Thank You for Your Health

Jul 30, 2013, 2:18 PM, Posted by

Fall River Fitness Challenge.

Here at RWJF, we are looking everywhere for good ideas. The other day, I found inspiration in a typo: “Thank you for your health,” a colleague signed her email, when she meant to write help.

I thanked her back: “Thank you for your health, too!”  And, as I hit reply, amused by my little joke, I realized my smile was connected to something deeper than simple wordplay—I felt, for that moment, like a good citizen.

Now admittedly, I’m someone who can get goose bumps when reminded of our basic humanity by a politely held open door. But thanking someone for their health, especially after just being recognized appreciatively for mine, snapped into focus how our health, our own personal health and what we do with it, impacts everyone around us—as clearly as tossing an empty can into the recycling bin.

We each have an active role to play in being good health citizens.

This doesn’t presume that we can each control all aspects of our health or the socioeconomic and environmental determinants that contribute to it, and certainly some of us live with far easier opportunities to make healthy choices than others. But wherever we are, whatever our circumstances, each of us has control over what we have control over. We can all do our relative best with what we have.

Thank you for your health. I was part of something larger than me.

As happy as I was to receive this typo-veiled compliment, ready to proudly count myself a good health citizen, truth be told, the praise was in many ways undeserved. I can do better.

I can lose weight to avoid burdening society with extra care costs I may be lining myself up for. I can get more sleep so I’m better able to make healthier choices throughout the day. I can follow up on those doctor appointments I was supposed to make six months ago.

But I do pretty well on other counts: I stay home when I have a fever, I give my kids a varied diet, and talk with them about why that is important, I don’t ask for antibiotics when I don’t need them, and question the need if offered. And I’ll share any personal health data I have if it will serve the public good.

Oh, and I quit smoking eight years ago—three months before the birth of my son. (Hold your horses; my partner carried the baby—no smoking while pregnant.) I quit by convincing myself that I would quite possibly have a heart attack on the very next inhale. The idea of not being there for my son made for short smoking breaks and barely smoked cigarettes until I was finally able to quit for good.

I share that story here because it was a goal outside of myself that propelled me through a very difficult behavior change. It was the larger purpose—the benefit to someone other than just me that made change possible.

And this good health citizen thing—the higher sense of purpose that comes with recognizing that my health and how I care for it is as core to our basic humanity as holding open a door, just might be the extra kick in the pants I need to start eating more spinach and fewer bagels. Thank you for your health. It sets up a contract of sorts, with me and you, with me and my family, with me and myself.

Higher-purpose, gratitude, and a social contract all rolled into one—that’s got to be a good combination for promoting healthy behavior!

But what is a good health citizen? Is it getting a flu shot and exercising regularly? Is it making healthy choices when they are easy or is it also making hard choices when they are healthy? Is it being an informed patient and questioning unnecessary tests? Is it buying organic products because that supports better health conditions for workers?

To say it's different things to different people would be putting it mildly. What makes for a good health citizen is varied and evolving—and inseparable from opportunity, privilege and culture. The "good" health actions I claim above for instance, like staying home with a fever, are indeed luxuries of privilege and opportunity.

Thank you for your health.

As we seek to create a culture where health is embraced by all "as an esteemed American value", maybe this simple expression of gratitude will not only propel us into our own healthier behavior, but will help us see even more clearly that not all Americans can participate in this shared value in the same way—that the door to a culture of health needs to be held open wide to all.

A tall order for a handful of words. But then, much more has been done with fewer.

Try it out. Thank someone for their health. See how you feel. And thank yourself for yours.