Reinventing Our Definition of Health
Katie Smolik, SFU Student, SCI 301
The views and opinions expressed in SFU Public Square's blogs are those of the authors, and they do not necessarily reflect the official position of Simon Fraser University or SFU Public Square, or any other affiliated institutions in any way.
Take a moment to think about the question: what does being healthy mean to you? For many of us, a healthy lifestyle is one where individuals are eating well and exercising regularly. While there is no denying that these are important factors, there is a lot more to our health than just physical wellbeing and an absence of disease, as traditionally taught. Our society’s understanding of health and wellness is shifting, and for good reason.
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as: “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or [illness]”. Breaking up health into different categories (physical, mental and social) is important to help us understand that there is more to our wellness than meets the eye. In the study of health promotion, this can be further reduced into what are referred to as “dimensions of wellness". It is important to understanding these dimensions and know how they interact in order to improve your quality of life, so let’s look at a few common dimensions:
Coming back to one of the most well understood components of health, let’s first take a deeper look at our physical wellness. Physical wellness refers to the absence of illness and injury, and its main influencers are diet and exercise. The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (CSEP) has developed the Canadian Physical Activity and 24-Hour Movement Guidelines, which are useful in addressing physical activity, sedentary behaviour and sleep - all key parts of physical health. The recommendations vary based on age and gender, but for example: adults aged 18-64 years old should achieve about 150 minutes of moderate/vigorous activity split up into bouts of at least 10 minutes. This doesn’t have to be conventional exercise such as running or going to a gym, but can consist of walking your dog or playing pick-up basketball with your friends.
As far as diet is concerned, the government of Canada has released an updated Canada Food Guide which provides a simple overview of a balanced diet. It includes the common suggestions of eating protein foods with plenty of fruit and vegetables, drinking more water, choosing whole grains, and also encourages cooking your food and eating meals with others.
Emotional wellness puts a focus on our mental health and how our emotions play a huge role in how we feel about ourselves. Emotional wellness can be affected by so many different factors which can improve or harm our health. Something such as the sudden death of a family member or a slow increase of negative emotions over time can weigh on an individual. A good example of the harm of negative emotions is stress. Excess stress can put you at risk for high blood pressure, which in turn may lead to illness, affecting your physical health. Poor emotional health has also been shown to weaken the immune system, putting us at risk for infections.
Poor emotional health may also contribute to individuals developing depression, anxiety or other mentally illnesses. Research has shown that in Canada, 50% of the population will have experienced mental illness by the age of 40. The National Institute of Health has determined 6 different ways to improve your mental health; these emphasize the importance of reducing stress, forming relationships and being mindful.
Social wellness focuses on our interactions with the community and our personal relationships. It involves communication, having a support system of family and friends and forming meaningful relationships. Many times, social wellness has an effect on mental health as well. Those who are unable to form proper social relationships are at double the risk of developing depression. There has been research done suggesting that the influence of social relationships on mortality risk is equivalent to other common risk factors, such as lack of exercise. It was found that those who form stronger social relations have a 50% increased survival rate compared to those who experience social strain.
Environmental wellness starts to address health in a new way, as we are no longer focusing solely on the impact of an individual’s choices on themselves, but also on the world around them. It involves the ability to recognize our impact on the environment and understand how we can have a positive impact on the quality of our communities. A lot of people overlook these things when thinking of health; however, our surroundings play a huge role in how we feel and behave. Think about the community you live in. You are likely surrounded by parks, trees and animals (or at least have access to areas with these things), which encourage you to spend time outside enjoying nature. Studies have shown that spending time in nature/green spaces reduces things such as stress and anxiety.
So, What Comes Next?
It is important to be familiar with the different dimensions of wellness and understand where you fall within each category. Here are a few questions to help you to start thinking about your own personal health:
- Do I put aside time to spend with family and friends?
- Are the relationships I have meaningful to me?
- Am I happy with my career?
- Do I take time out of my day to focus on myself and relax?
- Am I aware of my surroundings and do my part to better them?
- Do I take time to participate in physical activity?
Health is not one size fits all and this approach allows us to individually understand how we can better our quality of life.