Health is a feeling of well-being, including emotional and mental wellness. It also includes the ability to maintain physical fitness, and is a key part of living a long life.
People’s health depends on a wide range of factors, both genetic and environmental. Some of these factors are within a person’s control, such as diet, exercise and the amount of sleep they get. Other factors are outside a person’s control, such as the quality of air in an area and the presence of germs. Some of these factors are measured, such as a person’s heart rate and blood pressure, while others are not, such as an individual’s social relationships and emotional support system.
The concept of health has changed over time, and different definitions have emerged. Some are based on the scientific understanding of disease processes and how to cure or prevent them, while others are more holistic. The definition of health used by the World Health Organisation is ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’. This is a more expansive view than the medical model, which defines health as the absence of disease or impairment.
A more modern approach to health was proposed by Georges Canguilhem in 1943. His idea was that a person’s health is the result of their ability to adapt to their environment and survive in it, and that the task of medicine is to help individuals develop and manage their own adaptive capacity. This concept of health is called allostasis.
In this model, an individual is considered healthy when they can adjust to the stresses and threats in their environment. For example, a person who is healthy at sea level may experience an illness when they move to a mountainous region because the lower concentration of oxygen in the air makes it difficult for them to breathe. This shows that even with our great advances in technology, it is impossible to eradicate all types of suffering, and that there are dimensions of sickness that science can’t measure.
An alternative view of health has been adopted by the WHO, which considers that a person’s health is determined by the interaction of their genes and the environment in which they live, work, play and learn. This environment is called the’social determinants of health’ (SDOH). These include social and cultural contexts, economic circumstances, the quality and availability of healthcare services, and personal choices and behaviours. The SDOH contribute to health inequities, which are avoidable differences in health outcomes and life expectancy between and within groups and countries (Commission on Social Determinants of Health 2008).
Maintaining good physical health can be challenging because it requires a commitment to lifestyle changes. However, making small changes over time can lead to positive results in the long run. For example, starting to take regular exercise can improve your mood, decrease stress levels and reduce the risk of heart disease and diabetes. These habits can also make it easier to cope with chronic illnesses or injuries as they arise.