Have you ever looked at a work of art, or listened to a piece of music a seemingly infinite number of times only to discover something truly unique that you had never noticed before? I had a similar epiphany recently after scouring what felt like the thousandth data-filled research article regarding the prevalence of preventable cardiometabolic illness and obesity in our country. Articles not just about the excessive mortality risk that such illnesses tend to bring about, but the general scientific consensus concerning the best ways to both remedy these maladies and prevent them in the first place. It seems all but completely settled, that we know there is a problem, and we also know the best and most effective ways to solve that problem. The real problem, so it seems, is actually one of execution, not identification.
Imagining Your Future Self
Full transparency, I write this not fully aware of the best ways to shift our collective mental bandwidth towards acknowledging and solving the aforementioned real problem, but I do want to start the conversation. Health conditions such as obesity, hypertension, diabetes, and the like have long been viewed as things we address later, or at least not think about until middle age. Being married to a Certified Financial Planner, I am here to tell you that investing in our health is much more like saving for retirement, instead of winning the lottery. It is the aggregation of small changes over time that will give the most people the most return on their health investment over the course of a lifetime. However, given that for 99.9 percent of human history (give or take a few hundred thousand years) we didn’t live much past the age of 30, it is actually those that do a good job of investing in their health and wealth throughout their lifespan that are the “weird” ones. To cite evolutionary biologists Heather Heying and Brett Weinstein, we live in a world of “hyper novelty”, a world that modern day humans have not evolved to easily balance the availability of abundant calories with the removal of most manual labor. Leave it to homo sapiens to engineer a majority of our physical activity out of everyday life, only to have to invest time and money in order to reinsert it in the form of exercise.
Circling back to the data, there is scientific consensus to confirm some simple facts-
- Physical activity and/or exercise provides us with a dose-dependent improvement in overall health and well being (both mental and physical)
- Most people have better health outcomes, on average, the more their eating patterns include a variety of fruits, vegetables, nuts, beans, seeds, etc
- Most people have worse health outcomes, on average, the more their eating patterns include processed foods and/or foods with high levels of sodium/sugar
Even though we are chronologically far removed from the consequences of a lifetime of too little exercise and too much processed food, a particular respiratory virus going around has made those consequences feel much more salient. I’d like to point out that much like it doesn’t do any good to tell the person who has just been sent through the windshield in a car accident that they “should’ve worn a seatbelt”, it also doesn’t help to tell someone battling said respiratory virus who is obese and/or suffering from any cardiometabolic disease that they “should’ve lost some weight and got their blood sugar under control”. If the goal is to truly change someone’s mind, behavior, or habits, instead of signaling one’s supposed moral superiority, then I think we should probably go about it in a different way. All that being said, at what point are we “allowed” to acknowledge that this is a major societal issue and start exploring ways to remedy it? Do we just tell everyone to toughen up and work harder for better health outcomes, or do we placate large swaths of our friends, family, and fellow citizens into thinking that today’s habits don’t lead to tomorrow’s preventable illness? Spoiler alert, we need a more nuanced approach. I know that will be challenging in today’s “us versus them”, “hot or cold”, “0 or 1” binary ecosystem that we’ve been funneled into, but it’s a challenge worth taking on.
Nuance Isn’t Sexy
So what exactly does this more nuanced approach entail, and how in the world could one person make a difference? Firstly, nuance can’t be packaged and sold, so it could actually be looked at as a solution for the people, of the people. Secondly, just like the aggregation of small investments in one’s health and/or retirement over years can yield lucrative results, if one person is willing to tactfully and empathically engage in a difficult conversation with someone they care about, and convince them to have a similar conversation with someone else, we could start to spread our own contagion. A contagion comprising heart felt, knowledge seeking, humanizing conversations revolving around the simple notion that if we can convey our concern of another person’s health in a non-judgmental way, that maybe we could turn this ship around. It isn’t lost on me that this may be more of a public health discussion, and my professional designation is one of Personal Training and Exercise Physiology, but I think there is room for both disciplines in this movement. We need intervention at both community and interpersonal levels.
This isn’t a post about the health care system, big pharma, politics, socioeconomics, or any other complex system, even though I’d be ignorant to assume that any and all of those don’t play some role in the collective improvement of this country’s health outcomes. The only complex system I aim to influence with this proposition is the system involving human connection. I started out by stating my perspective has changed, from one of merely informing people of the reality of our shared lack of health, to one of actually trying to make those connections and have those difficult conversations regarding ways we can change. This comes from a place of deep care, love, and empathy, and as long as we engage in those conversations with open-mindedness and assuming the best in each other, real change can happen. Yes, there is an epidemic of obesity and other largely preventable cardiometabolic diseases in this country that are placing an increasing burden on our livelihoods and longevity, but it is the joint epidemic of blame and appeasement that is preventing real progress. Whether it’s blaming one’s poor health outcomes on the choices they’ve made, or completely absolving one of culpability through deflecting blame to things outside of one’s control, neither side leads to better health outcomes.
We need nuance, we need conversation. We are complex systems, not lines of code. We are both a work of art and a work in progress, and it’s time for a change in perspective.
Yours in Wellness,