Social Determinants of Healthy Living

Health, as defined by the World Health Organization, is a condition that “reverses” the effects of aging, provides “complete physical, mental and emotional well-being” and is not just the absence of sickness and infirmity. A variety of other definitions have also been used over time. Generally, it is thought of as encompassing the whole of health, which is defined as the capacity to experience and perform at your best in all your relationships, work, school, sports and other areas of life. The ability to be at your best “right now” rather than “in the future” is important for a healthful life.


The definition of a healthy life has changed considerably over the years. In the beginning it was regarded as a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, low in saturated fats and salt, and low in calories. It was thought of as a simple formula: the absence of known diseases; a balance of a good intake of calories for daily activities; and adequate intake of physical activity. The present definition takes a different view, emphasizing the prevention of known diseases rather than their prevention.

The problem with this current definition of physical health is that it tends to result in making health a desirable state, rather than a reward for the good that we do. Illness and death are the results when the conditions for healthy living become unattainable. Illness may be due to poor nutrition, smoking, a sedentary lifestyle, alcohol abuse, poor health management or lack of exercise. Disease results when our immune system fails to function properly or when our body’s ability to absorb nutrients diminishes. The causes of death vary greatly. Whether or not they are due to disease or accidents, the consequences of poor physical health are death.

Prevention through education, a healthy lifestyle, and controlled intake of physical activity form the basic components of a healthy life. Health education emphasizes the importance of a balanced diet and education about the proper foods to eat to maintain a healthy weight. Public health also emphasizes the need for controlled intake of food and beverages such as alcohol, salt, sugar, and tobacco and the resulting ill effects on the individual behavior of the person who consumes them. Proper education about the causes and prevention of heart disease, diabetes, obesity, osteoporosis and other illnesses results in better individual behavior that leads to better overall health.

Physical activity can be the basis for improved self-image, but not everyone wants or desires to take part in organized sports. For those individuals who do participate in organized sports, the opportunities for participating in physical activities and the maintenance of a healthy weight are hindered by other factors, such as time, financial constraints and lack of access to specialized health services. Public health professionals and educators now consider a “hygienic” body to be one that has the same level of health services as the latest television advertisement portrays. Those with such bodies are encouraged to visit their doctors regularly and be screened for diseases like breast cancer, colon cancer, diabetes and heart disease, which could improve their health status if they adopt healthier behaviors.

To achieve population health, it is important to focus efforts on motivating individuals to practice a healthy lifestyle through individual-based and community-based interventions. The focus of these interventions should be on the development of healthy behaviors by creating a network of supportive people who can assist an affected individual to determine his or her options. The most common of these interventions include family-based interventions that involve the whole family, including children. Educational programs that target the problem behaviors of at-risk youth can also significantly impact the health of the entire population. Public health professionals can incorporate these social determinants into their work by incorporating them into their teaching methods and practice guidelines.