I'm sure most people have their own definition of what constitutes a healthy lifestyle. There aren't really any wrong answers - whatever is important to you in your life for health counts.
In Canada we are fortunate to live in a country with a very high standard of living & it's possible to live healthy lives. Despite this, there are some Canadians who do not have equitable access to the elements that determine health and it remains important to advocate for health for all.
After more than twenty years of working in Canadian health care this is my list of what makes for a healthy lifestyle.
It's no surprise that I put this at the top of my list. Choosing whole healthy foods gives us access to nutrients we need to power our bodies and brains. But with 60% of Canadians overweight or obese we run the risk of being a nation of over-fed but undernourished people. Please read my page titled A Nutrition Revolution or read about my research if you would like to learn more.
We are learning more & more about how sleep impacts health. Getting the right sleep can change heart disease, obesity, diabetes, depression, anxiety and more. But how much does it really matter? Hey....I can sleep when I'm dead right? Well that may come sooner than you think if you aren't logging the right hours. According to the National Sleep Foundation fatigue causes more car accidents each year than alcohol. Please visit sleep.org or read my article Sleeping yourself healthy to learn more.
There is a lot written about stress and what it does to us. Chronic cortisol production caused by stress is thought to affect all of the hormones in our bodies. That means it impacts things like blood pressure, sleep, & weight loss. It's not very helpful when health care providers suggest you "reduce stress" without some advice on how to do that. Most of us have stress associated with our daily lives that we are not really able to change. What we can change is how we think about stress and give our brains a different kind of workout. Check out recent research on stress, cortisol, & obesity by Dr. Jason Fung and the Shanker Self-Regulation Method for stress.
Exercise is a key component to longevity. Not only do we live longer when we exercise, but we also live better. We know that exercise is key to heart & lung health, muscle strength, and physical stability. And exercise is also important to reducing depression & anxiety, dementia, & helping with pain control. One of the most important pieces of advice I give to patients about exercise is to evolve exercise regimens. In other words, exercise needs to be age and life appropriate. If you work full-time and have children at home you are probably not going to get to hockey five nights a week or run 3 marathons a year like you did in your teens and twenties. To read more please see my blog article: Make every day moving day.
Everyone got the memo right? Smoking is bad for you. The most amazing thing has happened in Canada over the last two decades - smoking rates have dropped to 16.2%. This can be attributed to good public health policy that made smoking in offices & public places illegal and made quit smoking programs free. What about those who still smoke? It's important to support them to quit because quitting smoking is hard to do. Research by Chaitin et al. (2016) suggests that the average smoker has to quit 30 times before they quit for good. Most family health teams in Ontario have smoking cessation programs that are free to patients. The Canadian Cancer Society has a quit smoking helpline.
Canadian guidelines for alcohol consumption recommend that women drink no more than 10 units per week (max 2 per day) and men drink no more than 15 units per week (max 3 per day). If all Canadians were to follow these guidelines there would be an estimated 4600 fewer alcohol-related deaths per year. Overconsumption of alcohol is also associated with injuries, violence, and family dysfunction. In Campbellford Four Cast offers rehabilitation for alcohol and drug abuse. The Canadian Centre on Substance Use and Addiction has a webpage listing alcohol abuse treatment hotlines in every province.
Belonging to a community is such an effective health strategy that some countries have created ministerial portfolios to cultivate community & reduce loneliness (yes Britain, I'm talking about you). In Canada, research shows that a sense of belonging to a community (geographical or otherwise) changes people's health behaviours and improves health outcomes. It doesn't matter if your community is centred around church, the local library, exercise, or the arts as long as you are in the practice of hanging out with other people. And make those in-person visits - online community does not have the same positive effects on health.
It's long been understood that visual art, music, dance and performance art have healing power. These days art goes way beyond being just a companion to a glass of wine or cup of tea in soothing the souls of the weary. Art is a medical intervention. Trying your hand at some form of art shouldn't be reserved for professional artists or relegated to the "bucket list". Being creative is part of a healthy life and we should use it to sustain good health and prevent illness. It is completely irrelevant if the end product is "good". It's the process of creating that provides benefit. Engaging in creative activity is arguably as important to health as nutrition and exercise. To read more about research on art and health please see my article: Healing Arts.
Safety at work and home is an important part of a healthy lifestyle. At work we can experience injuries & occupational diseases such as mesothelioma. An average of 972 workplace deaths are reported each year in Canada and 240,682 Canadians lose time at work due to injury. Who is the winner in the injury at work category? Health care and social service industry workers. In my practice I also see a lot of patients for injuries and accidents outside of work - falls, burns, chemical exposures, & now "avocado hand" where people are slicing their hands open while cutting up avocados (seriously, it's a thing). I always ask patients if they are wearing their seatbelts, if they have smoke detectors in their house, & if they've had any falls in the past year. To read more about making your home safe check out this article.
Air, water, & earth. It's pretty simple - we need all of these things to be clean. We need the planet to be healthy so that it is compatible with life. There are documented links between environmental problems and human health. Carbon dioxide emissions, polluted water, pesticides in soil and food, and household contaminants to name a few (check out the correlations between autism & vinyl flooring). When we advocate for the environment we are advocating for health policy.
Health Care & Disease Screening
I like to think that access to health care and disease screening is one department where Canada is winning. We have one of the best publicly funding health care systems in the world. Governments are becoming more and more accountable for providing access to primary health care providers (NPs and MDs) and registered nurses working at their full scope of practice. So check in periodically with your health care team to find out about disease screening that you should be getting. We know we can improve health and reduce illness and death if we screen people early. Please see my page on this website for Disease Screening, If you do not have a primary health care provider and you live in Ontario please visit Health Care Connect.
Determinants of Health
Determinants of health are social & environmental factors that impact individual and community health. I've already talked about some of these issues in the sections above. The government of Canada acknowledges eleven determinants that can impact your health status.
I would add a 12th determinant of health: rurality.
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