What is health?

Ask Canadians what makes them healthy and you would get many different answers. Some might say luck or family history; but most would point to their lifestyle -- whether they smoke, how much they eat and drink, how much they exercise, and perhaps how well they manage their stress levels. There is no doubt that personal lifestyle has a very direct impact on health; but, health is generally viewed as much more complex.

More than physical health

The World Health Organization (W.H.O.) offers a simple definition of health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”. “Social well-being” is an important aspect of this definition that may not always occur to us in thinking about our health.

The Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion affirms social, economic and environmental aspects of ‘health’. This important Canadian document states that, in order to be healthy, “an individual or group must be able to identify and to realize aspirations, to satisfy needs, and to change or cope with the environment”. In this way, health is seen as a resource or an asset that helps us lead our everyday lives. Health is seen as a positive concept that emphasizes social and personal resources, as well as physical capacities.

What affects health?

There are many broad factors in our lives that influence our health. These factors include:

  • Income and Social Status
  • Social Support Networks
  • Education and Literacy
  • Employment/Working Conditions
  • Social Environments
  • Physical Environments
  • Personal Health Practices and Coping Skills
  • Healthy Child Development
  • Biology and Genetic Endowment
  • Health Services
  • Gender
  • Culture

These factors are known as the determinants of health. It is the inter-relatedness and changes in these determinants that make the health of individuals or groups a complex combination of factors.

Each person's experiences of health can differ widely and vary across their lifetime. When faced with challenges – problems on the job, relationship troubles, the loss of a loved one – good health provides us with the physical and emotional resilience we need to cope with difficult times, regain our balance and live life fully.

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