The one thing you must do for your health

During the 71st World Health Assembly held in Switzerland in May, President Paul Kagame strongly advocated for making Universal Health Coverage (UHC) a top priority in Africa.  He highlighted how UHC can transform populations enough to inspire the strong political leadership necessary for success, with Rwanda as a leading example.

With increased political focus globally on Health for All, UHC will address factors that lead to risk of illness and death from non-communicable diseases (NCDs).

NCDs such as obesity, respiratory conditions, cardiovascular disease and diabetes are the leading cause of death worldwide, carrying large costs to population health, workforce productivity and economic growth.  Disproportionally low-and lower-middle-income countries are greatly affected where UHC is not realised.  According to the World Health Organisation, NCDs attribute to nearly 41 million deaths per year globally and account for nearly 80 per cent of deaths in low- and middle- income countries.  80. Per cent.  The global disease burden is enormous.

An individual approach to health has long since been the focus of governments when addressing NCDs.  The responsibility is put on individuals to make the right choices for their own health.  This has made minimal impact on the global burden of disease, especially where healthy and affordable choices are not made accessible to the population.  Advocates of UHC understand that moving from an individual approach to one that has greater impact on the population requires strong political leadership. Governments are urged to take on the private sector and implement proven public health initiatives that save lives and support healthy choices at the individual level.  These include bans on tobacco advertising, ensuring healthy food for all, creating walkable streets and reducing sugary drink consumption.

While leaders like President Kagame enact big picture public health initiatives to ensure NCDs are addressed within the population, we can make the individual choices to benefit our health.  How can we make an impact for healthier selves, families and communities?

We are bombarded daily with new wellness trends, the ONE thing to do for better health, quick weight loss promises, diet trends and products.  Is there truly ONE best thing to do for health and wellness that works for everyone?  Is it intermittent fasting?  Proteins only?  Vegetables only?  Drinking warm water in the morning?  Adding lemon to that water?  Eliminating carbs?  Starting a diet?  And if a diet is your choice, then which one do you choose?  There’s South Beach, Paleo, Weight Watchers, Mediterranean diet, Zone diet, Atkins diet, Raw diet, Clean eating, Banting and the list goes on!

With this surge of wellness advice, it’s difficult to sift through what is a trend, what is helpful and what will really work on a regular basis.  In fact, the barrage of information is not only daunting but also deflating.  We can spend all of our time reading about the health benefits of drinking lemon water first thing in the morning and listening to our super- fit friend extol the benefits of intermittent fasting, that we get bogged down in information and lose the motivation to continue.

Unfortunately, there really isn’t just ONE thing you can do for better health.  There are many things that are necessary for individual health.  What we can agree on, is that the best thing you can do for your health is to START!

Start with ONE good habit, one simple change that works for you.  This could be choosing to start an exercise regime, counting your daily steps, cutting out sugary drinks, smoking less, watching your meal portions, drinking more water daily, eating more vegetables, having fruit each day, eating less red meat, avoiding processed foods, drinking less alcohol or omitting saturated fats from your diet.  If any one of those actions seem insurmountable, then think about making one change, once a week.  This could be choosing to not have any alcoholic beverages on Tuesdays or trying Meatless Mondays or joining the activities on car-free Sundays!

Your confidence in being able to make good choices for your own health will grow with each small change, starting a chain reaction of physiological and psychological benefits leading to other healthy choices.  You feel better, look better and have something to talk about during coffee break.  You can tell others how you’ve eliminated sugar from your diet or how you’ve started the ‘couch to 5k’ challenge and the positive effect it has on your life.  This benefits your own health and the opportunity to inspire your family and others.

 The writer is a public health specialist

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