Choosing to be Healthy

Lifestyle habits can hopefully be viewed in a more positive context than the nagging shoulds” that we wrestle with daily.”

Chris Stewart-Patterson
11 June 2021
Photo by Emma Simpson.

As a practicing physician I deal on a daily basis with the issue of to how change health behaviors. The people I’ve seen who successfully alter their health habits for the better have usually done so because they have come to realize there is a discrepancy between how they currently behave and what they hope to achieve in their lives. Often the heightening of this inner tension through crisis or introspection contributes to their decision to change.

For example, my wife’s friend Laurie used to be a total party girl. A gradual spiritual awakening eventually led Laurie to examine her life’s direction, and she decided that her days of smoking, drinking and eating junk food were over. These habits, she realized, interfered with her ability to be of service to other people in her newly discovered calling in the healing arts. Laurie talks now about how light and clear-minded she feels, and how that profoundly affects her ability to be compassionate and pursue her spiritual development.

It’s worth considering the impact your day-to-day habits may have on your quality of life.

The lifestyle changes Laurie made may not be for everyone, but the idea that poor health will affect your level of energy and ability to function merits attention. Your state of well-being, or lack of it, can affect the things you value most in life, such as relationships with family and friends, work, social service and spiritual practice.

It’s worth considering the impact your day-to-day habits may have on your quality of life. Current statistics indicate that about two out of five of us will suffer from heart disease or stroke, one in four will get cancer, and one in four women will develop osteoporosis. Often these common medical conditions result from poor lifestyle habits.

Maintaining good health, however, is not just about avoiding strokes and cancer in the far-off retirement years. The World Health Organization tells us that “health is a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

For example, fatigue is a common reason for people to seek medical attention. Fatigue in an otherwise well person is usually caused by lifestyle factors and only occasionally by undiagnosed medical conditions. Reasons for fatigue can include lack of exercise, poor quality sleep, prolonged stress and inadequate nutrition.

Given the prevalence of lifestyle-based symptoms and disease, the statistics on health habits seem absurdly lame: most people say that their health is very important to them, yet only one-third are physically active enough to reap health benefits and four out of five don’t eat the recommended daily minimum of five servings of fruit and vegetables. Half of people say that they are stressed out.

The fact is that simple lifestyle changes can substantially improve your health. Increasing physical activity moderately, eating a few more fruits and vegetables every day, and decreasing stress can have powerful health effects, including improved stamina, mood and quality of sleep. Good health habits also mean a lower chance of heart attack, stroke and cancer in the long run. People with healthy habits generally live six to ten years longer and have less sickness and disability.

Appreciating the ways in which healthier living can facilitate the achievement of our life goals may assist us in changing our lifestyle. Generally, I try to relate health to what is really important in a patient’s life. For many spiritually oriented folks, this can include providing compassionate service or maintaining spiritual disciplines such as meditation.

Most of us are probably more effective at being compassionate and performing physical or mental tasks when we are feeling well.

My experience is that many people often haven’t made the connection between their health habits and the impact of these habits on spiritual practices. The role of wellness is commonly under-examined in North American spirituality. Wellness is only occasionally mentioned in classical or contemporary works of spiritual guidance as a foundation for meditation or a contributor to religious practice.

Realistically, most of us are probably more effective at being compassionate and performing physical or mental tasks when we are feeling well. While some individuals may be able to generate compassion or stick to their practices despite their suffering, many of us will have a harder time being generous and energetic if we feel sick. It’s hard to get on with what’s important to us if we are bedridden, tired or uncomfortable, because more energy is directed toward dealing with the infirmity rather than toward cultivating our compassion or generosity.

Improved lifestyle choices, then, can be seen as directly contributing to our capacity to engage in spiritual practice and social service. This reframing can be a powerful motivator in changing how we look after ourselves. Lifestyle changes need not be complicated or demanding. Increasing your walking by 30 minutes a day, eating as little as two or more extra fruits and vegetables a day, or scheduling more sleep time can positively affect your well-being in both the short and long terms.

Having said all this, there is no denying that experiencing illness is still “grist for the mill,” and being obsessed with maintaining perfect health is pointless because it will never happen. When we do get sick, as we inevitably will, we can try to enhance our compassion for others who are ill, and work on our aversion to suffering or our attachment to health. People can make marvelous progress when faced with this challenge. We have all heard of courageous and inspiring individuals who directly attribute their spiritual growth to their illness, injury or impending death.

We live in a time and place that offers great potential for well being if we make wise choices. Advances in public health, medicine and our understanding of disease prevention mean we can live long and well. Most of the major chronic diseases of modern living, such as strokes, heart attacks and many cancers, are often products of poor health habits. In our craving we eat too much, spend too much, and generally overindulge. Ignorance of basic health measures results in so much unnecessary disease and suffering.

Lifestyle habits can hopefully be viewed in a more positive context than the nagging “shoulds” that we wrestle with daily. Good habits can provide us with more passion, energy and perseverance, both now and in the long term. The best reason to strive to protect our health and prolong life I can think of is that human birth is so precious. Life here on earth has just the right titration of joy and suffering to provide optimal opportunity for enlightenment. The longer we are around, the farther we may walk on our spiritual path.

Chris Stewart-Patterson

Chris Stewart-Patterson, M.D. is assistant professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia and works as an emergency department physician at an inner city hospital in Vancouver.