It’s tempting not to think about your health until something goes wrong. As long as nothing hurts or slows you down, you can focus on something else, right?
Not quite. Let’s change that mindset.
For years, up to 40% of deaths from each of the 5 leading causes in the US (heart disease, cancer, injuries, and stroke) have been preventable. And managing healthy lifestyle habits can add as much as 10 years to your life.
Recently, COVID-19 surged ahead to become the number two cause of death in the US. And according to the experts, nearly all US COVID-19 deaths are now preventable.
Research shows that clinical care, such as access to doctors, medical coverage, and quality of care, only accounts for 20% of our predicted health. You have more power than you may think for the remaining 80%, as well as in navigating your interaction with the healthcare system itself. Step into it: own your health.
Your Everyday Choices Matter
As a teen and in my twenties, I pretty much ignored my health. I ate what I craved (pasta, raw cookie dough!), slept when I was too tired to stay awake, and figured it was unavoidable when I’d get a really bad flu or a cough I couldn’t shake for months.
On the whole, I have been fairly fortunate when it comes to health, but I now handle it very differently. That’s partly because my body is less resilient than it was, and also because I have observed how my actions impact my body and mind. Also, I’ve lived long enough to experience serious illnesses and injuries up close, and to lose some of the people I love to them.
Today I can appreciate that some of the choices I make (or make for my kids) may not have an immediate impact, but will help us in the long run.
Like wearing sunscreen on my face. Every. Single. Day. (I’m sooo glad vanity drove me to start that decades ago!) Or wearing a seatbelt. The list is long. And the impact of daily habits on the inside of the body is even less visible than the impact of sunscreen, but more impactful over time.
Actively Navigate the Healthcare System to Own Your Health
When you or someone you care about is sick, it’s not enough to just go to the doctor and do what he or she recommends. There are so many other ways you can participate in your healthcare, including doing your own research, tracking your symptoms and actions, compiling your medical records, and learning from peers.
Some companies are using data and analytics to make it easier for people to know when and where to seek appropriate healthcare services. Regardless of your context, it’s critical that you understand that you’re ultimately the decision maker, and you have to act in ways that make the most sense for you and your family. Like the time when my husband and I avoided an unnecessary open-heart surgery for our daughter, Ada.
Healthy is More than “Not Sick”
One of the mind shifts I’ve made is that being healthy is so much more than merely the absence of illness. I actively appreciate how my body feels, and what it’s capable of. It’s a mental shift as much as a physical one. I have learned how much moving my body impacts my mood and mind.
This week I am enjoying the smell of Fall in the air, the blueness of the sky, and the softness of a blanket against my skin at bedtime. I also appreciate when I’m well rested and energized for the day. Or the satisfaction I get in getting closer (still not there, but one day!) to being able to do toe stand properly in yoga.
Honestly, I also appreciate it when I just make it through a day of intense personal and professional demands. I’m so grateful that my cuts eventually heal, and that I can work through pain or setbacks and become stronger because of them. Of course I’m also grateful for the many other good things in my life including friends, family and even cats (whom I consider to be both).
It’s Up to You
Of course there will always be challenges outside of your direct control, like your genes, and (to some extent) your physical and social environments. The Oprah Winfrey Network has recently launched a campaign—aptly named “Own Your Health”—to boost awareness of health disparities that disproportionately impact Black women and some tools to address them.
Whatever your situation, over the course of your lifetime, you shape your health much more than anyone, including doctors and hospitals. You’re the one who decides whether and when to seek professional care, and how to follow up. Your choices can even influence how your genes express themselves.
Though you may not always think about it consciously, you’re the one in charge of your health. So step into the role—own it. Make time and space to appreciate the good and address the things you’d like to change. You may just feel and look better—not just in some distant future, but starting right now.