International Self-Care Day is July 24th. It is celebrated not only in Canada, but around the world, and is an opportunity for all of us to be reminded that we are our own best health advocates. We might see doctors a few times a year or maybe even a few times a week, but they are not there with us as we live our lives. It’s an opportunity to take ownership over our own health and wellbeing.
The campaign stresses seven different pillars of self-care. Some are obvious. Some, less so.
Physical Activity and Healthy Eating
The first two pillars are probably what we all think of when we think of self-care: Physical Activity and Healthy Eating. No need to elaborate, really. In fact, we’ve written extensively on these topics in this very blog, talking about the benefits of exercise and a healthy diet in general, but also in improving health outcomes for Canadians living with chronic conditions from obesity to diabetes to heart disease and even cancer. No matter your current state of health, you will see significant benefits from regular physical activity, from eating less salt, sugar and saturated fats, and from maintaining a healthy weight. No doctor can get you up off the couch. This is very much in our own hands.
This is also a very common manifestation of self-care. Every healthcare professional and authority on healthy living will advise you to quit smoking, avoid drugs and limit alcohol use. This crosses over into healthy eating too, as recent studies have proven that certain fats found in fast food can be as dangerous to our overall health as smoking or drinking. What we don’t always think of as self-care, however, is avoiding other everyday risks like those associated with things like aggressive driving and irregular sleep. If the goal of self-care, and healthcare overall, is to live as long and healthy a life as possible, then we want to approach every situation life throws at us with an eye toward reducing risk.
Self-awareness is critical to identifying health problems before they get out of hand. This includes paying attention to bumps, lumps, spots and marks on our bodies that might point to something like cancer. The other element of self-awareness that is not stressed quite as much is awareness of our own mental state. Especially for teens and young adults, anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges can be every bit as detrimental to our general wellbeing as physical ailments. And this brings us back to risk. Suicide is the second-leading cause of death for Canadians aged 10-24. Even for the majority of Canadians who never contemplate suicide, good health is impossible if we don’t have good mental health. Nobody knows what’s inside our brains, so we need to be our own early warning system for mental health problems and ask for help when we need it.
Again, this pillar is an example of risk avoidance. It may seem trivial in a modern context, but hygiene is critical to controlling the spread of diseases from the common cold to more serious health threats like avian flu, chicken pox and meningitis. These are just a few infectious diseases that spread when a healthy person comes into contact with the body fluids of an infected person. It’s easy to say that we should wash our hands and cough into our sleeve when we’re sick, but the fact is that we may be infected and not know it, which is why making these practices part of our daily lives is an important feature of self-care and a healthy lifestyle.
The last two pillars of self-care are the least obvious, yet they should really go without saying. Health literacy touches on all the other pillars, because it’s about knowing what’s good for us. Knowing the answers to the below questions is a great start to enhancing your health literacy.
Do we know what kind of fats we should avoid?
What is a safe heart rate when exercising?
Do we know what to watch for as the early warning signs of skin cancer?
We can’t exactly be expected to make good decisions for our own care if we don’t know the difference between a healthy choice and a not-so-healthy one. This is a big reason why we often delegate our responsibility for self-care to doctors and others that we assume know better. The message here is not to ignore the doctors, but to build our own general health knowledge so that we can make the best choices when there’s no one else around to advise us.
Optimal Use of Products and Services
Which brings us to the last pillar. Oddly enough, many of us think of healthcare as a process whereby doctors prescribe pills and we take them. We’ve made it abundantly clear above that there is much more to it than that, but the fact is that there are a number of health conditions that can be dramatically improved by the responsible use of medication. This is the one part of our healthcare that’s best left to the professionals in terms of what to take, how much and when. But once again, the doctor isn’t there when you’re taking the medication, so the responsibility ultimately falls to us, to follow the doctor’s directions, watch out for side effects, and report back if the medication isn’t having the desired effect.
Ultimately, your best health advocate is you. So, make sure you’re taking the right steps to stay in optimum shape. You’ll find that self-care is the care that matters most.