A Bias For Action: Practices For Health Empowerment
Part 2 of the Radical Concepts in Health series
by Joyce Young, MD, MPH
Managing Director, Advanced Wellness Systems
Old belief systems die hard
From cradle to grave, we have been conditioned to believe that we don’t have the ability to create and manage our own health and well-being. This conditioning arises out of a 300-year-old way of thinking about health—one that views the human body as a machine, which reduces the body to parts and negatively skews the way we think about our health and well-being (Young, 2018).
This mechanistic, externally-driven conditioning is reinforced via advertising, interactions with friends and family, wellness programs, and our dependence on external authorities who dictate the terms of our health management. As a result, we feel inadequate, fearful, and poorly equipped to take control of our health or even to try to exert our own influence.
These oppressive beliefs lead us to take a passive role in building and sustaining our health and to depend on external treatment services to manage it. Both sides expect more results than these services can deliver. Typical treatment approaches foster inadequacy, fear, dependence on authorities, and obedience. Patient deviation is met with shame, threat, and withdrawal of support.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
From passivity to power
Treating illness is not the same as creating health. Real health comes from within and can be strengthened. It’s a resource for living well and doing what matters most.
To strengthen health, we must go beyond diet and fitness to build all the essential skills needed in a demanding, rapidly changing world. We must also assess the effectiveness of our practice by paying attention to our levels of personal energy, stamina, mental focus, and emotional composure, plus our ability to avoid common illnesses.
Each of us has the capacity to strengthen and manage our own health, but many of us don’t know how or believe that it’s possible.
We need to adopt a new understanding of health—one that focuses on maximizing our potential to experience higher levels of well-being. And then we need to act differently to gain knowledge, skills, and confidence in our health and a greater sense of personal agency, especially when dealing with temporary states of imbalance, illness, and recovery. Doing so will provide the path to high health—a state of high capacity and overall well-being.
We all need new health practices, especially in the workplace
The world has evolved, but well-being practices and wellness programs have not kept pace. With rapid technological change and constant disruption, we all need new methods for adapting and prospering in business and personal life.
Information technology is an industry that we are all familiar with. A timeline could portray the evolution of information transfer through low-tech smoke signals to handwritten letters to fax machines, personal computers, smart phones, and other mobile devices. Unlimited access to unlimited information is our new normal and affects everything we do from the way we work to the way we rest (Smart, 2013).
This progression has delivered wonderful new capabilities and at the same time created new challenges for everyone in modern society. For example:
Adults check their smartphones an average of 47 times per day and those 18 to 24 years of age twice that amount (Alderman, 2017).
On a typical day we take in the equivalent of 174 newspapers worth of news (Levitin, 2014).
For every hour of YouTube video watched, 5,999 hours of new video are posted (Levitin, 2014).
Multitaskers cannot filter out irrelevant information because their overloaded attention is impaired (Smart, 2013).
While increasing efficiency, these typical daily activities drain attention, degrade mental focus, thwart deep thinking, and deplete overall stamina. Pervasive multitasking, interruptions, and information overload lead to loss of mental energy and creativity. Excessive screen time and the associated sitting restrict movement and lead to musculoskeletal imbalances, back pain, and arthritis. Rapid and constant change results in depletion and increases in lost work time due to common illnesses.
Adapting and prospering under these new conditions requires energy, mental focus, optimism, composure, regular recovery periods, flexibility, capacity for high demand situations, and other hallmarks of high health and well-being. Not adapting leads to low energy, distraction, loss of stamina, and depletion.
Our current common practices for diet, fitness, and stress management are insufficient to produce the high energy, mental focus, and other health-enhancing skills that are now required. Today’s world, as technologically advanced as it is, is clearly out of balance, especially where health and well-being are concerned.
To gain and sustain high health, we must act differently.
Practices for health empowerment today
High health practices go beyond baseline diet, fitness, stress management, and screenings to address the essential skills required now. The practices are simple, durable, and easy to use; however, many are not well-known. When mastered, they produce and sustain high health and well-being among individuals and populations.
We created a quick explainer video to reveal these essential skills, based on the best research we have found to date. It shows the basics in about two minutes.
Essential skills include: a growth mindset for health; mental focus; a strong connection with meaning, purpose, and life direction; emotional composure; and upgraded methods for nutrient-rich eating, efficient cardio conditioning, and balance and agility in physical movement.
Or, as we like to call them:
Keep Calm and Carry On
These skills form a foundation that upholds health as “a resource for everyday life...a positive concept emphasizing social and personal resources as well as physical capacities” (World Health Organization, 1986).
Skill 1, Growth Mindset: Know you can build and manage your own health
A growth mindset for health means knowing that health is a resource that can be strengthened by mastering practices that produce a state of high capacity and overall well-being. No one is too inadequate to strengthen their own health.
Research reveals that people tend to hold one of two mindsets—one where they believe that their abilities are fixed and another where they believe they can develop their abilities. Growth mindsets fuel learning, change, and success (Dweck, 2006).
Growth mindsets are at play when people understand they are in charge of their own health and can make it grow. They encourage a bias for action where people accept the need to engage and put forth effort regularly over time to strengthen and manage their health and well-being.
Skill 2, Laser Focus: Restore attention and mental energy
Simply looking at nature can energize and refocus the mind.
Encountering nature shifts the brain into a restorative mode of processing that’s essential for health and optimal thinking. It automatically restores attention so people can bring their whole mind to whatever they like.
Studies have shown that just viewing or being in the presence of nature, even if people don’t pay much attention to it, restores mental energy and focus. Nature-based practices also improve cognition, flexibility, and creativity (Berman et al, 2008).
Regular interactions with nature are an easy, accessible way to build and support mental well-being.
Skill 3, Life GPS: Navigate by meaning and purpose
Meaning is the combination of self-awareness and direction in life. It’s something to uncover, clarify, and refine over time.
Meaning involves having a coherent personal story, understanding the connections between you, others, and the world, and having a vision for how you want to live your life.
Research indicates that people who report greater meaning in their lives display more attributes of well-being. They’re also more resilient, engaged, and satisfied. Meaning is composed of beliefs, goals, and subjective feelings, and influences health and well-being. Global meaning appears to powerfully influence people’s thoughts, actions, and emotional responses. “There is now a critical mass of empirical evidence and a convergence of expert opinions that personal meaning is important not only for survival but also for health and well-being” (Wong and Fry, 1998).
Skill 4, Rocket Fuel: Get the best nutrients to power mind and body
There are a dizzying array of studies on nutrition and even more ways to think about eating. And yet one simple approach bests them all.
To optimize health, well-being, and energy, focus on nutrient richness.
Foods that are nutrient rich fuel body metabolism at the cellular level. These foods have a high percentage of vitamins, minerals, essential fatty acids, fiber, and other important nutrients.
The best, most readily available choices are colorful vegetables and fruits. There is broad consensus among nutrition research that consuming abundant vegetables and fruit will maximize nutrient richness and optimize nutrition.
Focusing on nutrient richness is an accessible approach to eating that delivers many benefits, including: improved mental and physical health; protection for DNA against oxidative stress; increased capacity to handle life demands; and plentiful energy for a vibrant life (Bonaccio et al, 2013).
“Nutrient-rich foods influence everything about how we feel. That includes our energy level, hormones, hunger patterns, mood, sleep cycles, and overall health—and not just the long-term, but also our day-to-day health as well as our capacity to handle any situation that arises.” —Laurel Wentz, PhD, RD, Appalachian State University
Skill 5, Cat Power: Balance, flex, and strengthen core movements
Quality movement is the ability to move well, as most cats do naturally and as humans used to do naturally when we moved our bodies more often in a wider variety of ways.
Moving well means being able to bend, squat, kneel, push, pull, lift, carry, walk, run, and move in an energy efficient and balanced way, without limitation, discomfort, or fear. This approach to movement represents a well-functioning body whose muscles and joints are working well together, smoothly and in sequence.
Bringing efficient, optimal movement habits into daily activities increases musculoskeletal health and efficiency, stimulates neuromuscular learning, and reduces pain.
Benefits of moving well include: feeling better; being more energy efficient; enjoying moving more; being more engaged in activities; experiencing less pain and discomfort; recovering faster; feeling strong, invigorated, and light; and moving without fear (Sahrmann, 2002).
Skill 6, Reserves: Develop capacity for high demand periods
Cardio conditioning can be enhanced through special forms of high-intensity training that deliver global health benefits with minimal time requirements. These forms can be easily incorporated into activities that one already enjoys.
Improving conditioning in this way has beneficial effects that reach far into all aspects of life. This approach conditions people to respond effectively to periods of demand and recovery, and developing this capacity means being better able to respond to any of life’s situations.
Benefits include: greater cardiovascular capacity; more energy and resilience; enhanced memory, learning, and psychological well-being; and increased heart-rate variability—a strong indicator of fitness and overall health (Gibala, 2012).
“The quality of conditioning is directly related to the quality of life. This goes beyond general health or weight. Fitness is pervasive and affects all aspects of life, including cognition, mood, neuroefficiency, resilience, and relationships.” —Nick Murray, PhD, East Carolina University
Skill 7, Keep Calm and Carry On: Manage emotions and stay composed
Emotions can either boost or drain energy. Everyone feels emotions, such as joy, anger, interest, fear, gratitude, and resentment. They arise naturally in response to everyday circumstances.
Researchers have found stunning correlations between expressing more positive emotions and living longer. People who focus on positive emotions also report having: more satisfaction, meaning, and purpose in life; more social support and better relationships; fewer aches and pains, headaches, and other physical symptoms; more possible solutions to problems; better sleep (Fredrickson, 2013).
Other emotional well-being skills include techniques for managing negative emotions and becoming more aware of the body and the present moment. The way people manage their emotions predicts the way they feel and the level of energy they experience.
Workplaces spread health practices to more people, faster
We now know the essential skills needed for life today. How do we obtain the practices to build them? Based on my experience, one compelling answer is the workplace. Focusing on employee populations stands to help more people achieve high health and well-being.
Along with being a primary source for health benefits coverage, workplaces have also been a primary source of wellness programs for working adults. Wellness programs utilize existing channels of communication with employees, and health improvements benefit both the employee and the company. Also, real health spreads faster in groups.
Modernizing employee wellness programs for growth, action, and empowerment
Applying the ideas in “A New Way Of Seeing” and the practices in this paper to wellness programs gives companies an opportunity to replace a 300-year-old approach—one that’s centered on fixing health problems—with a modern approach that favors growth, action, and personal health empowerment.
Modernized programs can then take advantage of a new network model for employee well-being to expand the informal well-being networks that already exist inside every company.
Using network effects to spread high health
In just about every survey I’ve conducted of employee wellness trends, we find that roughly 10 to 12 percent of the employee population is actively engaged in practices that support personal health and well-being, regardless of whether the company has a wellness program.
These are the employees who consistently use company or community fitness centers. They pay attention to food choices and are mindful about weight management. They often have less lost time from work and better work contributions. Their regular attendance and participation in company-sponsored wellness events—including volunteering and serving on wellness committees—links them to one another. This is the basis of the informal well-being network that goes unrecognized in most organizations.
Instead of overlooking these existing networks of well-being, we can cultivate their growth and encourage their spread. When we find the informal networks that already exist in a population and give them effective tools and attractive ideas, they will grow.
Network effects are known to be present in all settings; they proliferate in the business world. New science reveals that everything, from the global economy to the tiniest cell, is made of networks (Barabási, 2002). Networks follow predictable mathematical formulas and share fundamental properties—like the ability to spread ideas and behaviors fast. In groups, high-health practices spread, positively affecting the health and well-being of others. Researchers have validated this ripple effect in numerous studies. Such positive feedback loops benefit everyone.
The fastest, easiest, and most affordable way to move employee well-being forward in companies is to support networks of employees who are working on these essential skills.
Acting differently leads to empowerment and progress
High health is now a business imperative. Research shows that employees who have high health and high well-being have:
4 times less health services utilization,
6 times less lost time from work, and
8 times better work contributions than employees at low health levels (Keyes & Grzywacz, 2005).
Surveys reveal that 95% of companies with wellness programs center their well-being efforts on biometric screening, health risk assessments (HRAs), weight management, and exercise—wellness activities that are not advanced enough to combat the health-depleting effects of modern society (Pollitz & Rae, 2016). Many upgraded well-being techniques exist, but few companies build their wellness programs around them.
On the other hand, employees who know how to manage their health in the mental, emotional, physical, purpose, and life direction dimensions experience less health services utilization, less lost time from work, and better work contributions than those who don't.
It is time to view health as a resource and take action to strengthen it.
High health is now an imperative, and it benefits everyone. Achieving high states of health and well-being leads to personal and professional success for individuals as well as a competitive edge for businesses.
The most powerful thing we can do to improve our health practices and programs is to change our concept of what’s possible, then take action to forge a new way.
Joyce M. Young, MD, MPH
Managing Director, Advanced Wellness Systems
Lead expert for the High Health Network
Dr. Young is a curator of innovative practices for vibrant living and a champion of high health, well-being, and the pursuit of mastery. She founded Advanced Wellness Systems and created the High Health Network to provide effective, science-based, affordable solutions to high-health leaders seeking greater health and well-being for their teams. Dr. Young is board certified in General Preventive Medicine and Public Health and is the author of numerous peer-reviewed publications on wellness program design and outcomes. A voracious reader, she also loves to laugh, jog, practice piano, garden, brew kombucha, and enjoy delicious home-cooked meals.
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