What Does it Mean to be Healthy?

In 1948 the World Health Organisation defined health as:

"A state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity."

At first glance this sounds like a perfectly adequate way to define health. However there are two key issues with that definition- 1) it's rather vague, and 2) the vast majority of people in the world therefore do not qualify. Could you truly say that you are completely physically, mentally and socially well?  I definitely couldn't. At a 1986 conference they informally redefined their terms, adding:

"[It 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."

Again, whilst I do not disagree, it’s a vague concept for how to live healthily. That good health improves your resources is definitely true- if you are healthy you have more energy to adapt to physical and mental challenges, if you are socially healthy you have the resources of others to recruit. But it is hard to say what all this means day-to-day, on the ground. So I am writing this post to clarify what I think it means to be 'healthy'.  

Physical Health

Most people would agree that health is divided into two categories: physical and mental health. Physical health has two main concepts- the absence of disease, and the level of functional efficiency of a living body. The two definitely interact- poor functional health makes many diseases more likely, and having a disease makes it much harder to keep up good functional health. But it is possible to, for example, have a disease and still work to otherwise keep the body healthy. 

In terms of functional health of the body there are fitness components, which effect cardiorespiratory systems, muscle strength, flexibility, and body composition. There are also many nutritional components. Additionally, there are hydration, bodyweight, sexual health, hygiene, and sleep. There are also the things you don't do- abuse drugs or alcohol, abuse exercise.

Functional health can further be subdivided into structural and chemical health. The first is the health of bones, muscles, organs etc. The latter is that the balance of chemicals in the person’s body is correct, that tissues contain the right balance of nutrients, and there are no toxic chemicals. To be honest unless you had a total health screen these are difficult to ensure. I know that my bone density is good (exercise helps), that my blood pressure is fine, and my resting pulse is too. 

For me, physical health is exercising several times a week (I built up to around 5-6 times a week), in a vast range of activities (running, climbing, hiking, kettlebells, swimming and so on). These activities work in different ways on my cardiovascular system, on my muscular strength, and on my body composition (fat to muscle ratio for one). I probably do not do enough work on flexibility, and I really should given that my job involves a lot of hours at a desk. 
Importantly, physical health is not a level of ab definition, a dress size, or a measure of fuckability. 
For me, my physical health is also based on balanced and flexible nutrition. I try to eat mostly healthy foods (now vegetarian too), a lot of vegetables and protein sources, not too many processed meals, and I drink a lot of water because hydration matters. Variability is really important, as I think the easiest way to meet nutritional targets is by making sure a diet isn't restrictive. I also think there are many psychological factors to nutritional health, which I'll chat about below. 

There are also many other factors that go into health other than merely what you eat and how you move. I currently am happily healthy in my exercise habits, sexual health, hygiene, and hydration, and mainly healthy in my eating habits. But in other areas of my life I am not that great. I do not get anywhere near my recommended sleep hours for example, and am frequently very tired. 

Mental Health

Mental health is supremely subjective. It seems very easy, but also very reductive, to say that it's the 'absence of mental illness'. It probably isn't.  For me, there is a lot of stress in my life which contributes to teeth grinding and a whole ton of other health issues. I have now had three (minor) health complaints that resulted in GPs going, 'just try to be less stressed and this will go away'. It's also partially inherent to my personality- I have a tendency towards worry! So stress is definitely a bad point in my overall health, which of course interacts badly with lack of sleep. So then I stress about my lack of sleep...

This takes us back to food- health in food isn't just based on the nutritional content, it is also ones' relationship to it. There are many ways you could have a bad relationship with food: Food as the enemy, food as a thing to be avoided, hoarded, gorged on etc. I am deeply suspicious of diets, specific eating plans, or lifestyles. Foods are not inherently good or bad, and I believe it’s a very dangerous thing to promote that they could be. Body image is of course very much related to how people feel about food, and may also inform how someone feels about food, but they are not exactly the same thing. I think overall that my relationship with food is a lot better than it has been and my body image is… variable is probably a fair assessment.

Then you also have your mental relationship to functional health- exercise. I feel pretty passionately about this. Many, many people I know see sport (running, the gym, whatever) as something negative. It’s often characterised as a way to punish someone- for eating too much or similar. I really want to encourage people, myself included, to see movement as a joy. Explore all the possible options and find something you really adore. When you have that, you don't have something you 'have' to do a few times a week to be healthy, you have something that is positively contributing to your enjoyment of life, whilst quietly also helping along your functional systems. I only started climbing last December, now I'm not sure I could give it up because of how much I love the feeling. I don't do it for the health benefits or the tighter arms (though they are a bonus!). If you 'hate' exercise I really cannot stress enough how important it is to keep trying different things. I hate Zumba, but maybe you'd love Zumba. 

When it comes down to it... 

Despite what media diet plans or expert exercise routines tell you, sustainable health is very simple. Fill your life with varied foods that fuel your body. Try to get enough sleep. Manage the sources of stress in your life (easier said than done, and yes, sometimes they will spiral out of your control) and the sources of support. Find some forms of movement that you adore- carve out time for these activities that you come to cherish. And lastly, try and work on your mental relationship to food and exercise.


What is health to you?

What are your biggest challenges in meeting your definition of healthy?


  1. I've found that the concept of "health" and what standards are and are not "healthy" vary wildly, culturaly and socially just between generations, over time, and even just depending on what doctor has been taught to believe what. I usually agree with the things you post about, and I guess this makes sense from an able person's POV, but as a disabled person, it seems horribly, deeply flawed to claim there is any kind of standard for "health", let alone one you can actively change yourself.

    1. Definitely, definitely health is hugely subjective. And I was also definitely writing this from the very privileged position of someone able bodied.

      It's really interesting that you've found huge variations between medical professionals, and I guess its very indicative of lack of unified consensus in that field- even the scientific field doesn't really agree on what they think of as the 'healthiest' diet for example, they more spend time arguing about whether or not specific aspects are good or bad.

      So yes, maybe no real standard! Thanks for commenting and giving a different perspective :-)

  2. Mm very thought provoking. I think it's a really tough one. Generally I'd say I'm healthy. I can walk, function, work, sleep, eat, live life basically absolutely fine. I'm happy most of the time, not hugely stressed that often...but we all have dark days and hard days. I think I cope OK though.
    I run a lot, I go to the gym a lot...I eat enough (and better recently). Generally I'm OK. I suppose it's your perception of how well you're able to fulfill what you want to do in life without any drawbacks relating to your wellbeing. Tough one!

    1. Its seriously difficult to have any definition! Also many other factors effect what you want to do- socioeconomic status and so on!

  3. Great post. I think the Western medicine of looking at health as simply the absence of disease is far too narrow minded. I like the Aryuvedic definition of a balance between body, mind, spirit and social wellbeing. Often we neglect these other areas, which are so important. If you look at the blue-zones (areas where people live the longest), they all live in traditional ways, eat unprocessed foods, but also there is a real focus on mindfulness and importantly family and social wellbeing which no one really considers when we discuss health. I feel like the aspects are linked, so issues in one area could affect another. I definitely know I could do more to nourish some of the aspects, in particular I need to do more meditation just to have that down time and de-stress each day, as oppose to the constant busyness, rushing around, which is really not good for the body day in/day out. I think trying to strike a balance between everything is a good place to aim for.

    1. I really like that definition too. I think I, like many non-religious people, shy away from the spiritual aspect; but spiritual does not necessarily mean religious. It could be laughing with friends, meditating, time in nature etc.

      Its really interesting what you note about blue zones!

  4. Sorry - Side tracked by 'a measure of fuckability' i love that! I may go home and ask Mr Cakey if he think's I have a high level of the above, however.. I'll get a sarcastic comment! :)
    I'm not as healthy as I'd like to be: I over work myself, I worry to the point it makes me me poorly at times, I am terrible at taking a break and I have been known to obsess about food.
    BUT! I have a strong, balanced, able body - I can run, back in the day I could climb reasonably well, I can walk for hours and I can lift weights..I don't have any serious illnesses, I am a 'healthy' weight and in comparison to some people's health woes...I don't have a single thing to worry about.
    I think healthy mean's different things to different people and if they are happy with their idea of 'healthy' then that suits me too. x

    1. That sounds like an ideal way to define it! I worry and obsess too- life is truly too short! x