We’re at last at the final pillar of the 4 pillars of holistic health, physical health. It sounds like an obvious topic, but there are a lot of misconceptions about it. First of all, as you might have guessed from my insistence on referring to holistic health, one of them is the idea that physical health is all that there is to it. The World Health Organisation (WHO) defines health as ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’ (WHO, 1948). However, when we are looking at the physical component, the absence of disease or infirmity is a common baseline. The use of infirmity needs to be clarified, because plenty of people with disabilities are as healthy as humanly possible.
Dr Robin Berzin, a practitioner of functional medicine (a biology-based approach that focuses on identifying and addressing the root cause of disease), writing on Well + Good has a handy list of health markers that we should be mindful to: low inflammation, a healthy thyroid, ideal nutrient levels, a normal cortisol pattern, balanced sex hormones and cholesterol under control. I would probably add, from personal experience, normal glucose levels (there is a rise in cases of diabetes among people who don’t look like the Type 2 type). These may surprise anyone who equates health with BMI, because plenty of smaller-bodied people would not qualify as healthy while larger bodies would (which is the impetus behind the Health at Every Size Movement).
As a Catholic, I believe that healthcare should be rooted in the theological anthropology which we commonly call Theology of The Body as much as in the actual science of how the body works, and the approach to how we think and act about health should put the dignity of the person at the centre. The Catholic Health Association of the United States has a lot more to say about the subject here.
People often equate health with fitness and “eating well”, but it’s easy to be fit and unhealthy, and/or follow all the rules of clean eating and still be unhealthy. Anyone who has been on the Low FODMAP diet can testify that the greens and wholegrains so loved by the healthy eating influencers are a killer when you have an irritable bowel and this is even without looking at the various levels of disordered eating that such a mentality often causes. And as for being fit and unhealthy, Equinox’s website for the high-performance fitness enthusiast Furthermore has a list of health issues common in athletes. There is a growing awareness in the fitness and wellness industry around the dark side of what is otherwise a positive message.
Part of this dark side is, of course, ableism. A lot of the messaging around health and fitness cuts out a segment of the population altogether. Even thinking about this series of blog posts as someone who was diagnosed with arthritis at the age of 24 I found myself stumbling upon the questions of how to be more inclusive of everyone. The issue of defining health itself can be exclusionary, although we have a duty to care about it. The CCC 2288 says that:
Life and physical health are precious gifts entrusted to us by God.
We must take reasonable care of them, taking into account the needs of others and the common good. Concern for the health of its citizens requires that society help in the attainment of living-conditions that allow them to grow and reach maturity: food and clothing, housing, health care, basic education, employment, and social assistance.
It continues in 2289 and 2290 by saying that “if morality requires respect for the life of the body, it does not make it an absolute value” and that “the virtue of temperance disposes us to avoid every kind of excess: the abuse of food, alcohol, tobacco, or medicine“. This is a strong warning against the idolisation of the healthy and fit body that we see in the wellness and fitness industry, where the Catholic concern for the weak and their inherent dignity is nowhere to be found and, in fact, actively opposed. I am only one person with one blog and a combined 5000 social media followers so I need more Catholics to come down into the arena with me to create a space that honours God and ourselves as the temple of the Holy Spirit, whatever our health and fitness levels.
I wanted today’s post to be just an exploration of the meaning of physical health in general, leaving the individual aspects of it for more extensive discussion in the following weeks because there is a lot to say. I want to end by stressing that, as Catholics, we shouldn’t fall prey to the messages of this world that try to tell us things that are not true about our bodies. I know how easy it is to fall into the trap, and I have talked about it plenty of times before. The truth is, all bodies are good bodies.
The proverbial gateway drug for my months-long obsession with intuitive eating, this episode of the Fountains of Carrots podcast with Amanda Martinez Beck, author of Lovely: How I Learned to Embrace the Body God Gave Me and co-host of the Fat and Faithful Podcast. I haven’t read the book yet, but her podcast has been a great resource for understanding issues around size-dignity and body liberation.
My blood test last August when I went back to Italy for a long-ish holiday put my Vitamin D levels so low it was nearly negative (if that’s even humanly possible). My favourite brand for such supplement is Better You, who take the issue of sustainability in the supply chain very seriously. Always get a test before you get any supplements, as it’s dangerous if you have too high levels.
The Happiness Planner app. It can be a bit too woo-woo for my liking, and I tend to avoid content like that, but I still like to use it for tracking how I feel and what I’m up to.
5 more iOS apps that I use to track health-related things: Pill Reminder (self-explanatory, basic and easy to use, plus the icon fits my colour scheme on the iPhone); My Water Balance (I have the paid option so I can add any type of drink I have. Handy to know whether I drink too little or, as it happened before, too much…); Welltory (to track my stress-levels), Fitocracy Macros (it tells you how much you are getting of your macros with none of the diet stuff, it helped me realise I received bad advice from my GP and adjust my diet to meet the needs of my body instead of an arbitrary ideal) and Cara (this was created specifically for IBD and IBS but it can still be helpful if you don’t have such problems as it tracks everything to do with gut health).
Rooted in the Word
All things are lawful for me’, but not all things are beneficial. ‘All things are lawful for me’, but I will not be dominated by anything. (…) Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, which you have from God, and that you are not your own? For you were bought with a price; therefore glorify God in your body.
1 Corinthians 6:12, 19-20 (NRSVACE)
New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Catholic Edition, copyright © 1989, 1993, 1995 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved