Over the last month or so I’ve felt uncomfortable with the new perception of health that seems to have taken the world, or at least social media, by storm. It seems that the understanding of what healthy living means has been lost along the way (most likely amongst pictures of abs and avotoast), scaremongering people into the belief that you need to #eatclean and #getlean to be truly healthy.
Considering that obesity and type 2 diabetes are becoming the norm, any move towards a healthier lifestyle should be applauded, however, I worry that the online perception of what healthy looks like is causing confusion, setting unrealistic goals and ultimately causing more harm than good.
With this in mind, I’d like to share my experience as a GP to give you an idea of what “perfect health” may look like. As with anything in life, perfection is hard to come by. I just hope that after reading this your perception of what it actually means to be healthy may have shifted, and more importantly, not be defined by an Instagram photo.
SO, WHAT DOES IT ACTUALLY MEAN TO BE HEALTHY?
When I think of health, I think of the person as a whole and this combines not only their physical health, but their mental and social health too. I don’t believe that “perfect health” exists without an equal balance of all three and we should strive to improve our health in all these areas.
When assessing someone’s physical health there are a few common parameters we look at. First up, is their BMI (Body Mass Index.) This is a formula that uses your height and weight to give us an indication of whether your weight is within the normal range or not. Ideally your BMI should be between 18.5- 25. Anything below 18.5 is classified as underweight, between 25- 30 is overweight and over 30 is obese. You can calculate your BMI here. It’s well known that being overweight or underweight can contribute to severe health complications. Obesity causes an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, stroke and has a negative impact on mental health. Being underweight can cause decreased bone density and hormonal imbalances. If you’re extremely muscular, BMI isn’t always the best measurement but for most people it works just fine. So, rather than aiming for abs why don’t you aim for a healthy BMI?
On the subject of weight, let’s go back to those Instagram pictures of washboard abs. For an average woman to achieve that physique, it’s likely they’ve altered their diet and training in a specific way to reduce their body fat percentage. Helen from “Food and Nonsense” discusses this in more detail here, and it’s definitely worth a read.
Reducing body fat tends to be a common goal for women, but unfortunately, it’s not always synonymous with good health. In fact, it can be the opposite. If your body fat drops too low it can affect your hormones, most notably those responsible for your periods. Not only can this render you infertile, but it can reduce your bone density leading to a condition called osteoporosis which makes bones more fragile and prone to fractures.
Next up is cardiovascular health- the health of your heart and blood vessels. Simple measurements such as blood pressure, pulse and cholesterol are an easy way to assess this. Ensuring these are within normal limits may reduce your risk of heart attacks and strokes in the future. If you’re over 40 and live in the UK, you’re entitled to a free NHS health check which will measure all these parameters (and more) for you.
The final area I’ll touch on is fitness and mobility. It’s important to try and keep active every day and how you decide to do that is up to you; you don’t have to be training for a marathon or lifting heavy weights to be healthy. If that’s what you want to do then go ahead, but the NHS recommendations for physical activity are perfectly good enough too!
In summary, keep active and aim for a normal BMI, normal blood pressure and a normal menstrual cycle. Enjoy the body you have and keep it fit for the future.
There are many things a photo can’t show and how that person is feeling on the inside is one of them. I’m concerned about the impact of social media on mental health and fear it’s a problem that’ll continue to escalate until addressed. The constant struggle to achieve “aesthetic perfection” inevitably has a huge impact on mental health, often leading to feelings of inadequacy and reduced self- esteem. For some people, this can lead to more serious problems such as depression, self- harm and eating disorders. These people may achieve the physical appearance they were striving for, but the question is, at what cost?
Mental health still remains a taboo subject for many in todays society and even within our own healthcare system mental health is not given the funding it requires. I’m going to return to talk about mental health in more detail in future posts, but for now I just want to portray that mental health is just as important as physical health, despite the fact you can’t quantify it in a photo, on the scales or in the gym.
You may be wondering what social health is and I suppose it’s not a term that’s used too often in the general public. Perhaps it should be as it’s just as important as your physical and mental health and definitely something we should all strive to improve.
The World Health Organisation considers the social determinants of health as “the conditions in which people are born, grow, work, live, and age, and the wider set of forces and systems shaping the conditions of daily life. These forces and systems include economic policies and systems, development agendas, social norms, social policies and political systems.”
It’s beyond the scope of this blog post to discuss all aspects of social health but here are a few things that are considered important for good social health:
- Do you have a warm, safe, clean place to live?
- Do you maintain good relationships with people around you, both personally and professionally?
- Are you able to maintain a good work-life balance?
It’s not uncommon that social health it the first thing to be compromised when embarking on a lifestyle change. Regular gym visits or restrictive eating patterns can stop people from socialising with others around them, ultimately having a detrimental effect on relationships and social health. So if you think your social health is out of kilter, perhaps it’s worth addressing sooner rather than later.
I hope this post has illustrated that the quest for perfect health is more complex than physical appearance and an Instagram photo. It’s the intricate balance of physical, mental and social wellbeing that we should be striving for, and I for one, am onboard!
How do you perceive perfect health?
Have you found that social media has distorted your perception of what it is to be healthy?
I’d love to hear and discuss your comments so please free to share your thoughts below,
DISCLAIMER: Health can be quantified by many different parameters and this blog aims to discuss the meaning of health in a broader context, aimed at the general public. It is by no means exhaustive and should not be used as alternative to seeing your own doctor. Any concerns you have regarding your own health, whether mentioned in this blog post of not, should always be discussed with your doctor. Similarly, I do not want to disregard the good intentions of anyone trying to lead a healthier lifestyle and would encourage you to do so. I simply intend to offer some perspective.