Beginners guide to health in the digital age

I recently signed up to a health bloggers community, but was surprised to find that no-one was writing about, well, health.  Lifestyle, definitely.  Wellbeing, maybe.  But health?Obviously my outmoded nurse-y ideas of health need a reboot.

‘Dr Google’, blogs, vlogs, apps; the internet is fast becoming an integral part of our health and wellbeing, with 49% of UK adults seeking health information online.  But in this digital world, what does it mean to be healthy?

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Then

Back in 1947 health seemed fairly straight forward, defined by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as, “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

Now

If you were to define health now, what would you include?  Would you talk about diet, appearance, self-monitoring?  What about clean eating?  And meditation? On her mad lifestyle blog Goop, Gwyneth Paltrow recommends steam cleaning your vagina!  (She also recommends lymphatic drainage as ‘a great way to start the year’ 😯 )

You see, it’s all about wellness and wellbeing now isn’t it?  We should all try and be better than we currently are; happier, healthier, fitter, thinner, cleaner, more productive, less stressed. To eschew wellbeing could be considered an act of rebellion, subversion even.  As Cederstrom & Spicer argue, “Today, wellness is not just something we choose.  It is a moral obligation.” (Read more about their fabulous book on wellness here)

Even the government is measuring our wellbeing.  Somewhat ironically maybe, given they keep trying to make us all so bloody miserable.

I wonder what my gran would make of it all.  She keeled over aged 84, having lived on fags, Guinness and bread pudding. She would take me into town for fish and chips and give me her peas.  I don’t think I ever saw her eat anything that wasn’t beige.

But it’s all good, right?

There’s no denying that access to good, evidence-based health information is a positive. We can now manage our health in a way that my gran would never have dreamed possible. Sometimes even I can’t quite believe it.  When I was a student nurse, I had this:

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I thought I was living in the future because I had a colour version! Which turned out to be a total lie. Does this look ‘colour’ to you?

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As a student nurse spending hours in dusty medical libraries to find stuff out, it’s hard to believe that much of that information is now available on my phone.  Phones are now considered to be medical accessories; I thought mine was a device for beaming drivel into my eyes.  (It is.)  There are apps for pretty much any health issue imaginable, and we can take control of our health like never before.

What about the hooey?

The problem with wellness is it’s potential for vagueness.  All kinds of quackery and jiggery-pokery can sneak in under the wellness banner.  And there is the small question of who is giving us wellness advice.

In case you missed it, there was a high profile case of a blogger claiming to have cured her terminal cancer through diet.  Of all the things she had – a huge following, a book deal, enormous influence – it turns out cancer wasn’t one of them.  People who did have cancer were following her advice, hoping to be cured.

There are many successful, influential wellness bloggers out there making health claims based on anecdote and personal experience.  Personally, I like a slightly more robust evidence base behind my health information.

And let’s not forget steam-cleaning our Lady Marys.

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Oh Gwyneth!

It’s also worth considering this: the wellness industry is worth trillions of dollars. Your body, your face, your hair, your insecurities about your appearance are all up for grabs. And this is one heck of a powerful industry, with unprecedented, privileged access into your home, your habits and your wallet.  Just sayin’.

Definitions of health seem fairly constant, but wellness and wellbeing appear to be far more nebulous and subjective.  Good apps can be fun and the wealth of support and advice available is astounding.  Like I said in my new year post, it might just be worth asking if the person giving advice is qualified to do so.

©Jo Higman

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