What ‘wellness’ really means – why health is about more than just illness

When the conversation turns to health, the concern for a lot of people is with illness; being healthy is seen as an absence of illness. But this attitude actually leaves people more vulnerable to becoming unwell, as the actions they take for their health are about cure rather than prevention.

For this blog, I collaborated with Dr Mark Rowe. Mark has been a family physician for over 20 years, and is a thought leader in the emergent area of Health, Inner Happiness and Wellbeing Wisdom. It was a pleasure to work with Mark, and fascinating to hear the insight that his practice as a medical professional has given him into the benefits of holistic approach to health.

From our discussion, one thing became clear: we believe that it’s time to change the narrative around health – it’s time to focus on wellness rather than illness, and prevention rather than cure.

Modern attitudes to health:

Mark:

For me, health is the greatest asset there is.

In 1948, the World Health Organisation defined health as more than just the absence of illness; a state of complete physical, mental and relational wellbeing. I believe we need to get back to that definition, that sense of connectedness of mind, body, emotion and spirit.

Jeannie:

I agree – health is about being in balance, being able to enjoy life to the fullest without the fear of ill health preventing that.

It’s both a physical and emotional state of wellbeing – both in balance. As well as being free from ill health and sickness, it’s taking care of your body and mind to prevent future illness, and being resilient enough to bounce back easily if we do get sick. Mental and physical resilience are required to maintain health. It is about being able to love and enjoy life.

Mark:

I know from experience, however, that not everyone thinks this way. For many patients I have worked with over the years, it’s not that they don’t think health is important, just that it is one of those things that is rarely urgent. As a result, so many people simply take their health for granted. Many fail to appreciate that health is never static or set in stone; it is an ongoing journey.

Jeannie:

Part of the problem is that we’ve been sucked into this notion of the ‘doing’ society.

We are always ‘on’ – phones, tablets, stress, pressure always pushing us to be constantly ‘doing,’ as it becomes harder and harder to disconnect. The result of this stressful lifestyle and constant pressure is pushing ourselves into a state of high alert – fight or flight – the effect that this has on our health is compounded by the feeling of a lack of time, which inevitably leads to people taking shortcuts with their health.

Working long hours often means not having time to prepare fresh food in the evening, to exercise or get a good night’s sleep. It might also mean having a bit too much to drink in order to compensate for the lack of real relaxation that comes with exercise, mindfulness and time in nature.

This culture of stress and the constant need to be ‘doing’ affects every aspect of our health. For example, we might reach for a highly processed ready meal, as we feel that we do not have time to spend choosing fresh ingredients and preparing wholesome food.

This is a choice to sacrifice health in exchange for time – yet this time cannot be recovered when it is lost as these sacrifices negatively impact our health. It is time for a change in attitudes towards health.

Mark:

This issue of modern lifestyle with the emphasis on the processed food and sedentary habits is one that deeply concerns me as well. People are not giving themselves a chance to unplug and de-stress from the fast paced digital world in this era of distraction. So many people are suffering from the adverse effects of this negative stress.

While modern medicine can be lifesaving, the pill-based focus on problems – what I call the ‘pill for every ill’ – can simply be a sticking-plaster solution, when what we really need to do is address the root causes.

The journey towards understanding wellness:

Recent years we have experienced a sudden increase in largely lifestyle-related chronic health conditions, from diabetes and dementia to coronary heart disease and many cancers.

Having worked in General Practice for many years, the truth is that the patients I meet every single day are an ongoing reminder to live a healthy lifestyle.

When the economic crash hit Ireland back in 2008, there were so many people really struggling and searching for meaning. More than pills and a listening ear, what people needed was new answers and possibilities – this inspired me to start looking into positive psychology, philosophy and practical lifestyle advice. And once you see things differently, there’s no going back.

As well as having a new set of skills with which to support patients in their journey of health improvement, understanding the importance of a holistic approach to wellness, has motivated me to spread the message about positivity and possibility as widely as possible.

Jeannie:

For me, the realisation that something had to change came from my own experience with illness.

I had always thought I led a pretty healthy lifestyle – I exercised, I taught Pilates almost every day. I rarely ate processed foods, although I was still partial to cakes and biscuits! I didn’t smoke, or drink excessively.  And yet I still got ill – ill enough to be hospitalised with pneumonia, which left me with a chronic lung condition.

After I was forced to cancel a family holiday after being hospitalised on the day we were due to leave, I made a radical decision. I knew I was still out of balance in some way – something was still not right. It was time for a drastic change.

I reviewed my lifestyle – stress, work-life balance, diet, sleep. I cut out all processed sugar and completely overhauled my diet. I now understand that sugar is an inflammatory product, which I believe was hindering my lung function. Gone were the cakes and biscuits from packets. I cut out dairy and took a plant-based diet approach. On top of this, I cut my hours working in the Pilates studio and built in ‘me time’ to my week, instead of pushing myself to the max. Gradually, I got over the guilt of not working so much, and it was clear that this was essential to my physical and mental health.

All of these factors led to a major health turnaround in my life – I’ve not had a lung flare up since, and feel energised and healthy. The benefits of this approach to health are so clear to me – it is something I want to share with everyone.

Speaking from my own experience, I want to emphasise that you should take your health into your own hands. Don’t wait until illness decides for you. Prevention is the key.

Final thoughts:

Mark:

As a specialist in lifestyle medicine, I am really excited about the possibilities that exist to support and empower people to become leaders in their own wellbeing by working to achieve balance, in a similar way to how Jeannie changed her relationship with health.

Actions speak louder than words; it is important to encourage others through your own lifestyle choices, habits and behaviours. To show by example, not to simply preach or tell.

Self care is not selfish care. Indeed, taking the time to look after yourself is a gift to you and everyone that matters in your life. It allows you to be at you best day in and day out. Your health and wellbeing really is priceless, look after it!

Jeannie:

To hear my final thoughts and read further tips about making the first steps towards change, and the misconceptions around wellness, the other half of this blog is on Mark’s website – read it here.

Find out more about Dr Mark Rowe at http://doctormarkrowe.com/

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