What does being healthy actually mean?

To be healthy can have different meanings for each of us. I remember in my first year of Uni at the ripe old age of 18 I was asked to define health. Sitting amongst some 50 fellow students, we each took our turn to articulate our insights. I remember one classmate defining health as an absence of disease, another speaking of having zest and energy, and yet another referring to being in good physical and mental shape.

Formal definitions of health follow a similar vein, such as the World Health Organisation, who define health as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity, where the Merriam-Webster dictionary site health as the condition of being sound in body, mind, or spirit. … and the definition presented in the Collin’s dictionary is the condition of the person’s body and the extent to which it is free from illness, a sense of wellness and not suffering.

Most of us in today’s developed world view health in a holistic way that encompasses body, mind, spirit and social wellbeing. This view implies that good health is not possible unless all components are in good shape.

For example, most of us know at least one person who is physically fit, can run like the wind, but lacks mental health due to addictive behaviour around exercise. Or the person who is lean and light but eats take away every night and their idea of working up a sweat is adding extra chilli to their hot dog. Or the person suffering a chronic illness but is able to maintain a mentally strong and positive outlook.

Then there’s the spectrum of health. Poor health can be defined as one who is suffering illness, disease or injury where good health can be defined as one who has an absence of illness, disease and injury. Does that mean that great health is aligned with a marathon runner who is free of injury, is physically well, mentally stable, attends church on Sundays and has lots of friends?

Health is dynamic; it fluctuates, shifts and changes sometimes without warning. The balance between mind, body, spirit and social harmony can tip and health falls towards a deficit. Or, something completely out of our control effects our health in a positive or negative way.

Many of us have been convinced into believing that we are healthy if we do everything we ‘should’ do. If we eat clean foods, exercise daily, sleep 8 hours a day, meditate and call our Mum weekly we are in good shape. Thanks to every form of media, from television to magazines, from instaglam to facehook, we are drilled about the virtues of a slim waist, a thigh gap, rippled abs and wrinkle-free smiles. We are told not to eat sugar, to detox regularly, to follow regimented routines and use willpower to deter our ‘evil’ desires for ‘sinful’ pleasures.

We then feel guilt that we’ve just inhaled our monthly slice of chocolate cake. We hide in the closet to scoff that longed-for croissant. We feel regret at missing our second Pump class for the day. We feel a failure for breaking the diet, not sticking to our exercise plan. We feel bad about sleeping only 7.45 hours last night. We feel despair at the wrinkles accruing around our eyes, at the sunspots on our cheeks. We kick ourselves for having to buy spanks to hide the forbidden curve on our thighs. We say things like ‘I shouldn’t but…..’ before selecting the most minute canape from the tray or, my favourite, ‘No dinner for me tonight’ when downing a muffin at 10am.

How is any of that associated with any definition of health?

The illusion of health in doing what we believe we should do (due to brainwashing) leads to a greater chance of nutritional imbalance, a poor mental state, emotional turmoil, and, in some cases, social isolation or at a minimum, you become so unbearably fixated on ‘doing the right thing’ that you’re just not fun to be around – even you don’t want to be around you!

I’ve been giving this quite a bit of thought lately and listening to different points of view. I’ve reached a conclusion – my own definition of health. It’s tricky to achieve and takes daily focus and a bit of brain-rewiring. It falls within and outside of my grasp at times. But it’s largely in my control. Health to me, now, is freedom. It is not freedom from illness, disease, stress, injury, excess weight, social issues or excessive emotion. It is freedom to live in an optimal way regardless of illness, injury, disease, stress, or wellness. In this way, it is possible for an injured person to be healthy. It is possible for a chronic disease sufferer to be healthy.

An individual’s mindset dictates their health. If I don’t allow myself freedom and instead I am a captive victim of illness, injury or disease, then I can’t experience health. If I do allow myself freedom to make the choice to connect with living, I have the opportunity for health. This encompasses largely a positive outlook, a glass is half full approach. It involves not worrying about “I should” but instead focussing on “I can, I will, I want to”.

A colleague of mine, Sam Patterson (MCC and Director of Training at Health Coaches International), recently described his idea of health. He explained that to be healthy meant getting up early in the day and getting active in some way outdoors. It meant spending time doing the things he loved each week, like making time for a surf, walking his dog and spending fun time with Ali, his wife. It meant nurturing great relationships with the people he loves & switching off the phone and computer to be present with his life on the weekends. It meant having quiet time to himself to breathe, focus and connect. It meant connecting with friends and community. It meant a focus on the positive and leaving the past where it belongs.

Woah – who could argue with that?

For me the ideal of health is largely the same. It’s freedom of choice to do all those things that nurture the mind, body and spirit in ways that are meaningful to you and no one else. For me it’s noticing the patterns the clouds make against a blue sky. It’s tuning in to the laughter coming from my daughter’s room. It’s noticing the vibrant red of Mum’s garden roses. It’s the feeling of a shared smile with a fellow walker.  It’s the warm cup of tea I sip before bed. It’s time spent with a friend, sharing a laugh. It’s the hand I hold, the lingering hug, and the morning coffee I savour.

I don’t nail health, it does take effort. But when I feel free from doing things because I ‘should’ or ‘have to’ and instead have the freedom to follow rituals that make me feel good physically, mentally, emotionally, socially and spiritually, I’m on the right path to health.

Author: Kristin McMaster.

Kristin is Director at Health Coaches International and holds a Masters in Nutrition. She’s also a certified Executive Coach & has completed a Graduate Diploma in Business and a Diploma in Fitness. Her passion is to impact positively on the health and wellbeing of individuals and the community. Encouraging healthy rituals that support and encourage high performance & fulfillment is Kristin’s key focus.

Contact Kristin at

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