Health is everywhere: Unravelling the mystery of health
Health is everywhere: Unravelling the mystery of health

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Health is everywhere: Unravelling the mystery of health

1.3 Views on health

Already we have encountered health in many places and many guises. Having introduced the vast territory which deals with health, let’s take a few steps back and, without trying to pin it down to a single definition, start to tease out the different meanings that health has for different people. Where better to start than with yourself.

Activity 2: Your own views on health

Timing: 0 hours 20 minutes

Note down your responses to the following questions:

  • What does health mean to you?

  • How important is health to you?

  • What do you do (if anything) to stay healthy?


We found quite a range of ideas within the academic team and we thought it would be interesting for you to know our views on health at the start of the course. We are certainly not a representative sample but how do our views compare to your own?


I’m a health worker, but I also work at my own health. Usually this is not a conscious activity ‘for health's sake’, but I do manage to do quite a lot of things that are generally considered to be ‘healthy’. I have just come back from a fell run and plan to go swimming later in the day. I think this is more to do with my physicality, rather than health. Health is the ‘thing’ that lets me do physical things. There is almost always a competitive or comparative edge to this, even when training.

The other strand for me is to do with control. I am vegetarian and I take no tea, coffee or alcohol either. When I can control my food intake I feel much better immediately, more in control, more healthy. I don't like the idea of taking tablets and have been seeing an acupuncturist for chronic sinusitis. He has discovered certain imbalances that have caused this problem. Correcting the various energy flows, using his needles in strange places, has helped keep the symptoms well in check, which regular medicines and a nasty operation didn't manage.

For me emotional and mental health is also connected very directly with physical health. If I can't manage some physical activity for a couple of days I start to feel terrible and get grumpy. Is this a defence against expressing emotions in other ways? It does fit a pattern of repressing and failing to recognise emotions within myself. Although I have indulged in various therapy experiences pretty consistently over the last 20 years, this remains a problem. I have been very influenced by the writing of Anne Karpf (The War After, 1998), who describes some of the emotional problems that can affect the children of survivors of the Holocaust, of which I am one.


Two words conjure up for me the meaning of health: one is energy and the other is outlook. My interpretation of energy is being able to tackle things in a robust way, to feel capable of taking on challenges. Outlook is something my mother used to talk about in her old age. When she was feeling down she would say ‘Oh my outlook's awful’. She meant that she didn't feel positive about the future and had nothing to look forward to. Normally she was a very positive person, always looking for new challenges even in her eighties. Energy and outlook are clearly interrelated and I never know whether it's energy which determines a positive outlook or the other way round. Without one or both I find it hard to function and, what is worse, when I do feel lacking in energy I find it hard to imagine that I will be able to get through what I have to get through and I suppose that is what affects my outlook.

I'm ashamed to say that I don't do much to keep healthy. I have started to swim twice a week but that's because my joints have got a bit creaky. I know that people say if you exercise a lot you experience greater energy levels but I'm not convinced and am a bit inclined to conserve my energy rather like a precious commodity. I'm very attracted to ads for pills and potions that claim to increase your ‘get up and go’ and I'm pretty self-indulgent about what I eat as I like to cook and enjoy the whole ritual of eating and drinking.


For most of my life – and certainly my adult life – health has been very important to me. For most of that time it has been synonymous with physical activity of one sort or another. I have always had high levels of energy, and physical activity has been my way of ‘burning it off’.

Looking back, I guess the importance of health stems from my childhood which was punctuated by my father's frequent episodes of acute illness, ending in his protracted death during my early teens. I used to contemplate the awfulness of his illhealth and physical suffering and – consciously or unconsciously – decided to do what I could to remain on the ‘healthy’ side of the health–illness continuum.

I spend a lot of my spare time running and I find that this gives me an enormous sense of physical and mental wellbeing – as well as the freedom and space to get things into perspective. If I’m not able to run every day ... well, let’s just say that those around me prefer it if I do! I also run competitively and have been pushing my body from health into near illhealth largely in the form of injury. As a result I've learned a lot about what my body is capable of, and about the importance of diet and rest.


Health to me is a positive state of wellbeing – both physical and mental. Although I have been in the health field all my working life, I have always been concerned with other people's health and wellbeing, rather than my own, giving my own health very little thought. During a recent bout of a flu virus, however, I began to think more about health and how the lack of physical wellbeing impacted on every aspect of my daily life. Health at that time was about having enough energy to be able to get up in the morning, get my son to school with the right books, completed homework, lunch, etc., and to do a whole host of other taken-for-granted activities which are incorporated into my daily life. So health became synonymous with physical energy during that time. Health really means to me a state of physical and mental wellbeing, a combination of these two rather than one or the other. Mental health is probably more difficult to define than physical health, but I would call it being stress-free, happy with myself as a person and how I am doing, both in my work and in my relationships with others. And also being able to enjoy life, rather than just get through it.

While I put a high premium on health, I must admit I do very little to stay healthy. This may be due to my ‘taking health for granted’ attitude. I do swim most weeks and I try to walk as much as possible have you ever noticed how much better you feel after a walk in the fresh air? Especially when you are writing course materials for the OU!


Health is very important to me and is very much a part of my life (fortunately my husband also has a healthy lifestyle which encourages me). I keep myself fit by going to a jazzercise (aerobic/dance) class three times a week and I try to eat a healthy diet. I do believe it is important to start looking after yourself at an early age, and that being healthy is vital today if we are to deter the pollution and germs that constantly surround us.

I recently saw an allergist about some minor health problems and was advised to remove from my diet certain foods that I had become allergic to. Since doing this I have felt a lot better generally, and the experience has convinced me that food is a vital part of good health and that it is important to maintain a healthy diet.

I am also interested in complementary therapies and have qualifications in Swedish body massage, aromatherapy massage, and various other beauty treatments (for example, manicure, pedicure and make-up). I practise my therapy work in my spare time, mainly giving treatments to family and friends, and this complements my full-time secretarial work. Learning about complementary therapies has given me a better understanding of how the body functions, and from this I would deduce that balance is the most important part of our bodies' make-up. In order to maintain balance in our bodies, body massage is an extremely valuable treatment I believe if everyone had a massage once a week we would have fewer health problems, suffer less stress, and benefit from the pleasure a massage brings.

It would be fascinating to compare the academic team's views with all of yours. Then it would be possible to draw out some patterns based at least on gender, age or ethnicity. Within our five accounts there are some similarities and some differences. To have two serious runners on the academic team is pretty unusual. They are both highly competitive and so we could not identify any gender differences there. We all, except Sam, talk about energy a lot but within that there are some differences. Tom and Rosemary are more obviously talking about physical energy whereas Cathy and Moyra are equating energy with mental energy. Sam talks more about balance which reflects her interest in alternative therapies. We all draw on our biographies to explain our views on health: Torn as a child of survivors of the Holocaust; Rosemary and Moyra on the influence of their parents; Sam and Cathy on more recent events in their lives.

As we noted earlier, as professional educators and practitioners working in health, we are not exactly a typical bunch of people in terms of our views on health. In the next activity and in the section that follows we will look at a range of views on health from a cross-section of society.

Figure 2
Figure 2: Physical fitness

Activity 3: Diverse views on health

Timing: 0 hours 30 minutes

Listen to the audio clip, ‘Different views on health’, where a diverse selection of people give their off-the-cuff response to the question: ‘What does health mean to you?’

You will hear a range of different views on health, some from ‘lay’ people some from professionals. After listening to this audio you should be able to:

  • reflect on the diversity of views on health;

  • review the impact of different cultural traditions on health;

  • assess the degree to which professional views on health may be changing.

The clip features responses from nine people to the question ‘What does health men to you?’ The first three people you will hear are or have been homeless and now sell The Big Issue in Brighton. They give their off-the-cuff reply to the questions posed. First you hear from Patrick, who has now moved into a flat after being homeless on and off for six years. Next you hear a young man who is still sleeping rough, and the third Big Issue seller is Brian who has also now been re-housed by Brighton Housing Trust.

The next six people you hear live and work on a socio-economically deprived estate in Edinburgh. They are all involved in the Pilton Community Health Project whose aim was to involve local residents in improving their own health and wellbeing. They run a stress centre, a food co-op, a childcare facility, a postnatal depression group called ‘SHAME’ (Self-Help Around Mums' Experiences) and a keep fit class for big women. You will hear:

  • Robbie, who lives on the Pilton estate and for years has been grappling with a weight problem and an eating disorder.

  • Wilma, who is a local resident and now is a helper at the stress centre. She has struggled for years with mental health problems.

  • Jackie, who is a local resident. She has become very active in the self-help group for mothers with postnatal depression.

  • George, who is a local resident and works on a community business scheme. He is an active volunteer on the Pilton project.

  • Roberta, who is a local resident and a paid worker with the Pilton Elderly forum.

  • Christina, who is a full-time worker with the Pilton project. She has a background in health visiting.

As you listen, note down the similarities and differences between their views.

Download this audio clip.Audio player: Different views on health
Skip transcript: Different views on health

Transcript: Different views on health

First three men, who are or who have been homeless, and are now selling The Big Issue in Brighton, give their off-the-cuff responses. Patrick has been on and off the streets for six years, but has now moved into a flat. What does health mean to him?
Staying alive. Obviously, in the winter, you suffer a lot more than in the summer … health wise. I got asthma out of it. I don't know whether it's being homeless or whatever … but, like, five years ago I had to be moved into hospital with chronic asthma. If I've got a problem, I go to the doctor and take my Ventolin and Becotide and … luckily, that is the only health problem I do have.
Paul sells the magazine while sleeping rough.
What does health mean to me? I don't really know really. Just keeping myself fit and clean, you know. I mean, I do walk everywhere so that's basically what keeps me in good shape, really. But, other than that, I don't do any exercises at all.
Brian has now been re-housed, thanks to Brighton Housing Trust.
Well, if I wasn't healthy, I wouldn't be doing The Big Issue. I'd be indoors all day. But I'm not an indoor person. I'm out 6 o'clock every morning walking along the beach.
Now, six people from the deprived Pilton Estate in Edinburgh give their response to the question, “What does health mean to you?” Robbie has been grappling with a weight problem and an eating disorder.
Health is, you know, looking bright ... you know, cheerful. I must say thin again, because thin is quite a big thing for me … eating properly … but understanding about what you're putting in your body. Understanding about what's in a tin a food ... you know, like all the E's and things like that. I don't understand about that yet, but I'm trying to. No, I feel healthier now. I've got to admit that, because then I had lost so much weight so quickly. Even though I'd lost all that weight, I hadn't even, you know, noticed that I'd lost it. So it's quite a hard question to answer that.
Wilma has struggled with mental health problems, and now volunteers at the local stress centre.
Having come through what I've come through, healthy to me means a variety of things. It doesn't just mean physical health. It means contentment, happiness, more outspoken in things that concern me. It means so many things now ... smoking twenty cigarettes a day, if I choose to do so.
Jackie has become very active in a self-help group for mothers with post-natal depression.
If you are healthy enough to get up in the morning and do what you've got to do, without having to worry about being exhausted or breaking down by dinner time, you're happy, everybody's happy. That's my idea of health. Oh yes, not just stop smoking, or stop drinking. That's no good to me. I do them all. But health starts for me ... I've got to be healthy in my family to get up in the morning and do what I've got to do, and still have a smile on my face at 10 o'clock at night. To me, that's healthy.
The Pilton Community Health Project aims to involve local residents in improving their own health. George is an active volunteer.
I don't say I would define healthy as being without any diseases and fully fit, and all that. It's ... as somebody who struggles to stop smoking, I'm not at all sure that that's relevant to how I would describe health. Health ... I think it's got to be something much more holistic than just the fact that the machine's working well. It's about your environment. It's about the relationships that you have with people, the relationships that you're allowed to have with people round about you ... that society gives you the space for some sort of creativity in your life. So it's not just whether the machine works well. It's about whether you can actually explore life to the fullest of what you've got. I don't think I do, but that's what I think health is about. It's much more holistic than whether you take pills or, or whatever.
Roberta is a paid worker with the Pilton Elderly Forum.
I think an awful lot of people maybe tend to think of health … if you're either not feeling well and you're ill, you know, and that's health. But I think health is just a feeling of wellbeing ... that you're living in decent housing … there's resources about you that you can actually do things.
You know, it's like the new centre they've built up the road, you know, the big swimming pool. I mean that to me is promoting health, because people are being able to get about and go and do things that before they would have to maybe take all their kids in a bus to go up to Commonwealth Pool. Well now they can just go up the road. You know, so I think environment. You need a good environment to be healthy.
Christina has a background in health visiting and, like Roberta, is also employed by the project.
If I had to give one sentence, I think it's having within one’s grasp a certain capacity for enjoyment ... enjoyment of life ... not just capacity … that there is enough enjoyment. So that if you looked at a really satisfying full life, that enjoyment would be part of it, that wouldn't be eaten away by some painful condition or such awful housing ... that that's a constant anxiety, or unbearable stress. So the picture of health might include quite a few warts but, if there's enough enjoyment ... if over a week, say, there's one really brilliant time, that can perhaps balance out some of the other things.
End transcript: Different views on health
Different views on health
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What struck me most about these accounts was the difference between The Big Issue sellers’ views and everyone else’s. The Big Issue sellers have a much more basic physical and medical view of health. For one it is ‘staying alive’ and managing his asthma. For Paul, a man in his early twenties, it is being fit and keeping clean. For Brian being healthy is being able to function and that means being able to sell The Big Issue.

The other views expressed all contain strong elements of psychological wellbeing, although for Robbie her sense of wellbeing was very much dependent on losing weight. Contentment and happiness spell health for Wilma who has struggled to overcome mental illness. So smoking is not a threat to her sense of health because it enhances her sense of wellbeing. Jackie would agree with that. Whatever helps her cope with life and keep a smile on her face is healthy. George also sees health as much more than ‘the machine working well’. He stresses the value of relationships and the social environment. This theme is picked up by Roberta who stresses the importance of having the resources and a good environment to be healthy. And the capacity for enjoyment which is at the heart of Christina's view on health is dependent on not having to cope with stress caused by such things as awful housing. If having this broader view of health which encompasses wellbeing and enjoyment is related to the social and physical environment, then it is no wonder that The Big Issue sellers focused on a much narrower view of health.

As indicated earlier, a great deal of research and sociological enquiry has gone into investigating people's views on health. This is summarised in the next section.


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