Martin Henry | A NEWSTART for better health
Yesterday was Caribbean Wellness Day with the theme, Love your body, treat your body right. And come next month, the Ministry of Health and the Ministry of Education will be jointly running HYPE on the road in a tour of schools. HYPE is Health, Youth, Positive Energy, a programme designed to promote healthy lifestyle choices among youth.
Back in 2007, the heads of Summit on Chronic Diseases declared the second Saturday of September as Caribbean Wellness Day, an annual event to provide an opportunity to increase awareness of the non-communicable disease (NCD) burden in the Caribbean, to build partnerships for dealing with these diseases, to mobilise action in support of wellness, as well as to showcase national and community activities that are promoting healthy living and encouraging good health practices.
But while the government has a major role to play, the National Health Fund is quite right in its advertising slogan: Your health is your responsibility. Health gets quite personal. We don't often give credit, but the Government has led a sustained campaign for the elimination and containment of infectious diseases and for public health, in general. Malaria was eliminated in 1963, ahead of most countries in which the disease has been endemic.
We've built a world-class health-care system on a shoestring budget. The rate of immunisation matches and even exceeds developed countries' levels. Maternal and infant mortality have been steeply pegged down. Joining the rest of the world, it is the non-communicable diseases that are now the leading causes of illness and death.
The NEWSTART Programme has long offered an easy-to-remember formula for personal health management: Nutrition, Exercise, Water, Sunlight, Temperance, Air, Rest, and Trust (in Divine Power).
It is more than a slogan that we are what we eat. As the health promoters advise, we should cut salt and sugar and fat and bulk up on fruits and vegetables. Cut processed foods and rely more on complex, fresh ground provisions for our carbohydrate intake. Lots of natural, lots of raw for better nutrition, for better health.
In food economics, though, cost beats choice and knowledge in determining what people eat. The current minister of health was once minister of agriculture. We could have a serious agriculture (and economic) revolution through a major drive to get healthful Jamaica-grown foods from farm to table at affordable and competitive prices.
One of the main reasons that NCDs are sitting on us so much is that we sit too much. Working up our bodies is vital for health. A lot of work is now non-manual. And, of course, a lot of entertainment means sitting in front of a screen. While we have to plan our own exercise programme (and working it into daily lifestyle rather than treating it as a special add-on is better), Government can help a lot with parks, walking trails, beaches, and with public safety, which will help to get more people moving. Urban gardening for food and exercise should be pushed. HYPE is targeting schools and youth, and that matter of timetabled physical exercise for all students (PE, not sports) has to be dealt with.
Most people are dehydrated, not drinking enough water which is freely and abundantly available. Drinking shouldn't be left to chance or to thirst. Anyone can easily develop a water regime, drinking heavily on waking up and on returning home in thez evenings when there is time and bathroom access for letting out, then topping up regularly throughout the day. We are wet enough inside when pee is pale. And water should be freely used for regularly cleaning the body and our clothing and surroundings. Handwashing is the single biggest public-health measure.
Surprise! Living in a hot and bright tropical country doesn't mean we are getting enough sunlight for good health. More and more people live indoors. And when we're out, we're in clothes.
Temperance asks us to be moderate with good things and to drop the bad ones. Modern lifestyles have too many extremes. Obesity is now an epidemic and food consumption is a crucial factor, though not the only one. Controlling amount and type of food consumed and when consumed can help a lot with size.
Smoking is bad for health. There are no healthy doses of smoke. Dragging the products of organic combustion into the lungs and driving them into the blood and tissues is simply a disaster for health. Public figures and lifelong smokers, the late John Maxwell and Aggrey Brown told us as much from their own experience when they were dying of lung cancer.
The last Government took on tobacco as a major public health issue but freed up ganja. For multiple reasons, including the carcinogens and the psychopathogens it pumps into the body, ganja smoking, so deeply embedded in the population, is a major public-health issue. But while the Government sorts that out, each person can chose abstention for health sake, although previous users may feel less irie in the short term without dem spliff. Alcohol is another story.
Just like drinking too little, most people breathe too little in our sedentary lives. Babies breathe deeply from the diaphragm, but very soon we develop the habit of shallow breathing from high up in the chest. Filling the lungs with air to their base is good for good health. Exercise forces us to do this. But we don't do enough of that either. We can develop the habit of quiet deep breathing several times a day. It is calming and mentally clearing as well.
We are sleeping less than our foreparents. Running harder with our daily lives. Skipping having one down day per week. And stressing more. And we are paying the price in health and well-being. Rest, between tasks, daily, weekly, and longer breaks over longer periods, is absolutely necessary for good health. More and more people are staring at computer screens for longer and longer periods. The walking break with deep breathing is good for the worker - and good for the work.
It's a great health plan to mix rest from work, during the day, at the end of the day, weekly, and annually, with exercise, sunlight and air as we change the pace.
Trust in divine power is an aid to maintaining good health. Medicine now confirms what ordinary people have always known, that faith and prayer are healing, restorative and sustaining. The hope and optimism which faith engenders have physiological and psychological benefits. And the human connectedness and sharing of faith communities provides great health benefits. So do gratitude and thanksgiving.
Government has a role to play, a big role, and in fairness, the authorities have been making significant effort to promote good health. But our health is our responsibility. And there are some simple things we can do to keep off and postpone those deadly NCDs.