What are the Components of Good Health?
Good health is extremely important, but is a surprisingly complex concept. Health is a principle that includes physical, psychological and even social components. These components are impossible to separate because each element affects the others. For example, a poor diet (physical health) can have negative impact on mood (psychological health) which in turn can affect interpersonal relationships (social health).
Good health can seem difficult and complex because it includes so many activities and behaviours that are part of everyday life. However, I find that’s another of its advantages. One of the best ways to improve health is to choose a single, specific behaviour to change. Even a small change can improve health and impact overall health.
I never make New Year’s resolutions because they rarely work. Typical New Year’s resolutions are to ‘get healthy’, ‘get fit’, ‘lose weight’, or ‘quit smoking/drinking/eating unhealthy foods’, or similar, general, goals. There are many reasons for these examples being goals that are not effective and difficult to achieve. I will outline these reasons throughout this article. But first I need to elaborate on the difference between general health and health behaviours. For example, my latest health goal was to increase my dietary iron consumption to 54mg/week. This is a behavioural goal, not an overall health goal.
Health vs. Health Behaviours
Health is a general concept. One may feel healthy, appear healthy or be healthy. Good health is a broadly positive feeling combined with lack of serious injury or illness. One can be healthy while engaging in behaviours that do not promote health. For example, I am healthy. Yet, at times, I drink alcohol, I don’t always get all my recommended daily allowance of essential necessary vitamins and minerals and sometimes I eat unhealthy foods.
Drinking alcohol, for example, is not a health-promoting behaviour. Yet it is possible to drink alcohol and be in good health. It is also possible to be in poor health and never drink alcohol. My health is a result of the combination of all of my health behaviours integrated with a number of factors I cannot control such as my family history (genetics), my surroundings (environment) and the people I know (social context).
All of these elements contribute to my health and my health behaviours. First, my family history (genetics) suggest I’m at a greater risk for cancer. My surroundings (environment) mean I’ve an extremely low risk of catching malaria. My friends, who are mostly young students, increase my likelihood of binge drinking (social context). All of those affect both my health and health behaviours. I cannot change, or not without significant difficult, many of those factors. However I can change what I do without changing my genetics, environment or social context. Changing health behaviours does not mean abstaining from any behaviour that may compromise health.
New Year’s resolutions typically do not work for a number of reasons. The first, key, reason is resolutions are too vague. Abstaining from alcohol would improve health. However, cutting one’s alcohol consumption by 30% (e.g. from 20 units/week to 14 units/week), or cutting one’s calorie intake by 5%, is very likely to improve health and is much more likely to be achieved. Because health is a long-term state of being, even minor changes can have significant impact on health. The previous examples seem minor. Yet, reducing calorie intake by less than 5% of the daily recommended calorie allowance prevents 105lbs of weight gain over ten years. A twenty minute walk every day can take off 105lbs of calories over 10 years. One bottle of wine per week over 10 years is 82lbs.
So why isn’t ‘quitting’ or ‘starting’ a good goal? It’s desirable, but not necessarily realistic.
I detest smarmy acronyms almost as much as New Year’s resolutions. But, SMART is a rather good way to define goals. I wouldn’t admit it if I could think of a better, more obscure, heuristic.
S – Specific. Reduce calories by 5%. Increase exercise by 1 hour/week
M – Measurable. See (S). Make sure you measure whatever you’re specifying.
AR – Attainable/Realistic. You know what you can do. If your goal is to walk an extra 5 minutes/day for the next seven days, that’s an improvement. That’s not insignificant (10 years, it’s 26lbs). Attaining a realistic goal is always better that setting an unrealistic goal.
T – Timely. Set a goal that you can evaluate soon. Add 5 minutes/day or 40 minutes/week. Then, make sure you are measuring it and that it fits all the criteria above. This is one of the most important, because when you achieve your goal, you should be proud of yourself for it.
Examples of Health Behaviour Goals
By now, you’ll realize that the best goals are to improve health behaviours, not health. I still remember my first health-related behavior goal. I decided to quit drinking soda. There were a few simple reasons I decided this would be a good health-promoting goal. First, I knew there were no health benefits to drinking soda. Second, although I consumed soda regularly, I doubted I would experience any negative effects from quitting immediately.
This was an admirable goal, which meets many of the SMART criteria. It’s extremely specific (NOTHING) and measurable (NEVER). I was 16, so I felt more comfortable with absolutes. When I set the goal I thought it was realistic and didn’t care about timely. From there I added similar goals with candy and fast food. I was successful with these goals for years, but given enough time I failed them all. However, even though I ‘failed’ in the context of my original goals, with slight revisions these goals would have been extraordinarily successful.
One of the best things about health is that we can do things that aren’t ‘healthy’, but still enjout our health. Eating a massive Christmas dinner is not unhealthy when our general health (in this case dietary intake) goals accept that we are not perfect. A good health goal is relatively flexible to account for contextual behaviour (possibly Christmas, or related holiday binges), short- and long-term goals.
I regularly engage in health-promoting behaviours. I exercise regularly and intensely. I rarely exceed my recommended daily allowance of calories. Yet, I gained over 5lbs in a few weeks over Christmas. I rarely exercised, I ate much more than usual, I drank much more alcohol than I usually would. I finished the season feeling and looking much less healthy.
Yet I returned, through numerous goals, feeling better than before.
For example, my goals were:
- Burn off 100+ more calories/day than I consumed.
- Drink less than 20 units/week alcohol.
- Exercise at least 3 day/week, for 1 hour (minimum).
Your desired results should meet all of the conditions described in the SMART goals. The most important element of health is that it is your own health. You know when you are healthy. The reverse side of that is you will know when you have health problems, and will be able to address them, before anyone else. I know when my eating, drinking or lifestyle is causing me problems before it begins to cause problems for others. Friends, family and colleagues will always be much more tolerant of health behaviours than we are for ourselves. One will always be the only judge of one’s own health behaviours. Others will judge our general health.
That is the best, and most important, reason for changing one’s own health behaviours. You’ll feel the difference tomorrow and next week because you’re the only one in your own body. Your friends and family will wait years – and by then it could be scores of pounds, which will have affected your life far more than anyone else’s.
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World Health Organization (1996). The global burden of disease: A comprehensive assessment of mortality and disability from disease, injuries, and risk factors in 1990 and projected to 2020.
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