Why be healthy?

Up until recently if you’d asked me why I was spending so much time, so much physical and mental energy on exercise and nutrition, I would have said “It’s a long-term experiment. It’s based on the theory that if you live a healthy lifestyle, you’ll live to a ripe old age. I want to live a long life, and I want it to be a good life up until the very end.”

Sound reasonable?

It’s certainly an alluring theory that’s much trotted out, but it bears examining. The tacit underlying assumption is that we’re all responsible for our own health and sickness. Which means that if we do get sick, and don’t live to a ripe old age, or if our old age is marred by sickness or disability and not “good” it is perhaps our fault. That’s healthism.

Which is a rather insidious notion, because it can turn us into corrosively righteous snobs who silently blame the victim. “They should have taken better care of themselves” is what we think secretly to ourselves when we hear someone has been diagnosed with a serious illness. Is that really fair?

If I take a look at my family I see

… my father who is almost 80 and is overweight and on crutches because he’s got a terrible back after a life of hard physical work and a couple of botched surgeries. Which means he can no longer walk very much.

my mother who is 70, in a nursing home and overweight, because she can no longer walk at all after a traumatic brain injury after slipping on ice, after a lifetime of healthy eating and lots of exercise.

… my aunt who can barely walk and is recovering from surgery after a non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma diagnosis.

… my grandfather who died young from cancer after long years work-related exposure to DDT

… my grandmother who lived to be 90 but suffered from dementia for the last 15 years of her life.

I see a family of people who for one reason or another didn’t achieve that “healthy old age” “good aging” ideal for a number of reasons that have nothing to with healthy lifestyles.

And there is a perfectly good possibility that I won’t either, for reasons entirely out of my control. The idea that somehow I can “earn” my way to a good old age is wishful thinking. Yes, if I abuse my health in some kind of dramatic fashion, my chances get slimmer. But the idea of achieving “hyper health” – of somehow earning my way up the ladder by obsessively optimizing exercise and nutrition is probably foolish.

The other side of the coin is that I am not obsessively attached to life. I am not one of those people (yet?) who feel they must absolutely live a very long life. I am not possessed by a consuming vocation that has me raging against death. For me, death is part of life, not a violation or a brutal enemy (once again, that could change – who knows?).

What I need more than anything is to make more of the life I have right now – to have a “good life” now. To live more voraciously, more consciously, more adventurously, more daringly. I’m often too complacent, too numb, too timid.

I reserve the right to occasionally drink more than one drink, to bum a cigarette of someone and to have a dark and deep conversation. I reserve the right to stay up til 3am once in while so I can dance my ass off, even if I feel crappy the next day after doing any or all of these things. I reserve the right to spend a whole afternoon in bed and read a book instead of doing exercise. I reserve the right to eat jerk chicken or bhel puri from a street vendor now and then, even if they’re not hormone free and have been cooked in vegetable oil. I reserve the right to go on road trips where I spend a good part of the day just sitting in a car looking out of the window. None of this is healthy, but to live a life without these things isn’t worth it to me.

I don’t need more years, just more life.

Jessica Mitford, queen of the badasses, who died at 78 but lived an amazing life

Jessica Mitford, queen of the badasses, who died at 78 but lived an amazing life


3 thoughts on “Why be healthy?

  1. I’ve never seen the term “healthism” before, but I have definitely seen it in action. As someone who has lived my whole life with chronic illness, “health” means something very different than simply the absence of illness. I find more meaning in the roots of the word in “wholeness.”

  2. Pingback: On getting a really good deal and then realizing that life is that and so much more. | Notes to Honor Good
  3. Sorry for the previous “comment”. Problems with the IPad app. A family member was, in my mind, the picture of health, exercised every day, ate steel cut oats for every breakfast, didn’t smoke or drink. And one day, in his early 40s found a brain tumor. Less than a year later he was dead. This remains in my mind a reminder that fit doesn’t necessary lead to a long life. That said, I know that my careful diet will mean I am less likely to die of stomach cancer than if I ate foods that clearly cause me inflammation. In the end, your conclusion is a good one. It’s not how many years but how good we lived em.

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