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David Katz, M.D.

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What Is Health For?

Posted: 10/02/2012 8:43 am

Health is not the ultimate prize; it is the penultimate prize.

I suspect many of us tend to overlook this. Perhaps in particular those of us who frequent the Healthy Living pages here at the Huffington Post, where it's all health, all the time. Certainly, as a physician and preventive medicine specialist, I generally have overlooked it. My job is all about health, so I have tended to think of it as the prize. But, it's not the prize.

My patients tend to think of health as the prize as well. When I ask them why they come to see me, inevitably it's because they want to be healthy, get healthy, stay healthy, get healthier, or some variation on this theme. Rarely over the years have I ever thought to ask them: Why? Rarely, if ever -- as far as I know -- have they thought to ask themselves. I accepted that what they seemed to be saying was true: Health was the ultimate objective. They implicitly inferred the same.

But it's not true. Health is really just a currency. It is, however, a unique currency. It happens to be the only one that can be spent directly on years in life, and life in years. Health can be used to purchase... living. The value of health is that it makes life better. Living -- better -- is what health is for. A better life is the prize.

And health, like any currency, can be spent as its owner see fit. That's the universal appeal we have been neglecting. If you have more health, you can "buy" more living -- whatever kind of living you prefer. It's your health -- spend it as YOU choose.

Other than to collectors, no currency has any value beyond the shine on a coin or the pretty picture on a bill, unless you can spend it on things you want. All currencies are penultimate prizes. Having wealth isn't really about piles of cash -- it's about what piles of cash can buy, from items to opportunity. Health is just the same; it's all about what it can get for you. Generally speaking, healthy people have more fun.

Maybe health as a currency, and the penultimate prize, seems self-evident to you. Maybe you knew it all along. Or maybe, as to me, the notion is something of an epiphany. Either way, I think it's an important clarification.

If health is the prize, having it makes you the winner. That may foster a kind of self-righteousness and sanctimony. That is off-putting, to say the least. I think those of us trying to pay health forward may often alienate people, because we can come across as holier-than-thou. Not good.

But the wealthy don't alienate people when they share tips on how to become wealthy yourself. Because intrinsic in that message is: When you have money, too, you can spend it as YOU choose!

The result of this apparent distinction is that our culture -- or much of it, at least -- reveres wealth, but at best neglects, and at worst denigrates, health. Comments here and views I encounter elsewhere suggest that many see the pursuit of health as being all about rules and regulations, nuisances and nannies, and someone else telling you what to do and how to live. To my knowledge, no one thinks of financial advisors that way. Their job is to help you get what you want, because then you can do what YOU want with the currencies in question.

We need to make it clearer that health is that way, too. Health is not the prize; living is the prize. Live any way you like, but accumulate health so you can "afford" it.

As a currency, health might be considered in units: days, years, and decades; vim, vigor, and vitality; enthusiasm and equanimity. Units of vitality-time may be used to buy walks through your favorite cities, the view from the top of your favorite ski resort, rides on your bike or motorcycle or horse, more years of lovemaking, hikes in the fall foliage, days at the beach, travel to parts of the world you want to see, a dance at your grandchild's wedding, or just an extra dose of peaceful moments.

Admittedly, health goes well with other currencies. If you have health, but no other money, it's tough to travel around the world. But the same is true if you have plenty of money but lack health.

Health is more like other currencies than not, but with one important distinction. All other currencies are interchangeable. You can buy things with health that no other currency can purchase.

Health is more like wealth than we tend to acknowledge -- and all too many of us wind up the poorer for it.

But because health really is just a currency, being healthy does NOT make anyone a better person. It just lets you "buy" a better life.

Health is like any other investment. You put in, and you get out. And like any other investment, there is no guarantee. You can take good care of yourself, and get hit by a bus. You can take good care of yourself, and your genes might conspire against you.

But health stands out as a stunningly safe and rewarding investment compared to almost any other. Address just a few priorities in your health investment portfolio, and you are at least 80 percent certain to acquire a currency with which you may purchase years in life, life in years, or both. Life, and years, to use as you see fit.

As compared to the poor, the wealthy have some combination of inheritance, opportunity, and investment to thank for their wealth -- not moral superiority. I trust we all reject the notion that the wealthy are entitled to look down their noses at the poor. We can and I think should do a better job of conveying exactly the same convictions about the healthy.

Health, too, is a product of inheritance, opportunity, and investment -- not moral superiority. When we suggest we feel otherwise, intentionally or inadvertently, we alienate people and actually dissuade them from the pursuit of health.

Health readily takes on moral overtones. Those who have it can seem bossy, or boastful, or self-righteous. All of this goes away, I think, when we recognize that health is just a currency. Like any other, it takes some work to acquire it -- but when you do, you can spend it as you see fit. Health should not be about anyone telling you what to do -- it should be about being able to do more of what you want.

Health is not the ultimate prize. That distinction belongs to living the life you wish you had. Health just helps you get there from here.

-fin

Dr. David L. Katz; www.davidkatzmd.com
www.turnthetidefoundation.org

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