The answer to this question may come as a surprise: You do. You just don’t realise it. So you’ve ceded control to others. People who have no interest in your health. We’ve all accepted that sickness is just a part of life, and that we, as individuals, can’t do much about it. This is a position most of us would rather not be in, but we feel helpless. Well, it doesn’t have to be this way. The reality is you can influence your health more than you know. Whatever state you currently find yourself in, you can take back control. You own your health, and you can choose to be better.
The conventional wisdom about health is underpinned by two very powerful, and now deeply embedded, notions:
- Our genes (or fate) are responsible for our health outcomes. In other words, whether we develop disease or not is preordained.
- If and when we do develop disease, there is no need to worry, because modern medicine will return us to a state of full health.
There is no place for us in this. We are merely observers. And, let’s be honest, it’s a nice place to be. No effort is required on our part – we can live in blissful ignorance. With no personal responsibility for our health, we can choose whatever lifestyle we want. So we smoke, drink, and eat junk food. We live sedentary lives, under constant stress, and neglect sleep. And, in doing so, we give control of our health to the industries which profit from our carefree lifestyles and, indeed, from our sickness. All in the comfortable knowledge that fate and doctors will take care of the rest.
The problem is, the conventional wisdom is wrong. Our genes are a code for building everything that is us. They give us a unique starting point in life. But this blueprint does not define a fixed path for our future selves. It’s the interaction of our genes with our environment that determines which version of ourselves we become. And we, for the most part, can control our environment. So, our health is not in the hands of fate. Nor is it in the hands of the medical and pharmaceutical industries. The people and tools of modern medicine are brilliant at many things, particularly at dealing with trauma and identifying and treating the symptoms of disease. Many of us (including me) would not be here were it not for the incredible work of doctors and nurses. But they are not in the business of making or keeping people healthy. By the time your doctor gets involved you are, very likely, already sick. And, while treating the symptoms may be absolutely necessary and often life-saving (at least in the short term), health can never be restored, because the underlying causes are ignored or misunderstood. It’s diseasecare, not healthcare. This is why today’s biggest killers are called “chronic” diseases – the root causes are not tackled and therefore the disease persists.
So, where does this leave us? In a pretty helpless situation, right? Well no, actually. We, as homo sapiens, are anything but helpless. Our bodies, when provided with the right inputs, are incredibly powerful at keeping us healthy. If they weren’t, we simply could not have survived 2.5 million years of evolution, let alone gone on to world domination. Harnessing this power is the key to restoring and maintaining your health, whatever your current state. I’m not saying you should cast yourself adrift and completely reject modern medicine. Far from it. Society has benefitted enormously from the advancements in medical knowledge. But we must recognise its strengths and weaknesses, and rediscover our body’s ability to heal itself.
I realise this is a difficult concept to accept. The conventional wisdom about health and healthcare has been propagated for centuries, and many billions of dollars depend on our collective belief in it. But, for the sake of our future, and that of our children, we must question the status quo. All it takes is for us to accept ownership of our health. Simple. But not easy. A mental shift like this does not happen overnight. It took me 34 years. A full eight years after nearly dying. An emergency bowel resection and a diagnosis of Crohn’s disease at the age of 26 was still not enough for me to accept ownership of my health. I carried on with “normal” life – excessive booze, bad food, stressful job, no sleep – propped up by powerful pharmaceuticals. Drugs which masked the symptoms but actually worsened my condition and severely compromised my immune system (you know, the thing that’s supposed to keep us healthy?). Intellectually, at some level, I knew that my health was my responsibility, but I refused to accept it. I was in denial because I was scared. Petrified of admitting that my “normal” life, my choices, had a big hand in creating my illness, and that, to be healthy again, my life would have to change. Only when acceptance eventually did come, did I truly own my health.
Great, so we own our health. What now? It turns out that real ownership has a very powerful impact on our motivation. It gives us responsibility and accountability, thereby compelling us, obligating us even, to do the best job we can. The goal with health is not to attain a universal, objectively measured state of wellness. We won’t all be living to 100 and running marathons into our 90s. The point is to be the best you can be, to create the best version of yourself from the state you currently find yourself in. How, why and when you arrived at your current state is irrelevant now – you can’t change the past. But you can make choices now to improve the future. You can be better. And it’s never too late. My immune system will always be somewhat compromised, my bowel certainly won’t grow back. I am where I am. My mission from here is to be as healthy as I can be.
The human body is extremely resilient, and it wants to be fit and healthy, but only if it is treated and used in the way it was designed – nourished, moved, challenged, rested. Unfortunately, our convenient and comfortable modern lives lead to the mistreatment and misuse of our bodies, so that innate resilience is broken down. To fix it, to be healthy again, to be a fully functional human being, requires us to make changes. They don’t all have to come at once, but you need to take action. Like many people, my starting point was exercise (which I, predictably, took to extremes). The world of endurance sports led me to learning about nutrition and subsequently making wholesale changes to my diet. This, in turn, brought me to other aspects of health, such as natural body movement, sleep, and stress management. I am constantly iterating and experimenting, modifying existing practices and incorporating new ones. Some of the changes work, some don’t, and some set me back. It’s hard. A constant struggle. It has brought frequent bouts of depression, self-doubt, and fear. Many times, I’ve simply wanted to give up. But owning my health doesn’t allow me to quit. I feel an overwhelming responsibility to move forward. Not just for me, but for my family.
Is it worth it? Absolutely. But not in the way you might expect. My health is certainly improving – I’ve been off the drugs for over two years now and my health is no longer in the hands of doctors – but there is a long way to go. I’ve come to realise, though, that it’s not really about the end result. There is no magical destination – no Oz or Shangri-La – where everything will suddenly be…accomplished. It’s about taking action, tackling the inevitable obstacles one at a time, failing and trying again. Because the real reward is in the journey itself. I want to feel well, don’t get me wrong, but if I was too involved in the result I would be burdened by the future and constantly resent the past. By investing in the journey, I can live in the present and find gratitude in the life I’ve been given.
“Let us not seek to fix the blame for the past. Let us accept our own responsibility for the future.” John F. Kennedy
Your journey will be different from mine. And, that’s the point. They are your choices. It’s your life. But it starts by taking back control. And then taking action. Don’t wait.
Own your health.