This year I set out to think about the topic of health – what it meant and how to achieve/maintain it.
It should come to no surprise to anyone that knows me or reads this blog that my first goal was to figure out how to measure it. How to turn an abstract concept into a concrete number. Here are my thoughts.
The Old Way
I used to think of my health on a given day as a percentage. 100% was full health – defined by my normal self when I had no ailments. If I got sick or injured I would think of myself as operating at some lesser degree – almost like how you would measure the output of a factory.
100% means all machines are working at their expected capacity – if anything goes wrong then you measure the difference as a percentage.
I have frequently used terms like – “I’m getting over this cold, feeling 90% today” to describe my state. I could picture the green battery icon filling up like my laptop when it charges.
The Problem With That
As I thought more about health and what it actually was this year, I started to realize that was an incomplete view.
The old view assumes a fixed maximum. It requires you to define 100%. You might set that benchmark based on your average day, or your best day this year or perhaps some day in your prime, when you were younger than now. Some people even benchmark themselves off of others – they know they are without their health and measure that based on a comparison to their peers or average people.
All of these views break down when you try to exceed your maximum. If you want to become healthier than ever before, or than anyone you know, you quickly start to realize you will eventually exceed 100%. That way just doesn’t work.
The New Way
I have now started thinking of health as a number on a limitless scale – more like a bank account or hit points on an RPG character. The number can grow indefinitely, and it can also be compared across time and people.
I don’t actually have numbers to go along with it (yet) but if, say, I typically operate around 4,350 points, and am recovering from a cold, I might be operating at 3,915 for the day – which happens to be 90% of my former level. At the same time, I can fully set a goal to get my health up to 4,500.
This was a big shift for me.
What is it that I’m measuring?
Now that I have a way to measure, I need to define what to measure.
When looking for definition, I sometimes find it easier to define something by what it is not – to look at the negative case and use that to build out my positive definition.
As I thought about what it meant to be healthy, I realized it was easier for me to define what lack of health looked like. In my mind, it is a state when you tire easily, can not accomplish tasks that are possible for your peers, become injured or generally can not bear the impact of stresses on various systems. For example, someone with an unhealthy heart will be told not to attempt something that puts a lot of stress on the heart, lest theirs fail during the activity.
So thinking about that, essentially health is a measurement of how much of a beating we can subject our organic bodies to before they break down. Before we injure a muscle, break a bone, have an organ system fail (heart attack), get winded or allow an intruder to break through our defenses (catching a virus).
So our measurement, will include the amount of stress various attributes of our health can stand up to before failing.
My rough model so far includes a few attributes, like strength, stamina & efficiency – each of which is applied to the different systems; muscular, cardiovascular, immune defenses, energy processing, etc.
So if you were to play it all out, a measure of my health would be a list of some few dozen of attributes-system combinations, each with a specific number that measured how much stress that thing could take before failing.
As a concrete example, I just ran a marathon, which required that my cardiovascular endurance was really high. I spent the first half of the year getting sick a lot though, so I know my immune resilience was low.
How We I Use This Tool
All of these made up numbers are only important if they are put to use. They are a tool to allow me to make better decisions and get more out of my body.
Using them gives me a mental framework to think about my body’s health measurements as defense systems and various stresses as attacks on them. If ever my defenses are lower than the attack strength, my health will fail.
We might calculate that walking 10 miles requires about 2,000 points of muscular endurance – if we do not have that, and attempt the task, we will likely injure a muscle. We might similarly conclude that flying on an airplane will subject us to 1,000 points of immune attack, if our immune stamina is lower than that on that particular day, then we will fail and get sick.
With that knowledge, we can think about each of our personal measurements – which ones are being subjected to the hardest tests, how likely they are to fail and what we can do to invest in fortifying them.
Using my marathon example, I built up the cardiovascular endurance by running increasing distances over a six month period. That particular attribute is one that doesn’t go away quickly – so even though I have stopped training now, I can still go run 10 miles on a whim.
Meanwhile I know that my immune stamina can change on a daily basis based on how much sleep I’ve had and how healthy I have eaten that day. So when I know I am going into a situation where my immune system is going to be under a particularly heavy attack, I fortify myself by sleeping more and eating healthier. I also work to reduce the attack intensity by doing things like washing my hands to remove germs.
At some future point I will need to flesh out all of the attributes I am measuring a bit more as well as define some actual scale for measuring them. As it stands now, this is a mental framework that I already find gives me better leverage for tackling the problem at hand.