16 November 2011

What is health?

Is the absence of illness enough? What does being healthy really mean?


When we ask “What is health?” there is more to it than a mere physical absence of illness.

The constitution of the World Health Organisation defines it simply, but powerfully: "Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." 

The health of our bodies touches everything we do, every decision we make, and is influenced by everything around us: the food we eat; the place we live; the clothes we wear. Issues of health will decide, positively or negatively, what we choose to do with every day.

A sense of wellbeing

But we ask more of ourselves than to just not be feeling sick. We want and expect a sense of wellbeing, an energy that flows not only from a physical machine performing its functions adequately. When we truly feel healthy there is a harmony in the feelings and sensations we receive from our bodies and minds – and that intangible inner feeling that some call spirit.

Health in our wallets

Health is big business, no question about it.

Some forecasts predict that the pharmaceutical industry globally will earn over a trillion US dollars in revenue by next year. That’s around R8 trillion on pills, potions, ointments and other medications. And that’s just part of an enormous industry that includes medical schemes, medical practitioners, food, exercise programmes and gyms, among many other things that we spend money on in the name of good health.

It’s big business for governments too.

The South African Department of Health’s 2011/2012 budget is R113 billion, an ever-growing priority for the government, up from R102 billion in the previous financial year. The question of what exactly health is and where this budget should be invested is both a philosophical and a political one, especially since the introduction of the plan to introduce a National Health Insurance programme.

Health by numbers

We asked our Facebook community “What is health?” and one user provided the most profound definition: “Absence of death.”

Luckily there are a few more specific measurements that have been devised so you can assess your health status. Numbers such as your blood pressure, cholesterol level and so on can be quantifiable clues as to whether you are falling into the general parameters for your sex and age that indicate you are healthy. Find a list of the essential numbers in this article: Know your numbers.

The health of our planet

It’s apparent that health is both a deeply personal matter and an indisputably public one. The very air we breathe can be a cause of ill-health. It’s no wonder that early scientists thought that diseases were caused by a miasma, a vapour that poisoned those who breathed it. They weren’t far wrong. To truly embrace health we have to look at the health of our environments, and unavoidably at the health of the Earth too.

Ultimately though, it is our own daily answer to the question: “How are you?” that will colour our experiences. And while we may wish to set the bar a little higher than mere absence of illness, at its root health is our ability to live our lives as we wish without having to think too hard about whether our bodies will cooperate.

(Adele Hamilton, Health24, November 2011)


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