Will I actually follow a plan to improve my health?

I’ve always considered myself a generally healthy person, and have always been proud that I’ve completely avoiding tobacco, alcohol, and other intoxicants completely throughout my life. Being one of the lucky few that rarely ever feels sick due to common colds and other generic illnesses helps too; things that would normally cause people to take a day or two off from school or work. But there is so much more to maintaining a healthy lifestyle than avoiding drugs and alcohol or never being sick – a host of things that I should be doing to improve myself but don’t do. Health isn’t just about not feeling sick, but represents your overall well-being. It is a combination of many factors of your everyday life covering such things as eating habits, sleep patterns, and exercise routines.

My eating habits are probably the biggest concern to my health, mostly because I don’t pay much attention to the things that I eat or how healthy they are for me. I’ve been fortunate enough in that a lot of the things I enjoy eating are already fairly healthy, or at least not terrible for you. I remember being taught about the food pyramid in school, which separated your daily food intake into categories of foods and the recommended intake of each of those categories (Healthy Living, 2011). Nowadays, it’s been revamped into a plate representing only five different categories: fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, and dairy (Healthy Living, 2011). I do very well at consuming large quantities of milk and cheese to cover my dairy intake, and consume red meats and chicken with almost every meal to cover protein.

However, I lack severely in the fruit and vegetables department. I occasionally eat some vegetables (whatever my boyfriend cooks into things without telling me), but I rarely even buy fruits – mostly because they go bad rather quickly and, since I never force myself to eat them, tend to get thrown away and waste money. Fruits and vegetables are an important habit in eating, and according to much evidence can lower the risk of cardiovascular disease in the future as well as lower your blood pressure (Harvard T.H. Chan, n.d.). Both fruits and vegetables can also improve eye health as well as prevent macular degeneration and cataracts as you age (Harvard T.H. Chan). Given I spend a large portion of my time every day staring at computer screens, keeping my eyes healthy is especially important. A strong objective of mine is to not only buy more fruit, but actually eat the fruit when I buy them. I should also explore a wider range of vegetables. While I’ll probably continue to avoid greens, there are many other vegetables out there that could improve my diet. Improving my eating habits in this way is just one step in improving my overall health.

One thing I do have to look out for, and has already caused a dramatic shift in the kinds of foods I eat, is gluten. I’ve been diagnosed with celiac disease, which is an autoimmune disorder that causes the immune system to attach the small intestine in the presence of gluten, causing damage and an inability to absorb nutrients properly (Celiac Disease Foundation, n.d.). Avoiding gluten isn’t as hard as some people would make you believe, and has actually gotten a lot easier in recent times with many large companies transforming their products to be gluten-free. My favorite brand by far is General Mills, who not only made cereals like Cheerios and Lucky Charms gluten-free, but also produced a line of gluten-free baking products to make cookies, cakes, and even pizza crusts. While eating out at fast foods restaurants is generally out of the question, studies have found that at-home cooking is not only cheaper, but also healthier. A study at the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future found that people who eat the majority of their meals at home, rather than at restaurants, consumed fewer calories, fewer carbohydrates, less sugar, and less fat (Wolfson & Bleich, 2014). While chicken fries from Burger King were a great snack, having celiac disease has certainly forced me into a situation where eating healthier has been mandatory for my continued well-being.

Celiac disease also brings to mind the random nature of our family medical history. No one else in my family has ever had celiac disease. I’m aware that my grandfather has had a triple bypass surgery, but again heart disease isn’t common in that side of the family – he’s the only one that’s had that problem. I’m also aware that my uncle on the same side of the family developed and died from brain cancer. Again, no one else. I’m not aware of any diseases that do run in my family and tracking them down might be beneficial in knowing what I might need to keep an eye on in the future. But retrieving that information could also be done with a simple genetic test instead. Most diseases that actually run along family lines are caused by a mutation in the genetic structure rather than environmental factors (Genetics Home Reference, 2017). That means that by looking at your genetic structure, you can find out about some serious problems that might affect you in the future without needing to look through medical histories for your entire family. Overall health doesn’t just mean current health. Being able to have a simple genetic test done to get valuable information that might help prevent future health problems is certainly a great step to take.

One area that I tend not to think of much is my dental hygiene. For a long time, I never cared much about taking care of my teeth because, what’s the worst that could happen? They rot and I have to get them replaced? But then I learned that poor dental hygiene can cause gum disease, which can even lead to cancer (Batchelor, 2015). I’d consider myself lucky that I haven’t had more serious problems with my teeth and mouth given the level of care I’ve given them. I drink soda on-and-off depending on my cravings at the time, but even thinks like fruit juices and other drinks that are highly acidic can be just as bad for your dental health (Batchelor, 2015). I definitely need to take my oral hygiene more seriously. It’s unlikely that I’ll ever take the time to floss like is recommended, but I could at least take the time to make sure I brush my teeth every single day rather than whenever I remember to do it. Dental hygiene may not be as serious a contender in overall health, but it is still an important factor.

Exercise would be my personal most important factor, regardless of what other people might tell me. It has a wealth of benefits that go beyond the basic scope of burning off calories and helping lose weight, which most people would associate with the activity. Exercise can also help to improve your brain. Studies have suggested that people who regularly exercise have higher memory retention and thinking capabilities than those who don’t (Godman, 2014). That’s quite the benefit for someone who takes pride in knowledge and depends on critical thinking skills as part of their job. But the direct health benefits aren’t even the primary reason I’d like to exercise more and get into shape. Back in high school when I was required to take gym classes, I was amazingly fit and it made me feel wonderful. Over the years my body has slowly lost the shape it had back then, and there’s been a noticeable shift in my overall sense of well-being during those years. It’s not just me, though. Physical activity and inherently self-image are one of the biggest influences on how we perceive our own health (Vennare, 2012). So getting out and exercising more will have positive effects on not only my overall physical health, but my mental health as well.

Speaking of mental health, exercise can also relieve stress by burning off cortisol, or our body’s stress hormone (Vennare, 2012). It’s an easy way to get work off the mind both physically and mentally. My normal way of relieving stress is just to play video games, because they’re great at completely removing me from this world and putting me into a fictional world for a while. Lately the video game world has eluded me. While dedicated time for video games might sound strange to some people, carving out some time every week to sit down and enjoy some games would be a great way to relieve my mind of the stresses of the world through some enjoyable interactive adventures and avoid other people for a bit. That stress relief is a key factor in improving my overall well-being – a factor that could make it easier to focus on some of the other areas of my health.

Socially I’ve always been a very quiet person who avoids most any activity that requires talking to more than one person at a time. It’s been extremely difficult attempting to overcome this, and trying to force myself to socialize more in the past has only made me feel worse, bringing on bouts of anxiety. It’s very likely that I could be diagnosed with social anxiety disorder, based on some of the symptoms outlined by the Social Anxiety Institute: introductions, round-table discussions, any socializing with someone I don’t know, and others all cause me to experience anxiety (Richards, n.d.). Fortunately, it can be treated, but I’ve just been going about it in a completely wrong way. A simple step for potentially improving my social health would be to talk to psychologist and attend a therapy group, even if just to see what happens.

Ensuring that social relationships thrive has many health benefits. Studies have shown that people who engage in healthy social relationships throughout their lives frequently live longer than those who don’t (Umberson & Montez, 2011). Most notably, social ties influence our behaviors in both positive and negative ways, from encouraging exercise by going on runs together, to participating in a religious group, to getting married or having children. These activities can play into different factors of our health, such as adding or relieving stress or altering how we treat our bodies. Even more beneficial is having the relationship. Social relationships give us people in our lives that care for us, listen to us, and provide emotional support. These kinds of social benefits, among others, positively influence our mental and physical health by building a sense of meaning to life, fostering personal responsibility, and reducing the risk of unhealthy behaviors (Umberson & Montez, 2011). Social health is vital to maintain a good sense of health overall, because through others we learn to and do take care of ourselves in a more meaningful way.

Above all, the most critical piece of improving health for me is just not being lazy and actually getting out to do things that improve my health. It’s not even just the usual not going to the dentist because all dentists are scary; I don’t even bother going to the doctor because I just never bother to set up an appointment. Case in point is a cist I’ve had on my nose for years that occasionally flares up and starts itching nonstop for a few days, but I’ve never actually gone to talk to a dermatologist about it. Even going to see the doctor for no reason at all other than to get a general health check-in can reveal serious problems that otherwise wouldn’t have gotten noticed, like high cholesterol or an infection that hasn’t been causing any symptoms.

It’s not so much that I’m unaware of how to take care of myself. Most of the things I’d like to improve I already knew needed to be improved, and I already knew how much of an effect they have on my health. Dental hygiene is nothing that hasn’t been explained to me since I was a child. Exercising is something that has been reinforced in my mind throughout my school career via mandatory gym classes. The problem is my will to just do a lot of these things and ensure my health in the future. I’ve never been great at motivating myself to do things that aren’t required, and my health is no exception in that regard. But even if I can’t find the motivation to do everything that would improve my health, hopefully I can find the motivation to do at least some of them. Because no matter what I do, each thing affects my health in a lot of different ways and could even make it easier to do others that seemed hard at first but now seem easy due to another factor having changed. Health is ultimately like a giant web – everything is interconnected and not doing one is like having a hole in the middle of the web. You can’t expect your web of health to hold strong with structural weaknesses all over.

Batchelor, C. (2015, December 15). How Bad Is Soda for Your Teeth? Retrieved from http://www.batchelor-dentistry.com/blog/how-bad-is-soda-for-your-teeth Celiac Disease Foundation. (n.d.). What is Celiac Disease? Retrieved from https://celiac.org/celiac-disease/understanding-celiac-disease-2/what-is-celiac-disease/ Genetics Home Reference. (2017, June 20). What does it mean if a disorder seems to run in my family? Retrieved from https://ghr.nlm.nih.gov/primer/inheritance/runsinfamily Godman, H. (2014, April 9). Regular exercise changes the brain to improve memory, thinking skills. Harvard Health Publications. Retrieved from http://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/regular-exercise-changes-brain-improve-memory-thinking-skills-201404097110 Harvard T.H. Chan. (n.d.) Vegetables and Fruits. Retrieved from https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/what-should-you-eat/vegetables-and-fruits/ Healthy Living. (2011, June 2). USDA Food Pyramid Out: Is The New Food Plate Better? The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/06/02/food-pyramid-usda_n_870375.html Richards, T. A. (n.d.). What Is Social Anxiety? Retrieved from https://socialanxietyinstitute.org/what-is-social-anxiety Umberson, D., & Montez, J. K. (2011, August 4). Social Relationships and Health: A Flashpoint for Health Policy. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3150158/ Vennare, J. (2012, September 4). Are Fit People Happier? Retrieved from https://greatist.com/happiness/working-out-happy Wolfson, J. A., & Bleich, S. N. (2014, November 17). Is cooking at home associated with better diet quality or weight-loss intention? Public Health Nutrition. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1017/S1368980014001943