This article is inspired by a book excerpt I read in the February 2010 issue of Wired magazine. The excerpt is from a new book titled The Decision Tree: Taking Control of Your Health in the New Era of Personalized Medicine and it is primarily about using decision trees to help you make better choices when making health related decisions. While the decision tree information was somewhat interesting and could be very useful to some people, it was the introductory information that really struck a nerve and made me want to write about this topic.
Towards the beginning of the excerpt, the author discusses health as we age and states, “because the stakes are so high and the options so dizzying, we may stop engaging with our health altogether. We let doctors and insurance companies decide our care, and we focus our energies on what we can control – our bank accounts, our relationships, but not, alas, our health.” He then goes on to explain that health is really determined a combined sum of our genetics and all of our actions, or in his words, “All of these inputs create one primary output unique to us alone: our health, for good or ill.”
Then the following sentence, which really got my attention is, “This means we have more control over our health than we might have thought.” First I want to say that I certainly agree with the author’s statements as I have encountered numerous people who stopped taking care of their health and others who believed it was just too much effort to live a healthy lifestyle. However, I have been immersed in health and fitness for so long that I sometimes forget that many people don’t realize how much their daily actions really do affect their health and overall quality of life.
In truth, I wanted to write about this because the thought that it is common for people to think their health is out of their control is very bothersome to me. For the vast majority of my life I have always taken the viewpoint that we have control over virtually every aspect of our health and fitness. While genetics and life experiences (accidents, injuries, etc.) certainly affect our situations, we almost always have the power to determine if our body improves or declines from its current state.
For me this realization came early on in life when I was 7 and developed a bad hip infection that ate away the ball of my femur and left me with a fused hip. At that time I was told that I had to work really hard during rehab and keep up with my exercises if I wanted to avoid spending the rest of my life in a wheelchair. This was all the motivation I needed to work hard and as a result I regained the ability to walk and I was eventually able to participate in almost any activity I wanted. This experience showed me how much influence we really do have on our health and our future.
It seems that some people, however, don’t fully make the connections between their everyday actions and the way their body looks and feels. I believe that in some cases this is the result of not experiencing serious physical challenges or health related adversity while growing up. I say this because most people I meet, who experienced problems when they were younger, tend to have a higher level of body awareness and pay more attention to how their behaviors (nutrition, exercise, stretching, etc.) affect the way they feel.
Athletes also have a high level of body awareness, because so much of what they do involves making very specific or controlled movements with their muscles, but they still may not necessarily make the connections between their actions and their health. For example, many overweight people are former athletes who gained weight simply because they stopped being active. It is not uncommon for these people to blame their weight gain on aging or complain that their metabolism is the problem.
However, in many cases, their weight gain is not simply due to aging or a sluggish metabolism, but rather changes they made in their lifestyle. Most notably, when people stop participating in sports, or stop being active altogether, they don’t realize that they need to make changes in the way they eat. Many competitive athletes burn 500 to 1000 calories or more per day through activity. Naturally if a person is burning a lot fewer calories per day, they need to decrease the number of calories they consume, otherwise they will gain a lot of fat.
The reason I bring this up is because this is just one of many scenarios where people inadvertently contribute to their own health decline as a result of not realizing how their actions affect their body. It is human nature not to worry about problems until they come up, but if you really want to be healthy, you have to work to prevent problems from starting in the first place. It takes a lot more time and effort to recover from or reverse a health problem than it does to prevent it.
With the above example of former athletes gaining weight, I wonder how many cases of obesity could be prevented if these athletes were educated about how to change their eating habits as they transition from a life of sports to working at a typical sedentary full-time job. Even though people most likely realize that nutrition and activity (things they control) have a huge influence on their body, once their behaviors change and they start gaining weight, they frequently look towards their age or genetics (things they can’t control) as the source of their problems.
It is not until people learn to make the connections between their daily choices and the way they look and feel; that they will realize how much control they really do have over their health and fitness. Unfortunately this is much easier said than done, because it is also human nature to find ways to accept, make sense of, or rationalize their health problems instead of looking for causes or solutions for them. It is also common for people to talk themselves into believing they don’t have a problem, which means there is no chance they will work to improve their situation.
I do realize that many health problems can be overwhelming and they are often very unpleasant to deal with, but doing nothing or ignoring them is never a good solution and you should always try to find out if there is anything you can do to improve your situation. Many health issues are very challenging to deal with and it is certainly easier to ignore them, but I believe that looking for solutions and putting forth the effort to improve your health is always worth the effort.
The Decision Tree: Taking Control of Your Health in the New Era of Personalized Medicine is written by Thomas Goetz and you can find out more information at: http://thedecisiontree.com/blog/
Ross Harrison, CSCS, NSCA-CPT is a certified personal trainer, strength and conditioning specialist, nutritional consultant, and has a BA in psychology from Grinnell College. He takes a holistic approach to health and fitness and teaches people how to lose weight, get in shape, and improve their quality of life with exercise and nutrition. If you want to find out more about his services or contact him for any reason, please visit http://precisionhealth-fitness.com/.