Focus on Fitness: Is your lifestyle the best predictor of your health?

By Gloria Schwartz

A healthy lifestyle generally includes regular exercise, a balanced diet, stress management, not smoking or using illicit drugs, minimal alcohol consumption, maintaining a healthy body weight and regularly getting a good night’s sleep. A healthy lifestyle can improve the quality of your life and possibly extend it. There are many determinants of your health besides your current lifestyle habits; genetic predisposition for certain diseases, for example, though a healthy lifestyle can help prevent some genes from being expressed.

Before you were even born, and early into your life, certain variables were at play that may have impacted your health in adulthood. The age and health of your mother when she became pregnant impacted your fetal development, as did her smoking, drug and alcohol habits, and her diet and activity level before and during pregnancy. For example, if your mother was obese during pregnancy, it put you at greater risk for obesity during adulthood. If your mother smoked or had inadequate nutrition during pregnancy resulting in you having a low birth weight, your risk increased for various issues such as schizophrenia and respiratory problems.

Many socioeconomic factors that your mother or other primary caregiver experienced when you were a baby or child can have long-term consequences. Her education level and income were predictors of your health because those factors affected whether your childhood needs were met. Did she have health care, social support, reliable housing and food security? Food insecurity is linked to obesity, diabetes, heart disease, depression and anxiety. Inadequately nourished children have impaired cognitive, psychosocial and academic development which can affect them for life.

Did you have a loving and stimulating environment including a meaningful physical and emotional connection with your parents? From birth to age seven, the brain develops in response to environmental stimuli, reinforcing some pathways and pruning others. Abnormal brain development as a result of early life deprivation can last a lifetime.

Did your parents read to you regularly? A brain that is not optimally developed can lead to future intellectual, emotional and learning difficulties as well as difficulties with coping skills. The disadvantaged child is more likely to develop mental health conditions as well as heart disease and diabetes. Poor readiness for school is associated with poor school performance and later, poor job and income outcomes, substance abuse and poor mental and physical health.

If you experienced some of these disadvantages when you were young, it doesn’t guarantee you’ll have poor health outcomes as an adult. Children with such setbacks who had a nurturing parent or caregiver and who attended early childhood programs have been shown to have more resilience and are more readily able to overcome the setbacks. Children from more educated and financially stable families fare better long-term even when they start out with disadvantages.

While your early family life had considerable potential to impact your health as an adult, your adult health was also affected by your peers during adolescence. If your friends smoked, used drugs or alcohol, or were engaging in risky sexual activity, you may have been influenced by them. Your choices, made in a social context, may have impacted your lifestyle later in your life. For example, did you develop an addiction? If your adolescent peers engaged in positive behaviours such as sports and physical activities, that may have influenced your habits and health as an adult.

As an adult, contextual factors impact your health. The 2019 Bloomberg Healthiest Country Index ranked Canada in 16th place among 169 countries. Life expectancy, environmental factors, health care, tobacco use and obesity are among the factors considered for grading the countries.

The city you live in also impacts your health. In 2018, Ottawa was ranked number 1 in Canada for access to health care and number 2 as best Canadian city for healthy living.

Even your work environment and the type of job you have affect your health. Is it stressful? Do you sit at a desk all day? Is it dangerous?

Regardless of your past or present circumstances, small improvements to your current lifestyle can have a positive impact on your present and future health. Knowing and attempting to mitigate current risk factors can also have a positive impact on your children’s health.

Some information for this article is from Alan Davidson’s 2014 book, Social Determinants of Health: A Comparative Approach.