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Exploring health: is your lifestyle really to blame?
Exploring health: is your lifestyle really to blame?

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1.1 Further defining ‘lifestyles’

As suggested in the Oxford English Dictionary definition, the whole notion of ‘lifestyle’ is bound up together with an individual’s choices and habits. But in thinking about lifestyle and obesity in Activity 1 (i.e. the question ‘Is being overweight related to a person’s lifestyle?’), you might have realised that when considered from the perspective of health and wellbeing the concept is far more complex. In addition, lifestyles go beyond the individual level (Jensen, 2007); for instance, they can be conceived at a national or country level (e.g. an ‘American lifestyle’) as well as at a social group level in terms of age (e.g. a ‘youth lifestyle’), geography (e.g. a ‘country lifestyle’ or a ‘city lifestyle’) or socio-economic status (e.g. a ‘jet-set lifestyle’).

The concept of lifestyles as choice can become problematic when considering the boundaries around what is innate versus what is something a person selects for themselves. It can be challenging at times to determine what is in fact a choice and what is something that a person has very little (or no) conscious control over. Very few people will have the ‘ideal healthy lifestyle’. Instead, most people have aspects of their lifestyle that are healthy and other aspects that are less healthy. In the next activity you will be asked to consider certain factors in your own lifestyle to help you make sense of key aspects of your own behaviours related to health and wellbeing.

Activity 2 Describing your own lifestyle

Timing: Allow about 30 minutes

Part A

Click on the thumbnail or ‘View interactive version’ below to access the drag and drop tool. Drag and drop the lifestyle factors onto the diagram. (If it helps, think of those that have applied to your life in the last month.) Place the factors that are most accurate for you at the top of the image and the factors that are not currently relevant to you at the bottom.

Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


Here is an example answer:

  • Often: I don’t smoke, I frequently use parks and green spaces, and I eat ‘five a day’ fruit and vegetables.
  • Sometimes: I watch less than four hours of television per day, I drink alcohol in moderation and I incorporate physical activity into my everyday life.
  • Rarely: I do 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise per week.
  • Not relevant: I avoid being sedentary (sitting) for extended periods, and I contribute to my community by working as a volunteer.

The nine factors provided in the drag and drop tool are not an exhaustive list, but they do represent some of the key factors thought to be relevant to a healthy lifestyle. For instance, Public Health England has promoted the importance of lifestyle factors associated with physical activity, e.g. recommending 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise in bouts of 10 minutes or more for adults (Public Health England, 2016).

Part B

1. Pick one of the lifestyle factors from Part A that you find easy to maintain as part of your lifestyle. Summarise why you find it easy in the box below. (For example, if you are currently a non-smoker and find this easy to maintain, why is this?)

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Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


Some lifestyle factors will be fairly easy to maintain for selected people. For instance, if you have always been a non-smoker, then not smoking is going to be easy for you. However, if you have recently given up smoking and are experiencing acute stressors in your life, remaining smoke-free may be very challenging.

2. Pick one of the lifestyle factors from Part A that you find challenging to change and summarise why that is. (For example, if you spend a lot of time being sedentary and sitting for long periods, why is it challenging to be more active?)

To use this interactive functionality a free OU account is required. Sign in or register.
Interactive feature not available in single page view (see it in standard view).


Instigating change in relation to some lifestyle factors is harder than others, particularly where we have less control over them. For many people, their job requires that they sit for long periods in order to do the tasks that are required of them, meaning that they do not get any exercise at work, and they must proactively incorporate physical exercise into their life.

The term ‘lifestyle’ is often associated with health-related behaviours like those you learned about in Activity 2. For example, factors such as these have been highlighted by Buck and Frosini (2012). After drawing on data from the World Health Organization (2002), they concluded that in high-income countries nearly half of the total current burden of disease (i.e. the number of years of life lost to disease and the number of years lived with disability as a result of disease) is attributable to unhealthy behaviours such as smoking, alcohol misuse, poor diet and a lack of physical exercise.

The term ‘lifestylism’ was coined by Skrabanek (1994) and implies that most diseases are caused by the unhealthy behaviour of individuals, such that it is people’s lifestyles that affect their health and, indeed, their life expectancy. This link between behaviour and disease has been much emphasised by health professionals, partly in an attempt to persuade people to adopt healthier lifestyles.

To know more about lifestyles and wellbeing requires some ‘way of knowing’. In other words, some evidence is needed to ‘make sense’ of health challenges, such as that of adult obesity. Such evidence can be acquired through both quantitative and qualitative research methods. You will learn about these methods in this free course, starting in the next section where you will begin to explore how quantitative evidence is used to understand what obesity is and how it is linked to unhealthy lifestyles, before moving on to qualitative approaches later on.