24 July 2019
Health From A Different Perspective
One look at health from a Global perspective will reveal to you that there is no better time to be alive than today, until it’s surpassed by tomorrow. As Steven Pinker describes in his book Enlightenment Now, there has been steady progress in what makes our experience not only longer – but also greater….
One look at health from a Global perspective will reveal to you that there is no better time to be alive than today, until it’s surpassed by tomorrow. As Steven Pinker describes in his book Enlightenment Now, there has been steady progress in what makes our experience not only longer – but also greater.
Life expectancy is up from an average of 30yrs in the middle 18thcentury to over 70 years today. The threat of infectious disease has greatly reduced thanks to sanitation, sterilization, vaccination, antibiotics and other medical advances. Hunger and famine has also decreased thanks to technological advancements in food production (such as more robust crops, thanks to the notorious GMO’s). Death from virtually all kinds of accidents have drastically fallen, including motor vehicle accidents.
That’s why we live longer, but there’s also been an almost linear rise in our quality of life also. Through the process of automation, people have to work fewer hours for the same productivity yield, therefore having more leisure time for things like travel or other hobbies. The spread of education (as well as the reduction of nutrient deficiencies and increasing complexity of daily life) has seen the average IQ score rise decade after decade – a phenomena known as the Flynn Effect. Women have been instrumental in the process of rising average IQ, as more and more cultures slowly update their ideologies and allow women the same access to education as men.
There have obviously been casualties along the way that don’t fit these progressions, but for the most part, the present is better than the past, and the future is projected to be even more prosperous. The objective fact, that we live in the most advanced and opportunistic society the world has ever seen, affords us the luxury of not having to worry about survival on a day-to-day basis, allowing us to turn our focus to more long-term health outcomes. Make no mistake, this is a luxury that we owe to our predecessors, and a great opportunity that – if you’re reading this – you can capitalise on.
But firstly; what is health?
Health is a combination of physical, psychological, intellectual, economic and social well-being. Because of its multifactorial nature, we must recognise that everyone will view it some what differently – not only what it is, but also how it is best achieved. A dietician’s views on health may be determined by the content of one’s diet and body fat percentage, while a doctor will likely pay closer attention to heart rate and blood pressure. Both ways of viewing health are valuable in their own right, but neither capture the entirety of the picture.
Aiming to improve one area will only get you so far and sure, there will be a ripple effect into other areas. For example, increasing one’s physical health can help psychological health by raising confidence, reducing anxiety, depression etc. – but it’s indirect, and won’t solve other issues completely.
A bigger picture approach will ensure maximal progress towards greater general health, unless specificity is required in the short-term in order to address a significant health bottleneck. In that case, sacrifices must be made in other regards. An example of this might be high blood pressure, which is a predominantly physical issue. Addressing high blood pressure requires improvements in cardiovascular health, typically achieved by some form of aerobic exercise, and potentially weight reduction. This might come at the cost of less time spent performing resistance training and eating in a calorie surplus, which is great for growing muscle. Muscle is typically viewed in a vain or purely athletic manner, but it is paramount for long-term insulin sensitivity (a physical component of health) and in maintaining independence throughout older age (a psychosocial one). These are just very minor trade-offs however, and more drastic examples could be made, such as the potential decline of physical health during exam preparation, or the financial cost of emergency surgery.
Taking care of your health.
To me, the fascinating thing about health is that the vast majority of people don’t think about it, until something noticeable or even major happens. For example, a panic attack signals for many people to look into their psychological health. Even the common cold is another example of the need to seek better physical health.
If you find yourself getting a cold frequently, you must recognise that this is a sign of an impaired immune function – which very likely is being caused by something that is actually solvable. Not in the reactive way that most people do, like ingest copious amounts of over the counter Vitamin C when people start sniffling around them, but in proactive and proven ways to boost the immune system – consistent exercise regime, high nutrient intake as well improved sleep and stress management. Unfortunately, reactive methods are the most common form of health management that I see. And this is somewhat understandable, human psychology didn’t evolve with a great ability to predict and plan – we are machines of responding and reacting. However, if you’re looking to maximise your length and quality of time on this planet, a proactive approach to health is required. But be warned, this does require a decent level of health education.
For the most part, people know what an unhealthy behaviour is, but don’t appreciate the significance of its consequences because they may not be immediately impactful. Heart-attacks aren’t as scary when they are 20 years away, right?
Not eating your veggies and instead eating highly processed, nutrient-deficient foods won’t show noticeable effects now – but the body unequivocally functions better with these nutrients. Even if it means you function 1% worse on a daily basis – that adds up! The stress placed on the body to perform the same tasks without important, or even essential, nutrients won’t show immediately, but it IS coming.
Those who are proactive in taking care of their health and see health for what is really is, quite simply will have better health outcomes. Health is gained, or lost, incrementally. Often it is said that health is the absence of disease, which is a categorical claim. I contend that we are best served in viewing our health on a spectrum, with health being determined by your proximity to a disease state. If you are classified as under the range for high blood glucose today, but by this time next week you will be considered Type-2 diabetic, are you actually currently healthy?
As discussed, health is multifactorial, and thus requires a number of interventions to ensure that “holistic” health is achieved, as opposed to physical health that is accompanied by psychological illness – or vice versa. Health shouldn’t be reduced to zero-sum game where you can only achieve something by detracting from another area of your life. Trade-offs ands sacrifices must be made, don’t get me wrong, but there are better and ways to go about this.
While this might all sound a bit overbearing, it doesn’t have to be. For example, a healthy individual could incorporate some, or all, of the following strategies into their life to some degree.
Physical health – Resistance training and daily walks
Psychological health – Daily mediation and allocating time for hobbies
Social health – Playing team sports and scheduling time for friends
Intellectual health – Reading and writing
Financial health – Budgeting and investing
These may or may not be feasible or enjoyable for you, they won’t be for everyone, but all I am trying to do is show you that simple strategies, such as the ones listed above, can have synergistic and profound effects on the overall picture. There certainly are more if nothing jumps out at you.
Another thing to consider is that objective measurements of health are super important to take – something most coaches will know all to well. While it’s nice to have subjective measures and determine how successful your endeavour is based on how you are feeling, to be sure you’re on the right track, you need something more objective and standardised. Taking blood pressure every now and then when you see your doctor is LESS than the bare minimum data to collect in my view. It’s valuable, but too infrequent most of the time. A lot can happen in 6 months or a year, especially if you were already encroaching on a boundary you don’t want to cross.
Some examples of objective data include:
- Blood pressure
- Resting Heart rate
- Glucose tolerance testing
- Body weight, BMI and Waist to hip circumference (useful in combination with other measurements)
- Blood testing (basic blood panel for Micronutrient, blood glucose and lipid profile, hormone panel)
- Sleep (quality and duration)
- Movement (step count, training)
- Calorie/Nutrient tracking (doesn’t have to mean tracking every calorie)
These are all useful when implemented correctly, but are certainly not necessary. Collecting data like this is a great way of letting you know exactly where you are and what your next best move is – granted it must be analysed by a professional who knows how to read AND INTERPRET the data they are looking at.
I now want to quickly touch on the role of genetics in all this. They are often used as a scapegoat for many, who fail to fully grasp the role that they play.
For example, someone could have a genetic make-up that makes it harder to sustain a BMI under 25 (the point at which someone is classified as ‘overweight’). A genetic profile like this may contain the FTO gene, which is associated with obesity prone behaviours, due to its detrimental effects on Ghrelin regulation and attenuates postprandial appetite reduction. Basically, if you have this gene then you have greater hunger and less satiety after a meal, meaning it is just simply harder for you to maintain a leaner physique, all other things being equal. Does this mean that you can’t? No, absolutely not. You can combat this by eating a diet that contains more high satiety foods, among other strategies. It also doesn’t change the process in how to go about losing weight for that individual. It may make a slight incremental difference in the difficulty it is for you to diet, but it does not make a categorical difference, resulting in you being someone who simply cannot lose weight, no matter what!
What we must recognise is, while we can’t change our genes (yet), we can nurture them and influence how the ones we were given express themselves.
This also makes the point that no two paths to greater health are the same. Everyone is a little messed up in at least one way. By identifying your specific weakness, you can plan out a path or seek professional help.
The health and fitness community – Are we any better?
What I believe the health and fitness community needs to remember is that health isn’t all about physical appearance or social-media status. It should be no surprise that the general public thinks this, when we act in a way that suggests it is true. Now, there certainly are links between those things and health – being lean-ish is important, and so are social factors – but that doesn’t necessitate a high social-media following or photo-shoot worthy abs. These things need to be considerations of health, but shouldn’t be thought of as causative of it.
Many a health and fitness representatives are responsible for pushing unrealistic standards upon their followers – a tale you are probably well aware of by now. Physical health is supposed to be the strong suit of the health and fitness community yet these unrealistic standards are turning it into a weak point.
A six pack doesn’t make you healthy, nor does it make you a fit role model. For a lot of these ‘famous’ social media people, this is their full time job to look a certain way. They aren’t necessarily healthy and they may even be doing some illegal supplementation to help them look that way. You may also think they look that way all year round, but in fact many just get lean for a small portion of the year and take enough photos to display for the whole year. Alternatively, they may also just be genetically gifted athletes, which is fine, but if someone looks a certain way because of their genetics, should you really let them convince you to buy their training program?
Ask any competitive bodybuilder/physique athlete how they feel in the weeks, even months leading up to (and even after) their competition day. They may look their absolute best, but they feel their absolute worst. Additionally, an under-informed observer might look at the bodybuilder’s diet, and conclude it is perfect – based on what it contains, as opposed to what it lacks. A typical pre-contest bodybuilder’s diet is high protein, plenty of fruit and veg, made into well-portioned meals with some ‘healthy’ carbs around their workout. Sounds healthy! But once again, all is not what it seems. It’s far from the macro- and micronutrient values that they require to feel human, let alone have optimal health. Not to mention the psychological toll they are bearing, as they are all hanging for that first food binge session once all the competitions are over. The best bodybuilders know they are in an unhealthy state of being at this time, but they understand this is what it takes. Bodybuilding, or anything else that requires a similar level of leanness and sacrifice, leaves many aspects of health to be desired. Not to say it can’t be done in a healthier manner, just that the trade-offs must be understood.
The aim for someone losing weight, is to go about it in such a manner that enables them to maintain it (at low cost) in the future. An eating disorder isn’t meant to be the outcome, yet the methods of many coaches are steering people in that direction. Unfortunately, a lot the fitness-based ‘Influencers’ we are all exposed to are simply regurgitating the advice that was once told to them, by someone equally as incompetent as they are. No duty of care is being exercised, and the harm they are causing through the spread of misinformation, while extreme, is still left unconsidered.
What is most frustrating to me about these unrealistic standards that the industry sets about looking a certain way, is that you can be ‘overweight’ and yet objectively healthy. What I mean by this is, you can be deemed overweight (through the BMI classification), but have perfect blood pressure, resting heart rate, blood lipid and glucose profiles etc. Thanks to pervasive and lofty aesthetic standards, it becomes near impossible to be subjectively healthy due to psychological and social pressure, regardless of objective physical health. In the end, in order to wrestle back some control, we must recognise that these expectations are self-Imposed and that there isn’t in fact anyone named “Society” who says we need to look a certain way. Sure, it feels good to blame social-media and unrealistic standards for personal problems, but ultimately, the standards only matter if you allow them to. I’m not optimistic enough to say that the current “ideal” look will go away, so it will be up to the individual to conquer their own mind and accept that some level of fat on their body is needed to be healthy, and that health is attractive.
If you’re intelligent enough to see that there is no ideal look for health and that judging isn’t required, then awesome. I’ll put it this way for the other people. If you had an overweight/obese person’s genes and you were put in their environment growing up, then you’d be them. Once you realise that, you should also quickly recognise that it’s actually your judgments that are the problem that needs solving.
Throughout this discussion, I’ve referenced BMI and how it is used to classify people as overweight or obese. While it may sound harsh, we need to acknowledge that someone being deemed ‘overweight’ isn’t a moral judgement – it doesn’t diminish his or her quality as a person. BMI was created for a reason, and that reason is to show that once you’re past a certain point, then you’re more likely to be unhealthy – but it isn’t definitive. More data needs to be collected first, not just one metric used, to confirm whether an individual’s levels of body-fat are in fact getting in the way of their health.
The masters of health – A lesson from our centenarians.
Living a long and fulfilling life is a potential marker of sustained health and there are areas of the world that exemplify that trait. ‘Blue Zones’ are the areas that host the largest percentage of centenarians. These 5 areas all have observationally similar traits, which may provide a lesson or two for those of us who are trying to maximise our long-term health and see the bigger picture.
Here are a few traits of living in a Blue Zone
- Regular physical activity
- Daily sun exposure
- Minimal pollution exposure
- Close knit families and Community
- Few smokers
- Mostly Religious
- Minimal stress
From a nutritional standpoint, what’s most interesting to me is that they typically eat some meat and often eat dairy and eggs. None are vegan and only one contains vegetarians. The foods are typically home grown and prepared, and they are regular consumers of grains and legumes. They also don’t over eat – that’s an important part! I would contribute this to the fact that they aren’t exposed to the same food environment that the western world is (hyper-palatable & nutrient-poor) and that they have a lot of responsibility in their lives, which involves the need to be active.
You could say that they are born in an ideal area of the world that leads to a healthy lifestyle and I would partially agree. They may even have genetics that allow for longer living. This doesn’t mean that you can’t also work towards some of these ways of living and maximise your own quantity and quality of life.
The same foods, and likely even better, are available to you. Many of you actually have a greater opportunity and resources to take care of your health in this increasingly modern and advanced world. That’s if you don’t allow the stressors of life to derail you, which in itself can be worked on. Easier said than done of course, but it’s worth noting. You may not have the genes that they possess, but you do have a chance to nurture what you have.
You also don’t have to live to 100 to have lived a fulfilling life.