What Is Health?

“In the process of living, the cost of survival is eternal vigilance and a willingness to learn.” ~ Milton H. Erickson, MD

The answer to the question posed in the title of this article may not be as obvious as it seems.

For many people, health is simply absence of pain or disease. This is especially true if you have had health problems in the past.

For others, health is less what isn’t there, and more what is. This includes things like energy, mental clarity, productivity, etc. In other words, normal functioning.

But there is another way to think about health. It’s one you may not have thought of before. Health is the ability to become stronger from stress.

You might be surprised at this description. After all, isn’t stress harmful?

StressOf course. Certain types of stress are harmful. For example, being hit by a bus. But other types are beneficial for health and life. The key is what kind of stress and how much.

The word stress originally meant force applied to a physical thing. In modern times we also think of mental or emotional forces that affect us.

But how stress affects living things is very different from how it affects inanimate things. The difference is this: material things wear down with use, living things become stronger. The reason living things become stronger is because they adapt. And adaptation is a key element that defines living things.

This is very different than the idea that the body is some kind of machine. The body-as-machine idea is flawed. No machine can heal itself. No purely mechanical device can adapt to its environment. Living things can do both of these.

A positive response to stress is called eustress (the prefix “eu” means “good”). This kind of beneficial stress has another name in medicine. It’s called hormesis. This refers to a low-level toxin or other stressor that causes the body to become stronger.

Here are some examples of beneficial stress for human beings:

  • Weight-bearing exercise. This includes weight lifting, walking or jogging and body-weight exercises.
  • Learning a new language. Or learning anything new that is sufficiently complex.
  • Taking on new responsibilities in your work or family life.

In each of these examples, to make progress you must go beyond your previous comfort zone. There is a kind of learning that takes place.

At the same time you could overdo any of these. Deadlifting 300 pounds when your previous best was 150 won’t help you get stronger and will likely injure you. But lifting 155 pounds will make you stronger.

How does this relate to health? Becoming healthier means going beyond previous limits.

And the converse is true also – if you only stay within your comfort zone, you will gradually become less healthy. If you spend two weeks in bed, your muscles will atrophy. Your health will become more fragile. Our bodies, and our minds, require new challenges to be strong.

Think about this as you move into the New Year. It applies in every area of your life – physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.

Next week’s article will talk about a surprising way you can improve your health. Look for it next Monday.

All the best to you for your health and happiness,

Dr. Bruce Eichelberger

Dr. Bruce

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