What is your health made up of? Goals on your fitness tracker? Fresh, green foods in your fridge? Good test results from the doctor? While being in good physical condition may come to mind when thinking about healthy living, it’s only part of the picture.
In 2019, 54% of Americans surveyed in a Gallop poll said they were very satisfied with their personal health—and 33% more were somewhat satisfied. While that’s great news, one thing that rosy picture doesn’t illustrate is what Americans mean by “personal health.”
Your health is far more than numbers on a scale or freedom from illness. Healthy living is the practice of maintaining good physical, mental, and spiritual health.
“All of these dimensions of health are intimately connected with each other,” says Kenneth Pargament, Ph.D., spirituality researcher and professor emeritus at Bowling Green State University’s Department of Psychology.
The Interrelated Aspects of Healthy Living
You can think of these three aspects of health—physical, mental and spiritual—as three legs on the stool of overall health; they work together to keep you strong and balanced.
When you’re in good physical and spiritual health, but have a mental health struggle, you may feel off-kilter. And the other areas of your health may start to suffer, too. Depression, for example, might make you less likely to exercise or tend to your spiritual needs. Until you get help for the depression, staying healthy physically and spiritually might become challenging.
At the same time, research shows that strong health in one area can improve health in another.
- Having the mental state of optimism has been shown to contribute to an 11% to 15% longer lifespan than those with the mental state of pessimism.
- Researchers have found a 26% reduction in the odds of becoming depressed for each 15 minutes of running or an hour of walking .
- Researchers have also found relationships between spiritual health and quality of life, mental health, and burnout.
“What we find is when people are physically healthy, when they are spiritually connected, and when they are mentally well, they seem to have better productivity and seem to just be naturally happier,” says Lakiesha Russell, child and family mental wellness coach and founder of The Evolving Chair Counseling and Consulting Agency.
Build the Foundations
To build the foundations for a happier and healthier life, it’s important to understand the basics of each. Keep reading to learn more about some of the ways that nurturing your physical, mental, and spiritual state interact to contribute to a healthy lifestyle.
Many aspects of being physically healthy are visual, which helps people to remember to prioritize their physical health. But there are certainly plenty of questionable health claims and unproven trends out there. The cornerstones of developing and maintaining good physical health include:
The Centers for Disease Control, and the World Health Organization agree that good nutrition plays a key role in disease prevention and overall health. And yet, the CDC says American diets are high in added sugars, sodium, and saturated fats—and fewer than 1 in 10 adults and adolescents in the U.S. eat enough fruits and vegetables.
Key nutritional guidelines from the HHS’ “Dietary Guidelines for Americans” include:
- eating a variety of fruits
- lean proteins
- oils, and low-fat dairy
- avoiding saturated and trans fats, added sugars, and sodium
The health benefits of exercise are numerous. The CDC says it improves outcomes for mental health, weight management, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and even some cancers. For an adult aged 18-64 years, CDC recommends either:
- at least 2 hours and 30 minutes each week of aerobic physical activity at a moderate level
- 1 hour and 15 minutes each week of aerobic physical activity at a vigorous level
According to the Division of Sleep Medicine at Harvard Medical School, insufficient sleep can contribute to obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other serious conditions like stress. The CDC recommends adults get seven or more hours of sleep each night for optimal health.
Preventive Health Care
Regular health screenings can help catch many diseases before they become severe. The CDC says preventive care can reduce the occurrence of chronic disease and disabilities and death associated with it. Making regular visits to a primary care doctor is a good way to start accessing preventive care.
According to Russell, many people don’t think much about their mental health unless they’re in the midst of mental illness. Your mental health requires regular care, regardless of how well or ill you might feel on any given day.
“Mental health is something that every person has,” Russell says. “It’s something we have to cope with daily.”
Mental health is your “emotional, psychological, and social well-being.” It can be negatively affected by biological factors, life experiences, or a family history of mental illness. And experiencing a mental health condition from time to time is common.
Not all mental health conditions are severe and long-lasting. In fact, most are conditions people deal with on a regular basis, like stress and anxiety. Keeping these conditions at bay requires effort. “We have to do some daily work to keep our minds well,” Russell says. That work includes:
In order to take care of your psychological needs, it’s critical to minimize the negative affect others have on your mental health. That’s why setting boundaries is so important. “When we don’t have healthy boundaries established in our relationships and in our work, it makes people feel overwhelmed and frustrated,” says Russell.
Setting boundaries might include determining a healthy time to stop working each day and sticking to it, or letting a relative know when you’ll be available to them and for how long, and asking them to not contact you outside of that schedule.
Maintaining a Self-Care Routine
The demands of work, family, and community can sometimes make it difficult for people to spend time caring for themselves. Russell says self-care doesn’t need to mean booking a weekend at an expensive spa but simply taking a few minutes each day to focus on yourself.
“Self-care is anything that helps refuel and refill your spirit, whether that’s reading a book, dancing, listening to music, deep breathing, or meditating,” Russell says. “I tell people to do it for at least five minutes a day.”
Seeking Help When Needed
Just like with physical health, when people start feeling off mentally, they should seek help. The National Alliance on Mental Illness’s list of mental health warning signs includes:
- excessive worry
- mood changes
- avoiding social activities
Stress, anxiety, depression, and even more serious conditions can be treated in a variety of ways. Reaching out to your primary care doctor or local mental health authority can be a good first step in addressing these concerns.
Perhaps the least widely understood aspect of personal health is spiritual health. Whether or not you spend much time thinking about your spirituality as a part of healthy living, it plays a role in your overall wellness.
“We’re not only psychological, social, and physical beings, but we’re spiritual beings as well,” says Pargament. “Spirituality really grows out of a yearning—the human yearning for something transcendent, something beyond ourselves.”
Pargament explains that spirituality can mean different things to different people. For some, their marriage or children are sacred. For others, their calling—like teaching or healthcare—fulfills their sense of spirituality.
“It’s the search for the sacred,” he says. “Healthy spirituality fosters our sense of meaning in life, sense of connectedness to others. It creates a sense of personal identity.”
Because each person’s spirituality is different, the steps required to develop and maintain spiritual health will be different for everyone. But Pargament says there are actions everyone can take to help cultivate their spirituality and discover their own version.
Ask yourself what you hold sacred.
“Take some time off to do some soul searching and identify what matters most deeply to you in your life.”
Determine where you connect with the sacred.
It may be through relationships, meditation, study, or through action. “I encourage people to reflect on where they experienced their deepest feelings of wonder, awe, gratitude, mystery, timelessness and love.”
Consider what kind of time commitment you can make to your own spiritual health and growth.
Like so many other things, practice and discipline are critical to the development of healthy spirituality.
Healthy living is a lifelong pursuit, and it’s one that takes considerable time and dedication. But by developing and maintaining your physical, mental, and spiritual health, you can live your healthiest, happiest life.
Now that you know the meaning of healthy living, why do you think it is such a difficult practice? Or maybe you’re part of the 54% satisfied with your personal health, if so, share your valuable suggestions in the comments below.
This informational material shall not be considered medical or health advice. You should always consult your health care provider before changing your diet or starting a new exercise regimen. The Hartford assumes no responsibility for any decisions related to your medical or health care. Consult with your health care provider, nutritionist, or other health professional before making any decisions that may impact your health and well-being.