What does good health really mean?
The word “health” refers to a state of complete emotional and physical well-being. Healthcare exists to help people maintain this optimal state of health.
In 2015, the population of the United States (U.S.) spent an estimated $3.2 trillion on healthcare costs.
However, despite this expenditure, a study by the U.S. National Research Council, published in 2013, showed that Americans die at a younger age and experience more illness and injury than people in other developed countries.
Good health is central to handling stress and living a long and active life.
Fast facts on health
Here are some key points about health. More detail is in the main article.
- Health can be defined as physical, mental, and social wellbeing, and as a resource for living a full life.
- It refers not only to the absence of disease, but the ability to recover and bounce back from illness and other problems.
- Factors for good health include genetics, the environment, relationships, and education.
- A healthful diet, exercise, screening for diseases, and coping strategies can all enhance a person’s health.
In 1948, the World Health Organization (WHO) defined health with a phrase that is still used today.
“Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” WHO, 1948.
In 1986, the WHO further clarified that health is:
“A resource for everyday life, not the objective of living. Health is a positive concept emphasizing social and personal resources, as well as physical capacities.”
This means that health is a resource to support an individual’s function in wider society. A healthful lifestyle provides the means to lead a full life.
More recently, researchers have defined health as the ability of a body to adapt to new threats and infirmities. They base this on the idea that modern science has dramatically increased human awareness of diseases and how they work in the last few decades.
Mental and physical health are the two most commonly discussed types of health. We also talk about “spiritual health,” “emotional health,” and “financial health,” among others. These have also been linked to lower stress levels and mental and physical wellbeing.
In a person who experiences physical health, bodily functions are working at peak performance, due not only to a lack of disease, but also to regular exercise, balanced nutrition, and adequate rest. We receive treatment, when necessary, to maintain the balance.
Physical wellbeing involves pursuing a healthful lifestyle to decrease the risk of disease. Maintaining physical fitness, for example, can protect and develop the endurance of a person’s breathing and heart function, muscular strength, flexibility, and body composition.
Physical health and well-being also help reduce the risk of an injury or health issue. Examples include minimizing hazards in the workplace, practicing safe sex, practicing good hygiene, or avoiding the use of tobacco, alcohol, or illegal drugs.
Mental health refers to a person’s emotional, social, and psychological wellbeing. Mental health is as important as physical health to a full, active lifestyle.
It is harder to define mental health than physical health, because, in many cases, diagnosis depends on the individual’s perception of their experience. With improvements in testing, however, some signs of some types of mental illness are now becoming “visible” in CT scans and genetic testing.
Mental health is not only the absence of depression, anxiety, or another disorder.
It also depends on the ability to:
- enjoy life
- bounce back after difficult experiences
- achieve balance
- adapt to adversity
- feel safe and secure
- achieve your potential
Physical and mental health are linked. If chronic illness affects a person’s ability to complete their regular tasks, this may lead to depression and stress, for example, due to money problems.
A mental illness such as depression or anorexia nervosa can affect body weight and function.
It is important to approach “health” as a whole, rather than its different types.
Health depends on a wide range of factors.
A person is born with a range of genes, and in some people, an unusual genetic pattern can lead to a less-than-optimum level of health.
Environmental factors play a role. Sometimes the environment alone is enough to impact health. Other times, an environmental trigger can cause illness in a person who is genetically susceptible.
Access to healthcare plays a role, but the WHO suggests that the following factors may have a bigger impact on health than this:
- where a person lives
- the state of the surrounding environment
- education level
- relationships with friends and family
These can be summarized as:
- The social and economic environment: Including how wealthy a family or community is
- The physical environment: Including parasites that exist in an area, or pollution levels
- The person’s characteristics and behaviors: Including the genes that a person is born with and their lifestyle choices
According to the WHO, the higher a person’s socioeconomic status (SES), the more likely they are to enjoy good health, a good education, a well-paid job, afford good healthcare when their health is threatened.
People with a lower socioeconomic status are more likely to experience stresses related to daily living, such as financial difficulties, marital disruption, and unemployment, as well as social factors, such as marginalization and discrimination. All these add to the risk of poor health.
A low socio-economic status often means less access to healthcare. People in developed countries with universal healthcare services have longer life expectancies than people in developed countries without universal healthcare.
Cultural issues can affect health. The traditions and customs of a society and a family’s response to them can have a good or bad impact on health. For example, around the Mediterranean, people are more likely to consume high levels of fruits, vegetables, and olive, and to eat as a family, compared with cultures with a high consumption of fast food.
How a person manages stress will affect health. People who smoke, drink, or take drugs to forget their problems are likely to have more health problems later than someone who combats stress through a healthful diet and exercise.
Men and women are prone to different health factors. In societies where women earn less than men or are less educated, they may be at greater risk than men for poor health.
The best way to maintain health is to preserve it through a healthful lifestyle, rather than waiting until we are sick to put things right.
This state of enhanced well-being is referred to as wellness.
The McKinley Health Center at the University of Illinois IL defines wellness as:
“A state of optimal well-being that is oriented toward maximizing an individual’s potential. This is a life-long process of moving towards enhancing your physical, intellectual, emotional, social, spiritual, and environmental well-being.”
Wellness promotes an active awareness of and participation in health, as an individual and in the community.
Maintaining wellness and optimal health is a lifelong, daily commitment.
Steps that can help us maximize our health include:
- a balanced, nutritious diet, sourced as naturally as possible
- regular exercising
- screening for diseases that may present a risk
- learning to manage stress
- engaging in activities that provide purpose and connection to others
- maintaining a positive outlook and appreciating what you have
- defining a value system, and putting it into action
Peak health will be different for each person, and how you achieve wellness may be different from how someone else does.
It may not be possible to avoid disease completely, but doing as much as we can to develop resilience and prepare the body and mind to deal with problems as they arise is a step we can all take.