While touring the University of Ottawa with my son, now in Grade 12, I perked up when one of the professors described the multidisciplinary approach of health sciences. Using HIV/AIDS as an example, he explained how its prevention, diagnosis and treatment are impacted by such factors as biomedicine, health policy, law, economics, education, psychosocial factors, health behaviours and global health.
Why did this topic grab my attention in an otherwise unremarkable talk that had some prospective students yawning? Because I could relate the multidisciplinary approach to my line of work in the fitness industry – and to my own struggles, which, for the most part, I’ve overcome.
To understand what I mean, let’s look at a fictitious scenario. Rivka is a 30-year-old woman who recently immigrated to Canada from Russia. She is overweight, has high blood pressure and does not engage in physical activities. One could simply provide her with exercise recommendations and guidelines for improving her diet. However, there are a number of factors that must be considered. Rivka never presents herself to a fitness professional for such guidance. She lacks the financial resources to join a health club, register for fitness classes, hire a personal trainer or purchase exercise gear. A social worker informs her about free fitness classes and nutritional workshops in the community, but exercise was not a cultural norm for women in her hometown. As a newcomer, she feels embarrassed to interact with others in group fitness due to the language barrier and her low self-esteem. Furthermore, she lacks social support from her spouse, who discourages her from “wasting” time on exercise. She also lacks knowledge of the risks of poor diet and a sedentary lifestyle. Given her psychological and educational constraints, she doesn’t see fitness as a high priority and opts not to take advantage of the free or subsidized lifestyle-related resources available to new immigrants.
Many of the same factors influencing this woman’s health behaviours and choices influence us. We may not have the language barrier, but it is commonplace to have a lack of knowledge about the benefits of a healthy lifestyle. While we may know that exercise and eating well are good for weight-loss, we may not know the types or frequency of exercise one should engage in, or that age, current fitness level and health status must be considered. We may not know which foods are healthy since, as the expression goes, the “supermarket is a minefield.” Much of the food in the grocery store is falsely advertised as being good for us when, in reality, it’s not. We may not realize the benefits of a healthy lifestyle go well beyond losing weight; for example, functional fitness.
Biomedicine, health policy, law, economics, education, psychosocial factors, health behaviors and global health can affect an individual’s help-seeking behaviour, access to tools and resources, and dietary and exercise compliance. Ultimately, our success, as measured by improvements in fitness and health as well as disease prevention, is determined by many factors.
That’s why getting fit, improving our health and maintaining these changes long term are tremendously challenging for the majority of people. If it were easy, we’d all be lean and fit with far fewer lifestyle-related health issues. With the interplay of so many factors, it’s impossible to ensure everyone seeks and receives the individualized care they deserve, or that their outcome will be successful.
Better health policies – including simplified dietary guidelines and nutritional labelling – would help, as would better lifestyle-related education in the school system. More biomedical research would be valuable; for example, a better understanding of how the hormone leptin’s role in obesity could lead to life-saving discoveries that end the vicious cycle of weight fluctuations.
Many people could benefit if the legal system could enforce honesty in advertising, such as showing realistic body images rather than air-brushed, unachievable bodies. More funding for community programs – perhaps exercise and cooking classes – may be costly in the short term, but potentially could save health dollars and improve quality of life down the road. This is just scratching the surface. Myriad changes are needed.
When it comes to improving our fitness and health, there’s no singular solution. The more we learn to define the problem from an interdisciplinary approach, the more steps we can take in the right direction.
Gloria Schwartz is a personal trainer at the Soloway JCC and the author of Personal Best: Train Your Brain and Transform Your Body for Life.