Estimated reading time 16 mins.
Please see my article, “Don’t listen to me (or even experts): My blanket disclaimer” for a brief discussion of my goal in sharing ideas on health.
A key excerpt: “We all have different bodies, lifestyles, means, likes/dislikes, goals, and many other factors which make up the context in which we are making health decisions. So my attitude is always intended to be not, “This is the right way to eat/work out” or “You should try this.” But rather: “This is what is working for me in this way. How might it apply to you in achieving your goals?””
“I’m gonna get healthy.” What does that mean? I’ve often taken the answer for granted, holding vague images of a slimmer, trimmer, fresher self. Everyone knows what healthy is; it’s just hard to do. But when pressed to define exactly what I want to achieve, I’ve in the past been reduced to expressing narrow goals like “lose weight.” As I got thinking a little more precisely, I might have started to say “lose fat.” But health is not a single-faceted concept, nor even a combination of a few things. Health is an integrated concept comprised of multiple components requiring multiple interrelated actions.
Other times, then, I’ve jumped straight to defining my health goals in terms of actions. “I’m gonna drink less.” “I’m gonna start eating better.” “I’m gonna get to the gym.” But this is also not helpful, as it ignores the question as to what health is. Yet optimal physical health is arguably the most crucial component of a flourishing life. Without it, I can’t be as productive as I might be, and I can’t maximize my enjoyment of the values I do produce. I must have a clear answer to this.
Keep full context
Being healthy is hard enough even when I know exactly what I want to achieve. But like any goal, if it is improperly defined, I will never be able to know what actions are appropriate. I will try to pursue things which, while health-promoting in one respect, may at the same time thwart other aspects of good health.
In this way, “losing fat” is an inappropriate goal when taken out of the context of the whole. It’s relatively easy to lose fat if I attack it along a single track. But in doing so, I might give up strength, energy, mindfulness, and a host of other desirable indicators of health. Likewise, pursuing a lifting goal outside the context of the whole might leave me gasping for breath as I walk a flight of stairs or increase my risk of heart disease in future years. One diet plan might help me achieve one desirable health outcome while starving my body of other essential nutrition.
So while any of the above might be a good goal to pursue, it is only so when considered in relation to the whole. And if the whole is clearly defined, I can hold the complete image all the time, constantly seeing which behaviors fit in and which don’t. Again: what is healthy?
I did a search for definitions of good health, seeing if someone might already be saying what I’m going to try to here. But in most cases, even the most official medical sites described good health in terms of behaviors or causes (e.g. “Good health is the result of regular exercise, balanced nutrition, and adequate rest,” etc.). The best I found, who succeeded more closely toward what I would call a description of what health looks like, referred to things like “bodily functions working at peak performance, reduced risk of injury or disease, endurance of breathing and heart function, muscular strength, flexibility, body composition, and ability to bounce back from disease or injury.”
Ask the right question
But I must do better than this. In order to get the most comprehensive and useful answer, one must ask the most precise question. So I’ve thought more precisely as to what I actually want here and for what purpose. Good health is not just some goal I want to reach, even if it is multi-faceted versus narrowly defined. It’s something I want to experience in every moment of my life, to be constantly nurtured and optimized. So a good concept of health—in my view—answers the title question; it describes how health looks and feels in every respect of living. The question we all must answer for ourselves is: How do I want to experience health?
My own answer to this question has evolved over the years, but has become even more clear, comprehensive, and useful—and thus with better results—since recently defining the question itself more precisely as above. That said, it still is a work in progress, constantly being re-evaluated and reshaped as I learn how something makes me feel, discover what I’m able to do or not do, consider new trade-offs I hadn’t been aware of, and decide what is more important to me in terms of performance and, again, my experience of everything I do. But I’ll attempt to talk through it here as an example of what I mean.
What are good indicators?
I used to mostly use my two competitive participation sports, hockey and soccer, as a standard. If I couldn’t perform at the level I wanted in those, it was a signal for action. But that’s hardly comprehensive, and age began to force me to consider many other everyday factors. My friend and I thought we were clever several years ago in expressing our own image of more complete health as being “the guys who can carry the heavy canoe up the mountain and then also run down and around to get whatever we needed.” This was intended to articulate a more rounded conception of what being healthy looks like as opposed to either just setting heavy lifting goals or running a marathon. But even that idea limits the concept of health to some category of fitness in physical or sport activity.
What I now understand is that I want to experience good health in everything I do, from sleeping to sitting to walking to playing a sport I love to the post-game repose.
As of today, I consider all of the following when thinking about how I want to experience health. I won’t call it an exhaustive list, but it will be a good discussion and indication of what I mean by experiencing good health, and hopefully offer a lead for anyone who wants to think more about how they would like to experience health in their own lives.
Body composition. This is more a result than an experience, as there are many health indicators implied in a well-constructed body. But speaking to the experience, when I’m fit as opposed to soft and carrying a lot of fat, for instance, I look better, am motivated to dress and groom myself better, and feel a little more confident in everything I do.
And that’s more than just aesthetic. I know what choices and work have gone into building this, and I exude that mastery over myself and reality. From sitting alone with coffee in the morning to working out to teaching to being out with people to getting ready for bed, it’s simply more enjoyable. I love living in this body.
Longevity. Any good concept of health must include longevity. At the current level of knowledge and science, people my age ought to be able to live to 100 (?) comfortably. In any case, a human life is long, and to be healthy means to be healthy now and in the future—and to have a future.
Of course, people might push their bodies in a way counter to longevity for some shorter-term goal, e.g. a sporting competition, a movie role, etc. And such endeavors might nonetheless be long-range rational values, in the same way one might spend a lot of money at once (or even borrow) to start a business or take a special holiday one deems worth the hit to one’s savings. It is for each to judge. But as I try to make decisions about how much muscle I wish to gain, what size body is best for me now and later, what to eat, etc., I always take my long future into account.
Energy. I want to have energy during the day to do well and enjoy the things I’m doing. I want my body and mind to function well, feeling alert. I don’t want to feel lethargic or sleepy, neither while at work nor when sitting down to enjoy a book or a Netflix show. It sucks to feel you need a nap either when you have to do something or when you want to enjoy something.
I’ve experimented a lot with how I exercise—including when and how often, with what I eat—including when and how often, with what kind of sleep I get—including when and how much, among many other factors, and I’m constantly getting better at creating the best conditions to see me with the energy I need when I need and want it. Everything is more enjoyable when you have energy.
Stress reduction. While mental health is as crucial as physical health to overall health and individual human flourishing, I’m restricting this discussion to what I’ll call psycho-emotional states like cravings, anxiety due to hunger, and mental fatigue, which are experienced more in a physical way and have more implications to do with physical health. I want to experience my everyday life without undue stress. If I’m hungry all the time because of my diet, this will not do. I don’t want to be craving things all day as I go out to coffee shops or as I sit in my home painfully aware of the food in my cupboards.
My own diet has been experimented with–and continues to evolve—as I seek to satisfy my energy and body composition needs (among other nutritional requirements) while at once satisfying my need to feel satiated and to experience the pleasure of opulent eating. I may say that I am getting very good at this, that I almost never feel deprived, and I am deeply contented with the way I currently eat. I’m looking forward to improving my eating habits, experimenting to see which of my favorite foods I can continue to incorporate while constantly optimizing my nutrition.
Mental clarity. I referred to mental alertness above, but I’ll reinforce here that more than just not being fatigued, I want my mind to be in full focus, to operate at its highest level. And while psychology and mental health are a lot to do with this, the physical condition of the brain, as a result of activity, nutrition, sleep, etc. is what concerns me here. Achieving an integrated state of good health, including mental clarity, takes a lot of thinking, and a healthy brain allows for peak mental performance. It’s a virtuous circle.
Athletic performance. Sports are an important part of my life. While for various reasons I don’t participate regularly in soccer and hockey anymore, I currently play in a baseball league (Koreans don’t play softball; it’s hardball, baby!). Good health for me includes the ability to perform well in my chosen game and all which that implies, physically and mentally.
I also love to run, and I use that as a measure of my health. When I’m struggling or hurting there, I know I’m not maximizing my health, and I’m detracting from the enjoyment of the run itself. The same goes for my other workouts at the gym, or in my pushup/squat regimen.
While sports activities offer valuable measures of my physical condition, it is also very rewarding to see success, prowess, and progress in these areas. Whatever you love to do, you want to be in the physical shape to do and enjoy it at the highest level possible to you.
Recovery/reduced injury. This, along with many other things, has become a more apparent issue with age (I am 40 as of this writing). One of the articles I researched and mention above refers to “reduced risk of injury or disease” and “ability to bounce back from disease or injury” as indicators of good health. I concur. It’s a big difference in the quality of my life whether it’s Monday or Thursday before I can walk properly after a Sunday baseball game. We’ve mostly all experienced the immobility and pain following a workout after a long layoff. But as any activity becomes more regular, so one’s overall comfort increases. I want to do what I want when I want to do it, exerting myself to whatever degree necessary, without experiencing any lingering pain or discomfort.
It is also true that with increased health comes increased resistance to disease. This is not only true of major diseases with long-term detrimental effects, but of minor colds, headaches, and flus, etc. I just spent my first winter I can remember in which I didn’t contract any throat, nose, or coughing cold which wasn’t extinguished before a day. I mostly know why, and I’m constantly seeking to learn exactly why, and to continue to enhance my durability and immunity.
Medical wellness. All I experience in terms of energy, performance, stress, and general wellness, etc., must of course not compromise any strictly medical health indicators, such as blood condition, heart and other organ function, and many other statistics one might have examined in a health checkup. If I think I’m doing well with body composition and all else, and then my checkup sees that I’m really ignoring some vital internal function or other, this must be integrated into what I take as my overall health.
General wellness. I want to spend all hours of my days feeling well. If my stomach is upset all the time, or burns when I go to bed, I have to think about my diet, including when and how much I eat. I want to feel light and tight, without sore muscles and joints. Flexibility is another gauge of good health. (I’m particularly bad in this aspect, but I always consider it.) I pay attention to my skin, which can show me whether I’m eating and sleeping well, for example. It is not comfortable to live with dry, itchy, irritated, or otherwise blemished skin, nor is it appealing. I don’t want to experience headaches or nausea frequently, nor any other minor illness. I want to feel comfortable, strong, and in good working order, whether I’m lying down to bed with a book, lecturing in a classroom, or swinging a baseball bat and running for home.
There is even more than the above to be included in the general wellness category, as well as other whole components I’ve excluded here, but it all must be integrated into one’s concept of health. Of course, one can’t keep all of that in mind at every step of one’s life. I myself don’t keep all the above in mind as I go through the process of living my daily life. But being aware of how I feel at all times and thinking about it informs my actions. And when I notice something uncomfortable or otherwise undesirable, either in a moment or over time, I take stock, think about its possible causes, and make adjustments. This is how I’ve come to develop my current conception of what health looks and feels like to me.
Cases in point
A recent case in point was last week. After being happy about some muscle gains reported on an Inbody readout, I decided it was due to the heavier work lunches I had eaten that week versus my usual ones. Wanting to keep it up/scared to let it drop, I ate a little more than usual throughout the days of the following week. But I felt a little fuller than usual before bed, and it didn’t feel good. I also got worse sleep.
Then, when I worked out at the start of this week, I felt a little nauseous, as one might when working hard after not training for a while. I suspect this was due to eating more heavily than usual. In general over the past several months, I’ve found that eating lightly and infrequently is excellent in making me feel good in general and in staying energized, and as far as my current understanding goes, it seems to have longevity implications besides. My hypothesis is not confirmed yet, but this is the kind of thing I keep my eye on and experiment with. This incident has also aroused questions as to what an optimal weight is for me at my current lifestyle and activity level.
Another example, which may even be related to the above incident, is in regard to energy levels. Last fall university semester, I found myself tired often by mid-afternoon—the classic 2:00-3:00 pm wall—achingly wanting a nap before my late afternoon/evening home classes started. During this winter break, however, with a new eating/sleeping/exercise regimen, I was good to go from morning to night, never feeling those burning eyes and exhausted body and brain.
Recently, however, I’ve felt the anguish for an afternoon nap. It’s ruined the quality of my enjoyment of my teaching, and even made watching a YouTube or Netflix video sometimes a slightly arduous activity rather than a relaxing and refreshing one. This, I suspect, is partly due to the heavier diet I consumed last week, and undoubtedly because of some other recent choices in regard to sleep and pre-bed activity.
This just illustrates that I have to take seriously and choose consciously to go to bed an hour earlier than recently, put the phone away and enjoy only my book before bed, and to keep my diet lighter. I had been experiencing health in a way that made everything I did—work and play—enjoyable, before I allowed slight variations in my habits begin to install themselves.
Love living in your body
The point of this article is not that the concept of health I’ve presented above is the right one for everyone (although many of the components are universal). The point is that it is essential to think about my health, to be aware of how I feel and why, to figure out what has bolstered or obstructed my health, and to correct it. With that, I’ve been able to develop my own comprehensive concept of how I want to experience my own health, according to what I consider important in a good lifestyle.
With a concept of health integrated and described in terms of how I’m living, it’s a lot easier to know whether I’m healthy or not, and to determine what I need to do to get and stay healthy. If I’m not firing on all cylinders, I don’t consider myself healthy, and I won’t accept it. Why stand for less?
As to the project of my own physical health in the cause of living a flourishing life, I again declare that it is a work in progress. But I also proclaim that it is better than ever. At 20, I was able to ingest garbage and turn it into useful energy on demand, could bounce back from any injury in no time, and could run, compete, and perform at a high rate for long periods, no doubt. But it is still true that I’ve never felt better as a whole in my life as I do now. At 40, I am stronger and better put together than I ever have been. I’ve never felt better from the time I get up in the morning through the events of the day to when I lie down for bed at night. I am experiencing health at a high level in every respect I identify as important, although I’m constantly looking for improvement—for a more refined concept of health.
But I love living. I love living in this body. And I hope that you and everyone who cares for their own lives may say the same.