On the road to wellness, we’re amassing a heap of unused information about health, nutrition and exercise.
Study after study explains how lack of exercise, poor diet and excess weight are increasing factors for premature disease and death. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates 80% of heart disease and stroke, 80% of type 2 diabetes, and 40% of cancer cases could be prevented through lifestyle changes.
The toll: 238 million restricted-activity workdays, 90 million “bed days” and 63 million physician visits are caused by obesity alone. Moreover, the most severe cases of obesity (above 40 BMI) are rising at three times the rate of obesity in general.
Even if we’re armed with all the tools necessary to live healthy, only about 12% of Americans consume the daily recommended amounts of both fruits and vegetables, and less than 3% get the recommended exercise; again, nothing new.
Given what we know, it might be time we re-think our solutions.
To combat our public health crisis, we’ve gone for the “shock and awe” strategy, to overwhelm people with statistics on health risks, waves of data on diet and nutrition, check- marked exercise plans, and school-age MyPlate schemes to divide and conquer our eating habits. We’ve waged wars on fats, sugars, carbs, proteins and oils, only to make even worse fats, oils, sweeteners, and carbs.
By focusing on the science of health, and intentionally thinking our crisis is an educational one, we’ve treated health as a mechanistic, “energy in-energy out,” process, rather than an emotional one. We’ve overlooked something incredibly simple: social relationships are the most basic and simple force motivating people to live healthier lives.
We need Bacon. Not bacon, but Kevin Bacon, as in connectedness.
Here’s what I mean.
There is general agreement that being happy and optimistic gives a person a 50% greater chance of healthy living.
Studies conducted over the past 30 years show those who have social support and healthy relationships live longer and healthier. We also know that optimists report fewer health problems, fewer difficulties with work or daily routines; were generally happier, calmer and more peaceful.
Happy people are healthier because their bodies repair muscles and regulate basal rates, thereby regulating blood pressure, body temperature and blood sugars. This healing cascade increases health, longevity, and our ability to perform activity.
Finally, there has been a proliferation of research showing people who have cancer, heart disease or other illness, have a greater chance of living longer and overcoming disease, when showing optimism, having social support, and feeling happy.
The most interesting study of social relationships impact on happiness, optimism and health, the Framingham Heart Study, made the connection that happiness can act like a contagion spread through social networks, and can encourage people in the most effective way to engage in healthy behaviors, like exercise and eating right.
In the study:
- • Nearby people becoming happy increased the probability we’re happy by 25%.
- • A nearby mutual friend (meaning a positive two-way relationship) can increase your happiness by 63%.
- • Your next door neighbor can increase your happiness by 34%.
- • Siblings that live within one mile can increase happiness by 14%.
It was discovered that people’s happiness extends up to three degrees of influence (to the friends of our friends’ friends). Simply put, people who are surrounded by happy people are more likely to do things that make them happy.
Back to Bacon.
We’ve spent time trying to get people to be healthy for the sake of preventing disease, again, a mechanistic view of our body. People act and react through their emotions, how health and happiness make them feel, and how it makes them feel today. If we follow this precept, then we start to engage people differently in their health, and how to make lasting change, and grow supportive cultures.
Those who do runs, walks, races and team sports know this cultural and health phenomenon well. Playing together creates positive emotions.
Beyond health education, interventions, programs and services, at the core of our health and wellness are people, and our connections to happy people matter more than any health statistic. To create a more well culture, one full of healthy habits, we need to enhance our Six Degrees of Wellness, and grow connections with those that make us happiest.
At the end of the day, positive emotion is the best health intervention strategy we can implement to encourage lasting health. Be happy, together.
About the author: Derek Bell is the Occupational Health Educator, Ministry Medical Group Occupational Medicine. A native of Tulsa, Okla., he now lives in Stevens Point where he gets the chance to share runs with his much faster wife, epic front-yard soccer matches with his step-daughter, and every new experience with his new-born son.
Derek wrote about overcoming the barriers to exercise in this earlier post.