What’s the Deal with Healthy Lifestyle?

We hear so often about a “healthy lifestyle” but what does that mean?  I know that when I started my Size Acceptance/Health at Every Size practice “health” was basically a dirty word for me – the whole idea had become so intertwined with weight loss that I was unable to separate the two and wanted to reject both of them. I was finally able to separate the two, but then I was stuck trying to figure out what health really was and what constituted a healthy lifestyle and if it was something that I wanted to pursue.

The usual disclaimer (which is always interesting since I get about the same number of complaints saying either that I don’t say this, or that I say it too much):  Health and the path to it are intensely personal decisions.  They are not a personal, social, or moral obligation. The rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are not health or healthy habit dependent. Nobody owes anybody else health/healthy/healthy lifestyle by any definition.  Health is multi-dimensional and not entirely within our control.  Health is not a barometer for worthiness and is nobody else’s business.  Public health should be about making options available to the public not about making individual’s health the public’s business.

Ok, so let’s say that you’ve made the decision that health is something that you want to pursue. The concepts of “health” and healthy lifestyle can still be really tough.

As far as health goes, I completely reject the idea that health is the absence of disease.  I think that health is a moving target and that it’s about what you experience within the structure of your body and your situation (genetics, behaviors, environment, access, goals, priorities etc.).  But that’s a pretty difficult target to hit since it’s not only moving but also in turns sticky and oozy.

I actually think that the idea of a “healthy lifestyle” could be helpful, and I’ve used the phrase before, but in the end I find that it’s just been too co-opted.  Weight loss proponents often use it constantly to mean “living in a way that other people think will make you thinner/not fat.”  The conflation of thinner and healthier is deeply problematic since, for example, becoming addicted to crystal meth is very likely to make me thinner and very unlikely to improve my health.  Then there are people who don’t understand that comparison is for shopping and try to use the phrase to mean “living in a way that makes me better than those non-healthy people.” The funny thing about that is the way that, like drivers who think that anyone who drives faster than them is a maniac and anyone who drives slower is an idiot, the person claiming “healthy lifestyle” like it’s a badge of honor always seems to think that those who do more than they do are health nuts, and those who do less are lazy and unhealthy – they themselves being, of course, Goldilocks perfect.

For me, I think it’s about letting go of all of the social crap that exists around health and getting clear that this is only about me and my body. In my experience a “healthy lifestyle” means being able to shrug off the shame, stigma, and oppression that I have to deal with because society is screwed up about health and weight – and that includes misuses of the idea of health and a healthy lifestyle.  After that it’s about what makes my body feel good, what supports what I want to do with my body, what options are available at various times and any number of other variables.  I learned the very, very hard way that for me health isn’t about perfection or right and wrong and it’s not about a body size or a “lifestyle” to be lorded over anyone else – I felt my most superior when I was deepest into my eating disorder.  It’s not about a set of rules, or trying to put moral value on food or exercise.  It’s about a state of being in cooperation and appreciation with my body and that works for me.

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15 thoughts on “What’s the Deal with Healthy Lifestyle?

  1. “The funny thing about that is the way that, like drivers who think that anyone who drives faster than them is a maniac and anyone who drives slower is an idiot, the person claiming “healthy lifestyle” like it’s a badge of honor always seems to think that those who do more than they do are health nuts, and those who do less are lazy and unhealthy – they themselves being, of course, Goldilocks perfect.”

    So true! I’d never thought of this before.

    ” I felt my most superior when I was deepest into my eating disorder.”

    I was also insufferable when I was starving myself, and then miserable when I couldn’t keep it up and the weight kept coming back no matter what I tried.

    One positive thing though, I look at the top 10 or so stories on Google News Health section often, and I like to count how often none of those stories are about weight. It’s surprisingly often!

  2. World Health Organization agrees with you, Ragen–

    WHO definition of Health:
    “Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”
    –July 22, 1946

    1. Yes, yes, yes! I work with dialysis patients and we are required to assess “health-related quality of life.” The short version is, the folks who have a positive, pro-active attitude live longer (and in my experience better)–regardless of their “objective” disability or severity of illness.

    2. Hi Tiina,

      Thanks for posting this, I have to say that I don’t really agree with their definition – the use of the word “complete” concerns me – the way I read it if one area of physical, mental or social well-being is off (either temporarily or permanently) then that person can never claim “health” which I don’t think is accurate. It makes it seem to me like we’re supposed to strive for health perfection all the time which I think can be dangerous, especially for someone living with diseases, disabilities etc.


      1. My initial read of that was different, with the ‘complete’ meaning ‘all inclusive of’ rather than requiring one to achieve perfect scores in all of them to qualify..

  3. Thank you so much for this; I’d been struggling mentally with ‘how do I rebuild strength and stamina, my overall health, since my surgery, without falling into the superiority of Healthism trap’? An excellent post.

  4. I consider myself healthy and I live with an auto-immune disease. I feel best when I’m listening to my body. I exercise when I have the energy and when I don’t…I don’t. I don’t beat myself up about it. I eat what I feel hungry for when I’m hungry–avoiding certain foods due to the disease, not due to worry about calories or whatever. I’m fat but since changing my mindset about what that means, I’m so much happier and feel healthier than I have in a very long time.

    A very good friend of mine has recently been very ill. She announced yesterday that she got some answers from her doctor and she was pleased with what he had to say. She went on to say that the one good thing to come out of her illness is that she is now -20 pounds healthier! I so wanted to respond but didn’t. I wanted to comment that pounds have nothing to do with health and seeing as she lost the weight due to a serious condition, I think her wording is off.

    It blows my mind that people see weight loss due to illness as a positive thing. Not only is she super happy about this loss (and she was far from a big girl to begin with) but a relative of hers responded, “Good job!” Uh…what? Good job with what? Good job getting sick? Good job having a an illness that is potentially life threatening and affects all areas of your life? WTH?

    Being thin is sooooo ingrained in our society as the healthy way that even becoming thin through a serious illness, that could kill you, is seen as a good thing.

    1. Yes it is. We’ve reached the knee-jerk reaction that thin is the only way to be healthy, just as, many centuries ago, being plump (fat, etc) was seen as being the only way to be healthy because only the well off were rosy-cheeked and plump!

  5. “Public health should be about making options available to the public not about making individual’s health the public’s business.” That statement is awesome. Slogan-worthy. I want to put it on a bumper sticker. And it applies to so many things, not just weight. Thank you again for your blog!

  6. I think I’ll start using ‘a healthy lifestyle’ with the emphasis on the ‘a’, because if science and anthropology have taught us anything it’s that people can be healthy while doing a zillion different things.

    My preferred healthy lifestyle involves loving my body and recognizing how awesome it is, not attaching any kind of morality to my size or eating, and not using a car, which I didn’t discover until I had to sell my car because it became a bitter lemon. Now that I walk and bike everywhere for everything and eat lots of fruits, little caffeine, and whatever I’m willing to drag the mile back from the store in a rolling suitcase I feel awesomely healthy and happy. And when I feel like eating out or getting a snacky food I just get it and enjoy it and make it a point to savor the taste. However I know that there are many people who get their healthy by spending time at gyms, having very specific diets, eating homegrown organic, or using packaged diet plans (admittedly my least favorite. A good friend of mine was telling me all about her new “You just microwave it with water and you’ve got a meal!” system and all I could manage to reply was, “That’ll be easy with your busy schedule!” because gross) and the list goes on. That’s all cool for them, but I’ll stick with being car-less and guilt free.

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