quantity and quality of our connections with others can impact our mental and physical health3. Positive relationships with others can provide social support and improve psychological well being, whereas some relationships can be detrimental to our health by increasing stress or encouraging risky behaviours3.
The thing with health is that although it can be defined in a general way, it can also be defined subjectively. Perhaps one of the reasons the definition of health seems to vary so much is because we are all unique. What makes one person feel healthy is probably different than what makes you feel healthy! You may feel healthiest when you are able to play with your kids and be involved in their lives. Or, you might associate health with the ability to continue doing the work that you love. Maybe you feel your overall health is linked to your participation in a faith community or religious organization. There are so many things that can bring us fulfillment and meaning in life, and often we relate “being healthy” to these things. What parts of your life do you connect with feeling healthy?
Overall health is not about eating healthy and being active. It involves allowing yourself to get adequate sleep, enjoying social relationships, and doing things that contribute to your spiritual well-being. Being healthy means nurturing your mind, soul and body. And ALL people can engage in health-promoting behaviours like the ones just mentioned, no matter your age, ability, shape or size.
- Constitution of WHO: principles. (2018). Retrieved from http://www.who.int/about/mission/en/
- The Division of Sleep Medicine. (2007). Sleep, learning and memory. In Healthy sleep. Retrieved from http://healthysleep.med.harvard.edu/healthy/matters/benefits-of-sleep/learning-memory
- Umberson, D., & Montez, J. K. (2010). Social relationships and health: a flashpoint for health policy. Journal of Health and Social Behavior. 51(1) S54-S66. doi: 10.1177/0022146510383501