Health can best be described as an optimum state of physical, mental and social well-being, with the emphasis on optimum. Since health results from healthful living, the only way we can hope to achieve this optimum state of well-being – our personal health potential – is through ongoing conscious effort.
We must provide our bodies with all of the requirements of health. At the same time, we must avoid, or at least minimize, the things that can compromise health-environmental stressors and our own destructive behaviors.
Heredity plays an important role in determining a person’s health potential. Unfortunately, we cannot change our inherited constitution, nor can we control any permanent effects of our former living habits.
There are, however, four major components of healthful living we can control. To help remember them we use the mnemonic DEAP (pronounced like deep) which comes from their initial letters. The components are Diet: what and how we eat; Environment: how we select and modify our surroundings; Activity: how we exercise, rest and sleep; and Psychology: how we view ourselves and interact with others.
We must learn to identify the specific requirements of health, as well as the stressors, for each of the four categories. Only then can we formulate effective strategies that lead to optimum health. Since all of these categories are worthy subjects in and of themselves, we will limit ourselves to a description of a number of key points for each.
Diet is the sum total of all substances taken into the digestive tract. For most Americans, it is not difficult to get all the nutrients our bodies require, including protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals, fiber and water.
A diet made up of a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables, raw nuts and seeds, whole grains, and legumes provides all the necessary nutrients in abundance. If our diets consist exclusively of these items in their whole, unrefined state, we will not only meet our requirements, but also avoid the numerous dietary stressors that can destroy health. Most importantly, we will avoid the excessively concentrated rich diet that is the main threat to health today.
As a result of the aggressive marketing efforts of the meat and dairy industries we have been miseducated about the “necessity” of including animal products in our diet. This purported need for meat, fish, fowl, eggs and dairy products is in direct contradiction to mainstream scientific research that shows that these high protein, high fat, no fiber foods are detrimental to health. In fact, it is impossible to keep fat and protein intakes at optimum levels when animal products are eaten in significant quantities.
Excess protein is associated with osteoporosis (loss of bone density) and kidney disease. Excess fat, especially the fat found in animal products, is associated with cardiovascular disease (heart attacks) and cancer (especially breast and colon cancer). Low fiber is associated with constipation and colon cancer. Incredibly, in spite of the facts, people are still being encouraged to consume animal products three or more times a day.
Other dietary stressors include alcohol, tobacco, coffee, refined carbohydrates (including sugar and honey) and oils. Unfortunately these substances (with the possible exception of tobacco) are still socially acceptable, and it will take a little effort on our part to avoid them. But new, more accurate health education programs are beginning to draw attention to the health risks posed by these things and it is fast becoming more socially acceptable to abstain from them.
It is tempting to ignore the environmental factors of health because they often seem beyond our personal control. But there are environmental factors we can and must control if optimum health is to be obtained and maintained.
A health-promoting environment includes clean air, pure water, appropriate sunshine, and esthetics. It avoids environmental stressors including excess noise and toxic substances. We have quite a bit of control over each of these aspects.
Air pollution is pervasive, especially in large cities. Individually we have several options for dealing with air pollution. We can move. We can purchase an air purifier for our home and perhaps for our place of employment. We can avoid smoky places. We can avoid using toxic chemicals, commonly known as household cleaners, in our homes. We can use respirators when exposed to paint and other fumes, etc. By carefully analyzing our daily routine we can eliminate a sizeable percentage of our exposure to air pollution.
Similar strategies can be applied to other environmental concerns. To avoid the toxins associated with water, including heavy metal and pesticide contamination, toxic by-products from chlorination and fluoridation, etc., we can purchase or make purified or distilled water. Overexposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun can be mitigated with the use of proper clothing, including wide-brim hats and sunscreen. Earplugs offer protection from high noise levels. The first step to take is to identify areas of potential environmental stress, then develop appropriate strategies to minimize or eliminate these stressors.
The category “activity” includes exercise, rest and sleep. There is much confusion about the role that exercise and sleep play in health. Like diet, activity is an area where each person can take control.
Vigorous physical activity puts demands on all body systems to work harder. The body responds to these demands by becoming stronger and more efficient. The health benefits of exercise include improved metabolism, increased muscle and bone strength, more efficient cardiovascular (heart and blood vessel) function, larger lung capacity, tension reduction, and improved sleep.
The most efficient way to obtain these benefits is through regular aerobic exercise. Aerobic exercise involves the large muscles of the body, particularly the legs. Examples include brisk walking, jogging, swimming and bike riding. Exercise is most enjoyable when it is incorporated into recreation and becomes a regular part of your normal daily activities.
The benefits of regular aerobic activity are becoming more widely understood and accepted; however, the benefits of sleep are often ignored. Sleep deprivation can suppress the body’s immune system, and has been associated with depression. Healing activity is accentuated during sleep. Two aspects of sleep must be considered: quality and quantity.
Many people just don’t allow enough time for sleep. They regard it as a waste of time and use drugs such as caffeine to stimulate their exhausted bodies into action. Some people allow plenty of time for sleep, but the quality of their sleep is poor. Regular exercise is often effective in helping people improve their ability to fall asleep. Physically fit people spend more of their sleeping time in deep sleep, and in REM (rapid eye movement), or dreaming sleep, the more restorative stages of sleep. People who are getting enough sleep wake spontaneously and feel refreshed.
Psychological health is characterized by high self-esteem and is dependent on two primary features: productive activity and effective interpersonal skills.
Productive activity is any life-enhancing activity that you feel is worthwhile and that is performed to the best of your ability. The positive feedback of successfully performing tasks increases feelings of well being and promotes self-esteem. This process begins in childhood with simple activities and builds in complexity as skills are mastered. The satisfaction and pleasure of successful performance is sometimes lost as people grow older and perceive themselves to be doing meaningless tasks that they attempt to accomplish with the least possible effort. Lack of meaning and effort are damaging to psychological health.
Effective interpersonal skills are the tools that enable people to get what they need and want from life. A baby cries to let others know its simple needs. Older children are much more skillful and subtle in their communication. Adults require a large, complex array of skills to effectively interact with fellow workers, friends and family. Each type of interaction requires different skills if the relationship is to be successful. These skills are learned to differing degrees in the process of growing up. They can be refined and improved by adults who are striving for a more satisfying lifestyle.