We all want to be healthy. And healthy is certainly a good thing to be. But what does being healthy mean, actually? It would be very good to understand what it is that we are trying to get to, so you know where you are going and can recognize it when you get there.
The World Health Organization defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.
Okay…. But what does “physical, mental, and social well-being” look like? And is that the best definition of healthy?
These questions are some that I’ve been pondering lately, in conversation with friends and while perusing social media, while trying to beat my personal best at the gym, while looking for a new apartment and while trying to find cheap AND healthful food. What does it mean to be healthy? Just as importantly, how do I get there?
What follows are my rambling thoughts on what healthy is and how we get there, not a definitive treatise. I write this article from an unabashedly Christian perspective.
Your worldview may be different, but I believe that many of the points work no matter what you believe about God and the way to heaven. Enjoy it, think about it, and share your thoughts and questions! I’d love to hear how some or any of the points I’m making fits or doesn’t fit with your worldview and belief system.
How Should We Think About Health?
You can define health in several ways. To many doctors, health is the absence of disease; meaning that if you aren’t feeling sick and your lab tests all come back in the range of normal, then you are healthy.
To some of my EMT and medic friends, anyone who is a “walky-talky” (able to walk and talk) is healthy enough. For an elite athlete, flexibility and stamina may be the definition of healthy.
In the dieting subculture, healthy is doing all the right things and eating all the right foods and hitting your calorie and exercise goals. In online health forums, being able to handle stress, living a long time, and being active seem to be the most common themes.
So What Is Healthy?
A staff write at The Economist, to my surprise, has one of the simplest and most sensible opinions on what healthy means. Basically, since researchers can’t agree and the recommendations keep reversing (Sugar is healthy, sugar is unhealthy.
Fat is evil, no wait, fat is good…) your best bet is to eat mostly whole, unprocessed foods, and enjoy the foods you like, in moderation.
Still, it gets to be confusing. How SHOULD we be thinking about health? Surely there is a way to think about health that doesn’t involve feeling guilty or feeling like it’s some impossible goal that only movie stars and elite athletes ever achieve.
When it comes to health, there are several components to consider. We live in a body, we have a soul, and we are a spirit. Body, soul, spirit all need to be functioning as intended; that is what it means to be healthy.
Let’s look at body, soul, and spirit in turn, and discuss what it might mean for each one to be functioning in the way it is intended to function.
A functionally healthy body can do what you need to do, for a reasonably long time…
Whether that means being able to sit at a desk and pound a keyboard or run after little ones all day, lift a laundry basket, swing a hay bale, wrestle a pig, walk a block or run a mile, functional health means being able to do what you need to do.
That won’t’ be exactly the same for everybody. But in general, a functionally healthy body can move with minimal restriction, is reasonably flexible, strong, and durable, and can generally handle any task.
Taking the stairs instead of the elevator counts here. So does playing Frisbee in the park, going for a walk, washing the dishes instead of sticking them in the dishwasher, sweeping the floor, standing at your desk, wrestling with the grandbabies, walking the dog, and anything that gets your butt off the chair and moving.
Depending on what kind of injuries you’ve had and how fit you are, regular stretching may be more or less important for being able to do what you want to do.
But not matter how flexible you are now, regular stretching can help keep it that way. An illustrated list of stretches can be found here.
For someone like myself, with congenitally tight muscles and tendons, regular stretching is essential for being able to move well enough to work, play, and live life.
The classic definition of soul is that it’s our mind, will, and emotions. A functionally healthy soul knows real joy (not just happiness) that remains, often with tears or anguish, even when life gets hard.
Joy is difficult to describe and even harder to attain on your own. It’s the light in your eyes, the delight of a child, the satisfaction of a battle won. But joy is more than having things go well. Much more.
Joy is the deep-rooted confidence that even the worst day of your life can’t totally strip away. Joy is smiling through tears, loving through pain, laughter when nothing is going right, gratitude for small things, enjoying the people you’re with and loving them well.
How Do You Attain Joy?
Acknowledging the negative emotions, talking about the hard things, sharing your pain and allowing others to share their pain, and then agreeing together on what is really real in all of what you are feeling—that is the path to joy.
Deep, authentic connection and sharing of lives, including faith, ritual, and worship, is one of the most powerful healing modalities known to humans. Dr Caroline Leaf, renowned neuroscientist, has done extensive work on the effect of thoughts on the physical structure of the brain and on emotions.
I highly recommend exploring her extensive body of work and applying the principles she teaches. You will set yourself up for real joy.
A functionally healthy spirit connects with God and (on a spirit level) with other people. The concept of spirit is closely linked to soul, and in fac the distinction between the two may not be as clear as we once thought.
Many of the same things we need for a healthy soul are the things that we need for a healthy spirit. First of all, connection with God. In the Christian tradition, the fundamental connection with God is through the Holy Spirit within us (also called new birth).
That spiritual connection needs to be nourished and developed. Worship, which is also powerful for the soul, is essential for nurturing your spirit. While music and prayer are ways to worship, it is far more than that.
Basically, I like to define worship as anytime you think with affection about someone or something greater than oneself. (That term is borrowed from secular psychologist Martin Seligman, whose work I highly recommend).
Worship includes walking down the street and being thankful for blue skies (or rain, if you’re crazy like me and think that rainy days are best), hugging a child and realizing that God made them good, singing in the shower or in the car, or however you connect with God.
A second essential for spirit health is connection with people on a deep level. Working and worshipping together, group prayer or meditation, heartfelt sharing, Communion, small group time…all of these are ways to connect with other people in deeper ways, and they all nourish both soul and spirit.
Healthy Body, Soul, and Spirit
That’s my attempt to define functional health. A body that can do what you need it to do, a soul that can feel joy, and a spirit that can connect with God and people.
I realize that there are many omissions, many caveats, many things that I may have missed, and certainly things I have said that are controversial, even among Christians. Please share them below, and I’ll be most happy to learn from you!