The Path to Health Power:
Taking Action to Gain Confidence, Energy, and Control
by Joyce Young, MD, MPH
Managing Director, Advanced Wellness Systems
In a week’s worth of health news from my major news outlets feed, there were 16 reports on health problems and, to my surprise, two reports on non-medical steps individuals could take to better manage specific health conditions.
Typically the news reports I receive are devoted to various aspects of health problems—from descriptions of possible illnesses, risks, and diagnosis to treatment and long-term management of chronic conditions. There are also many sources of information reporting on the collection of health professionals (nurses, doctors, pharmacists, etc.) who we can conceivably engage for treatment services. Should we have even a small health problem, we have many options for ways to treat it and are constantly reminded to do so through pervasive media messaging. We might conclude, as Mark Twain did, that “Man seems to be a rickety poor sort of thing. He is always undergoing repairs. A machine that was as unreliable as he would have no market.” (1)
On the other hand, if we want to have more personal power to cultivate and control our energy, capacity, and health, there is virtually no media messaging or readily available and effective information to guide us. Pervasive, problem-oriented health messaging prevents us from recognizing that building health, personal capacity, and power is a realistic possibility. I have written extensively about this possibility in previous concept papers. This possibility is based on the following foundational principles:
It is natural to be healthy, though not a given.
Health must be cultivated regularly. When personal energy and capacity are not purposely cultivated, they diminish, leading to health decline and illness.
There are effective techniques for building a foundation of personal energy, resistance to common illnesses, and the capacity to function well. Anyone can learn, adopt, and master these techniques.
Measuring health—not illness—is more useful for attaining and sustaining high levels of health and well-being.
What Is Health Power?
From French and Latin roots, the word “power” means “to be able.” This ability applies not to achieving dominance over other people but to realizing your own potential for mastery. (2)
Power is desirable. “Most people hate experiencing feelings of powerlessness. We want to feel that we are independent, doing our own bidding, are autonomous.” (3)
When it comes to our own health, we would like to feel confident, resourceful, independent, and in control. In other words, we want to have health power—the ability to create and sustain high states of personal energy and high functional capacity as well as to successfully deploy methods of self-care to resolve common health ailments. More commonly, though, we feel vulnerable, unsure, and ineffective. We don’t know how to amass power and get control.
Ordinary people have great and largely untapped power to draw on inner resources to cultivate the energy and capacity that fuel high levels of health and well being. Attaining these high levels equips us with more power and control when engaging with medical treatment professionals and services.
Unless personal energy is optimally cultivated, health declines. This concept is not new, though it may be unfamiliar to us now. Two thousand years ago in The Meditations, Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius describes his father’s approach to personal health this way: “He took reasonable care of his body’s health…so that through his own attention, he very seldom stood in need of the physician’s art, or of medicine, or of external application.” (4)
Health power means having a foundation of high personal energy, composure, resilience, and the capacity to function well. It means being able to take action to resolve temporary health imbalances and to navigate the treatment system with confidence and control. Although advanced, our medical system does not build the individual’s health power. This is something that individuals must do for themselves.
“If I am not for myself who is for me?” —Hillel Danziger
The Seeming Lack of Urgency for Health Power
It is not well recognized that we can hold down jobs and function adequately in society with only a small portion of our potentially available energy and capacity—for a time.
Humans are endowed with many back-up systems that ensure high levels of redundancy in health and functional abilities. “We have two eyes, two ears, two lungs, two kidneys, two ovaries and two testes. In all of these situations we could get along perfectly well with only one….We can start with 100 percent full capacity and give away 50 percent without apparent sacrifice of function. We can give away another 10 percent and seem okay. But when we reduce personal energy and capacity by 70 percent symptoms occur.” (5)
We can lose a lot of health while maintaining our ability to function in the world, and this redundant capacity seems to make it less urgent for us to build our own health power. But functioning at such low levels means just scraping by. It’s like driving a car with two bald tires and a weak battery. It may work for awhile, but trouble eventually arrives.
Attaining and maintaining high capacity and high health provides immense benefits. It makes it possible to pursue what matters most to us in life. Building health power takes much less investment of time, financial expense, and effort than attempting to restore health capacity once it is lost.
The Secret of Living Well? Practice, Not Genes or Luck
Research led by the late Dr. Lester Breslow, former dean of the UCLA School Of Public Health, found that adults over the age of 75 years who maintained seven effective health practices throughout their lives enjoyed the same health status as those 35 to 44 years of age who followed one or two of those practices. (6)
Consider these inspiring examples.
Children’s book author Denise “Jane” Ashworth created a decades-long practice of sustained health power. Ashworth was a translator during WWII. After 12 years of running a bed and breakfast business, she earned a BA in horticulture. At age 55 she became a landscape architect and was one of the first women to design campgrounds and trails for the U.S. Forest Service. She earned a master’s degree in her eighties and published the first of many children’s books at age 99. (7)
From childhood to now in his early 70s, Charles Allie has been running the 400-meter distance in less than one minute. Last year he set the world record in the 200-meter distance for the over-70 age group. Allie is rarely sick and has not had a major injury. Although he competed in track-and-field events in high school and college, he established his long-term competitive course at age 40. (8)
At an age when most people expect to have low energy and to be constrained by physical and non-physical limitations, Ashworth and Allie enjoy sustained high personal energy, functionality, resistance to illness, and stress hardiness. This is not by luck; they maintain daily practices to cultivate personal energy on an ongoing basis. There are others of all ages who have combined effective personal action with sustained effort to master the skills necessary to amass health power.
How to Build Health Power
Health power is achieved by:
Knowing that effective techniques for building and enhancing health are available.
Creating a foundation by learning these techniques and using them consistently over time.
Experiencing the high energy and capacity that makes personal confidence and control possible.
The focus is on recognizing the potential for experiencing health power rather than on having an expectation that health problems are inevitable.
Health Power Through Life
A diagram of these health power concepts would illustrate that early in our lives we experience sufficient capacity for high health. Much of that capacity can be maintained throughout life as a result of learning, mastering, and adopting practices that build and replenish energy and capacity. On the other hand, if energy and capacity are not cultivated regularly, they diminish, and illness and health problems increase.
Some sample health power trajectories might look like this:
This figure depicts theoretical relationships between levels of health capacity, time, health problems, and frequency of need for medical treatment. The scale on the left vertical axis depicts levels of capacity to function well, energy, resistance to common illnesses, and capacity to handle stress. It measures from low values (0%) at the bottom to high values (100%) at the top. The horizontal axis represents human age in years from zero to 100. The right vertical axis depicts frequency of health problems and treatment needs measuring from more frequent at the bottom to less frequent at the top. This figure can be used to depict theoretical and actual scenarios of relationships between health capacity and treatment needs over a lifetime.
For fun, we have people draw in a trajectory line that represents their assessment of how society expects our health capacity and treatment needs to occur over a traditional lifetime. A recent visitor to our office drew a line that started with the capacity of a baby being at zero percent (bottom of the left vertical capacity axis) corresponding to more frequent medical use for routine check ups. His line continued with capacity peaking at age 20 and treatment being rare. After age 20 his trajectory line began a slow decline turning into a steeper decline around age 50. By age 60 capacity had declined to 30 percent and treatment to regular frequency, and by age 80 capacity reduced to near zero with treatment frequent. His example looked like the one in Figure 2.
High Health For Life—in Real Life
There is an ongoing fascination with human populations from around the world who experience high levels of energy, vitality, and health throughout their unusually long life spans. At advanced ages of 90 and up, these people remain active, physically strong, and emotionally composed. They build and sustain this capacity through nutrient-rich eating, daily physical activity, positive attitudes, collaborative societies, and cooperative environments.
We may think that these high vitality societies are mostly found in mountainous or coastal regions, but people with high vitality throughout their long life spans can be found in all geographies. Culturally the steps on their paths to health power may look different, but the fundamental elements are the same. In Figure 1, their health power trajectory would be described as “High Health For Life.” Their example reminds us that experiencing lifelong energy, capacity, and high health is possible.
In contrast, we also have many other populations whose trajectories follow patterns of consistent loss of health, energy, and capacity to function well throughout their life spans. Members of these populations come to believe that loss of energy and decline are inevitable and that medical treatment is the only option for mitigation.
A shift in focus to building health capacity and well-being challenges these beliefs and makes the scenario of high health for life a realistic possibility for many individuals.
Stories from the Real World
Over the years we have heard numerous stories from people who through trial and error figured out ways to cultivate their health, energy, and capacity. They told us how their lives were enriched as a result. While in many of the stories people were acting in response to a medical challenge, an equal number of stories were from individuals determined to find better ways to enhance their health. One notable account is of a college student who embarked upon her own journey to find and adopt new methods for building the personal energy and capacity needed to remain competitive as a swimmer.
During college Elizabeth was a swimmer and key member of Northwestern University’s Division 1 varsity team. Due to the enhanced rigor of the workout schedule and practice regimen, she dramatically improved to become a Big Ten finalist and Olympic Trials qualifier in her freshman year. However, over the following two years she seemed to have hit a plateau and was discouraged by how she was no longer keeping up with her competitors who continued to get faster. She noticed that after eating a breakfast full of vegetables, fruits, quality proteins, and whole grains, she not only performed better in practice, but she also was able to focus more in class and felt better overall. This led her to develop her own practices for eating nutrient-rich meals, getting adequate sleep, prioritizing recovery, and maintaining a positive mindset. In her senior year on the team, she swam faster than ever before, breaking her own school record which remained unbroken for the next seven years.
In listening to these stories, common themes emerged. Whether young or old, health challenged or not, everyone followed paths that included finding appropriate methods that when learned and applied over time enhanced health, energy, and capacity in life’s physical and non-physical dimensions. All of the storytellers struggled to find reputable information, techniques, and teachers. All worked to learn basic methods, practice them over time, obtain needed feedback and assessment of their skill proficiencies, and successfully master and integrate the methods into daily routines.
All of our storytellers followed a repeatable process—a path that others can use to learn and master techniques required for building high health and capacity. They willed themselves to improve, embodying Thoreau’s observation: “I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by conscious endeavor.”
These are the successes. We actually hear more stories from people who are floundering in their attempts to enhance their health. They have pursued ineffective techniques, teachers, and processes while investing much time, money, and effort along the way, ending up with frustration, disappointment, and unfulfilled goals.
It doesn’t have to be this way.
The Rewards of Mastery
Mastering new skills can be one of the most gratifying experiences of life due to satisfaction, the benefits of the achievement, and the personal growth and enrichment that accompanies long journeys toward demanding objectives. We have come to expect things to be easy, yet the things we feel the best about are those that we accomplished through endeavor and effort.
The Path To Health Power
Step 1: Become aware
The most important thing we can do to enhance our health is to change our concept of what is possible. When it comes to building health power, we must embrace new ideas and information. We must eliminate outdated, entrenched beliefs that loss of energy and decline are inevitable and replace them with the more powerful knowledge that health is something we produce, not consume. This involves finding and using trusted sources of innovative, evidence-based concepts and information. It also involves having an inclination to devote some level of effort to pursue this path.
In the words of Steve Maraboli, “The power to change your life lies in the simplest of steps.” Any effort made in cultivating health power is beneficial. Small steps yield immediate benefits and, if repeated over time, deliver larger results. The positive results of small steps are reinforcing, encouraging learners to engage deeper and pursue greater levels of mastery. Everyone is encouraged to engage at any level they choose.
When it comes to learning, there is no “one size fits all.” However, a compelling argument can be made for all learners to seek instruction from knowledgeable, experienced teachers. Capable teachers provide direction that prevents learning wrong methods that will have to be unlearned. They offer encouragement and corrective feedback. They indicate the point at which proficiency is attained so that learners can move on to the next level. And they guide learners to other helpful resources and teachers. Obtaining proper instruction is key to mastering desired skills and abilities efficiently.
Step 2: Learn the fundamentals
The next step is to acquire a basic familiarity and proficiency with physical and non-physical practices that establish the necessary foundation for high health and well-being.
Essential techniques for building high health are generally unfamiliar to most people and go far beyond our notions of diet and fitness. They consistently fall into several categories in life’s physical and non-physical dimensions. These include: a growth mindset for health; restoring mental focus; attaining emotional composure; determining meaning and life direction; nutrient-rich eating; balance and agility; and effective cardiovascular conditioning as described in A Bias For Action: Practices for Health Empowerment.
The misunderstanding that our personal energy and capacity will sustain itself is one of the barriers to attaining high health. The absence of a comprehensive foundation is the other barrier because optimal cultivation is required to attain health power in today’s health-depleting environment.
Step 3: Practice the methods over time
Animal behaviorists advise that when teaching a dog a new skill, 30 repetitions are required before you can expect the dog to be able to perform it. Fortunately or unfortunately the requirement for repetition in learning and mastery applies to humans as well.
“Every human activity, endeavor or career path involves the mastering of skills.” (9)
“What separates masters from others is often something surprisingly simple. Whenever we learn a skill we frequently reach a point of frustration—what we are learning seems beyond our capabilities. Giving in to these feelings we unconsciously quit on ourselves before we actually give up. Filled with trust in the process [masters] trudge on well past the point in which others slow down or mentally quit.” (10)
The trick is learning to love the plateau and stay on the path. Much of this natural learning requires patience, persistence, and perseverance. “Learning any new skill involves relatively brief spurts of progress, each followed by a slight decline to a plateau” of various lengths of time. (11) “The plateau is the long stretch of time making diligent effort with no seeming progress.” (12) The fundamental skills that establish a strong foundation for health power derive from mastery of key practices. Repetition is required.
Step 4: Measure skill levels for proficiency
Skills proficiency is required to reach the desired benefits of health power.
When we survey people about their health practices and skills, we find that many respondents overestimate their level of competency. After performing actual measurements of capability, participants are surprised that their proficiency is less than they had anticipated. This is just one reason why measuring proficiency is useful.
There is no substitute for assessing learning success against measures of proficiency to gauge progress in mastering practices. Testing against standards forces greater attention to practice details, adds tremendous value to corrective feedback, and helps learners achieve true competency.
For example, in our local women’s jogging group if any member is training for a race, all members improve. We provide support by running hilly courses, longer distances, and coming out regardless of weather. If multiple members enter a race, the preparation is even deeper and more focused. The profound effect—on motivation, effort, and true self-assessment—of being measured on the time it takes to run a standard distance on a course cannot be matched by other means.
Step 5: Monitor and enjoy real-world effects
The real benefit of health power is its effectiveness in daily life.
This effectiveness can be assessed (and re-assessed) through personal observations and specific measurement methods. The purpose is to determine the extent to which desired objectives of high energy, capacity to function well, and resistance to common illnesses are being met and sustained on a daily basis.
If the desired objectives are met, the ongoing effort is to maintain current health practices. If the objectives are not met, the effort shifts to pursuing relevant adjustments. At this point, the small to moderate efforts needed to get back on course will be richly rewarded.
Although data on the percentage of people who have high states of health and well-being are scarce, one of the few researchers in the field determined that approximately 20% of U.S. adults meet the criteria for flourishing. (13) Other research demonstrates that those with high health and well-being enjoy greater work success, are more innovative, and need less medical treatment and services.
Both effective methods and effective processes for learning them are necessary to attain mastery. While the advanced methods for building health are generally unfamiliar, the processes for mastering them are even more obscure. “We have few if any maps to guide us on the journey or even to show us how to find the path.” (14) Yet the process of learning new skills follows “certain unchanging laws.” We position ourselves for rich rewards “when we take our time and focus in depth, when we trust that going through a process of months or years will bring us mastery.” (15)
Overcoming Time Scarcity
One of our conundrums is that in order to manage time well we need the composure and mental focus skills that derive from regularly making time to develop and sustain them. Many good intentions are stymied by the ubiquitous feeling of a “lack of time.”
An unwillingness not to be over-busy constrains our ability to take control in many areas of life. “The explosion of available goods has only made time feel more crunched, as the struggle to choose what to buy or watch or eat or do raises the opportunity cost of leisure...and contributes to feelings of stress. The endless possibilities afforded by a simple internet connection boggle the mind.” “When there are so many ways to fill one’s time, it is only natural to crave more of it. The ability to satisfy desires instantly also breeds impatience, fueled by a nagging sense that one could be doing so much else.” (16)
In contrast, recent research by Centre for Time Use Research at University College London found that “Compared with data from 2000, lead researchers Jonathan Gershuny and Oriel Sullivan report, overall there is ‘little evidence for any speed-up in the tempo of daily activities’….The authors point out wryly that complaining about being busy is a signal of status.” (17)
Given all the choices we have for how to use available time, we benefit by getting good at selecting activities that yield the most desirable results. Attaining and maintaining high capacity and high health provides immense benefits and takes infinitely less investment of time, financial expense, and effort than attempting to restore health capacity once it is lost.
The reasons for investing in health power are compelling. In the final analysis, we have to make the time and summon the effort needed to pursue the path. As Seth Godin says, “Sooner or later, all motivation is self motivation. And the challenge and opportunity is in finding the external forces that will soon become internal ones.”
The Next Health Frontier
I recently attended a large health and wellness promotion event that had more than 100 exhibitors. Although the health fair was advanced in promoting both physical and non-physical remedies, most of the products and services were oriented toward treating health problems.
It is impressive and limiting that our perceptions about health derive from a starting point of problems. Remediation of a health problem often does not result in increased energy and capacity to function well. Moreover, this remediation experience teaches us—erroneously—that we need not do anything for our health until the next health problem occurs. Also, if we are not aware that high overall health is a state that each of us must cultivate and maintain, how can we identify it as an objective of our health-related services?
We continue to have focus groups with executives who continue to choose to invest exclusively in health treatment coverage for the smaller proportion of the employee community that generates most of the medical coverage expense. The larger proportion of the community receives no support for health until they reach a place of needing medical treatment. We are mired in regressive cycles that we can’t seem to break out of.
Breaking free to a better path
Yet there are examples of determined people who followed their inclinations to find a better path for managing their health. Several years ago a family member who had recently been diagnosed with diabetes contacted me for some tips to improve his health. I provided instruction on specific methods for him to use to improve his patterns of nutrient-rich eating, gain more efficiency in physical activity, and since his work was demanding, to improve his skills for establishing emotional composure and restoring mental focus. At this point, he was motivated and adopted most of the recommendations. Within a matter of months, his diabetes condition improved dramatically, and although his physician was at a loss to explain this rapid progress, the physician was willing to work with him to reduce prescribed medication and over time eliminate it. After more than five years, this family member has maintained a foundation of health-enhancing practices and remains free from the need for medical treatment.
In the years since I worked with that family member, I have given similar instruction to a host of friends, family members and others. Their reasons for engaging me were all different—from a general desire to improve health to serious health conditions. Yet all who were able to adopt the methods experienced dramatic improvements. Much suffering from illness and impairment would be avoided if people established and maintained foundations of effective health-enhancing practices and skills.
Knowledge, applied well, is power
In The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up, (18) author Marie Kondo notes that people need to be taught how to tidy up. In the same vein, people need to learn and put into practice health-enhancing skills that form the basis of health power. Ideally they would learn and master these skills at an early age. As with successful tidying, much joy and vibrancy is on offer.
The next frontier in health is one that empowers individuals to obtain the means for building foundations of high energy, capacity to function well, and resistance to common illnesses. Should a need for medical treatment services arise, this foundation will enable individuals to navigate the medical environment with confidence and control. This is a good example of where knowledge, applied well, truly is power.
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7. Weiss-Tisman, H. (2017). At 99 Years Old, A Pioneering Brattleboro Woman Publishes Her First Children’s Book. VPR News. Retrieved from https://www.vpr.org/post/99-years-old-pioneering-brattleboro-woman-publishes-her-first-childrens-book#stream/0.
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16. The Economist (2014). Why is everyone so busy? Retrieved from https://www.economist.com/node/21636612/print.
17. Poole, S. (2019). What We Really Do All Day review – surprising truths about modern life. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jun/19/what-we-really-do-all-day-review-is-todays-pace-of-life-getting-faster.
18. Kondo, M. (2014). The Life-Changing Magic Of Tidying Up. Berkeley, CA: Ten Speed Press.