What Does it Mean to be “Healthy”

man walking on a trail in the woods

Verywell / Ryan Kelly

What does it mean to be healthy? If you look up the keyword “healthy” on Instagram, it reveals some insight into what we collectively consider the healthy ideal: fitness models behind filters, bodybuilders and their supplements, detoxing and fad diet claims, the virtues of “clean-eating,” and so, so much juicing. You get the picture — you’ve probably seen the pictures, too. 

Researchers pinpoint some big problems with this near-constant imagery. First, media (particularly social media) plays a huge role in shaping what behaviors people consider important to reach a certain goal. But since these behaviors prioritize physical appearance, they’re generally linked with negative psychological effects and poorer physical health outcomes.

It comes down to this paradox: studies routinely show that how someone looks — namely, if they’re “thin” or “fit” — is not a good indicator of how healthy they actually are. In a world where the majority of us have a poor body image, experts worry we may be missing the mark on what it means to be healthy.

What Makes up a “Healthy Life”

Those fitness influencers aren’t exactly wrong — things like healthy foods, daily movement, and lifestyle factors such as not smoking are extremely important to living a healthy life. They just don’t paint the full picture. A healthy lifestyle is more multi-faceted than what you see on social media, and it requires a good balance. New research published in the British Medical Journal breaks it down like this: you can’t outrun a poor diet at the gym, and all the juice cleansing in the world won’t make up for a sedentary lifestyle.

You don’t have to make sweeping changes to these parts of your lifestyle all at once. In fact, studies show that making small adjustments bit by bit sets you up for more sustainable long-term habits.

Nutrition

In our culture of weight-loss diets, it can be easy to overlook balanced nutrition. While getting too much salt, sugar, and fat in your diet raises your risk of diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and stroke, it’s not all about what you should restrict and avoid.

Making sure you’re eating enough nutrient-rich food is essential to all aspects of your health. For example:

  • Lacking nutrients like magnesium, calcium, and vitamins A, C, D, E, and K is linked with sleep problems 
  • Not getting enough protein can lead to slowed metabolism and weight gain
  • Healthy fats are essential to help protect you against heart disease and can help keep your energy levels high

In addition, “depression and nutrition are very closely linked,” says Briana Severine,  MS, LPC, LAC, CPRP, Founder of Sanare Psychosocial Rehabilitation. “Healthy diets such as the Mediterranean diet has been associated with as high as a 32 percent reduced risk of depression symptoms,” she explains. “And diets high in saturated fats and sugars are shown to increase symptoms of anxiety in adults.” 

Movement

Regular physical activity doesn’t just help with weight management. It reduces your risk of chronic diseases like heart disease and diabetes, helps maintain healthy bones and joints, and contributes to better mental health and mood. Yet the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates about 60 percent of Americans do not get enough physical activity each day. According to researchers, people say they don’t exercise for pretty consistent reasons — there’s not enough time, they don’t have access to resources, and they’re tired.

But here’s the key — you don’t have to have a highly-skilled, time-consuming fitness regimen to reap the benefits of physical activity. Studies show:

  • Going on a 10-minute walk every day could extend your lifespan
  • Getting your heart rate up for just 12 minutes a day can help protect your cardiovascular system
  • “Even a brisk 10-minute walk is proven to boost mood in folks who are experiencing stress,” Severine says 

Additional Wellness Factors

“Since sleep is a key time that your body uses to recover and rest, not getting enough of it can have consequences,” says  Jeffrey Dlott, Medical Director of Consumer Health at Quest Diagnostics. While a bad night’s rest here and there is no big deal, health problems start to emerge if it becomes a regular thing. “[Sleep deprivation] can lead to a weakened immune system, which in turn leads to more illness, and over time it can also increase your risk of chronic conditions like heart disease, obesity, diabetes, and more.”

Chronic stress has a big effect on your health and well-being, too. Stress releases a hormone called cortisol, and high, sustained levels can suppress your immune system. “It can also lead to the development of other chronic health conditions, like heart disease and depression, over time if left unmanaged,” Dr. Dlott says, “[as well as] a range of symptoms from fatigue and difficulty sleeping to problems with digestion.”

How to Know If You’re Living a Healthy Life

“The human body and its various organs and tissues are the most complex structures in the known galaxy, and the hints they emit about underlying trouble can often be subtle,” says J. Wes Ulm, MD, PhD. “So be aware of yourself as much as possible — if you seem to be detecting that something is ‘off,’ take it seriously and prime your internal antenna for possible underlying health conditions or the need for lifestyle changes.” 

Keep in mind that a healthy, sustainable lifestyle for one person may not be what’s best for another. But the experts say to look out for these signs you’re living a healthy life. 

Your energy levels are stable

Having good amounts of energy throughout the day is a tell-tale sign you’re getting high-quality sleep. But your energy levels can also offer clues on your nutritional intake — particularly of fats, carbohydrates, and proteins. The right combination of these macronutrients can be a bit different for everyone, especially depending on factors like your physical activity. But paying attention to your energy at different points of the day (and if it yo-yo’s) can help guide what’s right for you.

You handle stress well

Stress is an inevitable part of life — and researchers say it can even be good for you when you approach it in a healthy way. One sign you’re dealing with stress well is in your ability to set boundaries. By learning to set boundaries, you’re recognizing and prioritizing your needs, Severine says. This could include boundaries for your physical space, emotional needs, the time you spend (or don’t spend) on certain things, sexual interactions, respect for your thoughts and ideas, and material possessions. 

You’ve got fresh breath

“Dentists often say the mouth is a window into the health of the body,” says James E Galati, DDS, PC, President, New York State Dental Association. Poor oral health leads to a buildup of bacteria that can spread throughout your respiratory and digestive tracts. “Studies suggest that increased bacteria entering your body can lower your immune response and make you more likely to develop general health problems, including heart disease, pregnancy and birth complications, and pneumonia.” Chronic bad breath is a common sign of poor oral health (though there are other causes of bad breath, like some medications.)

You check in with your doctor

"One important point I would also like to stress when it comes to maintaining a healthy lifestyle is how important it is to seek preventive care,” says Dr. Dlott. A 2015 study by the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality found that only eight percent of U.S. adults received the appropriate preventive care recommended.

But routine health screenings and checkups may help prevent illness, disease, and chronic health conditions and help detect illnesses in earlier stages when treatment is likely to work best, he explains, which may lead to better health outcomes.

How to Know It’s Time for a Change

“People know their bodies best, so if something feels off, it’s important to look at your lifestyle habits and be honest about changes that may need to be implemented to help improve our health and lessen our risk of chronic health conditions,” says Dr. Dlott. 

You’re always sick

“There is virtually no way to keep from coming down with an illness from time to time — U.S. adults average two to four colds per year, although it can vary,” Dr. Dlott says. “But when it becomes very cyclical, it can signal that there may be factors contributing to a weakened immune system that causes people to succumb to illnesses more easily.”

Your stomach is constantly “off”

Always feeling bloated, backed-up, or plagued by acid reflux or indigestion? Poor diet, lack of fiber in your diet, not enough physical movement, and low hydration are each common causes of tummy troubles, Dr. Dlott says. “One other potential culprit is chronic stress, as issues with digestion can also be a symptom triggered by stress.”

Household chores are exhausting

Feeling winded from relatively minor physical activity like household chores is a hallmark of low aerobic tolerance, says Dr. Ulm. “Poor stress tolerance, fatigue, difficulty in healing, and general malaise and a persistently foul mood can also be subtle signs of inadequate physical activity.” 

You’re extra irritable

“Each individual is different in the warning signs that present when their mental health is suffering,” Severine says. But if you’re unusually irritable or quick to anger, that’s a common signal to prioritize your self-care and prevent a larger mental health crisis. Other signs include difficulty waking or getting out of bed, shifts in eating patterns, increased isolation from others, and difficulty concentrating, Severine adds.

You struggle to fall asleep

Difficulty falling asleep is often another sign of chronic stress, Dr. Dlott says. But it can also point to problems with your nutrition. Research published in the International Journal of Medical Sciences says that skipping meals, eating too quickly, large meals, irregular mealtimes, and poor food quality are all dietary contributors to sleep disorders like insomnia.

A Word From Verywell

Being healthy looks and feels different to everyone, so it’s important to listen to your body and its cues. Don’t make any drastic changes to your diet or lifestyle without talking to your doctor, and don’t hesitate to “connect with a healthcare provider who can help navigate any symptoms or changes you’re experiencing, including tips on integrating some lifestyle modifications that can help contribute to better overall health,” says Dr. Dlott.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • What is the healthiest morning routine?

    The healthiest morning routine will be unique to you — and will be something you can stick to in the long term. But the experts say to include elements like drinking water, eating something nutritious, brushing your teeth, and getting a bit of movement.

  • How can I make my body 100% healthy?

    There’s no such thing as being 100% healthy — and striving for perfection can lead to problems like disordered eating, a negative body image, and stress on your mental health. Instead, focus on making small, sustainable changes that involve nutritious dietary choices, physical movement, and mindfulness.   

  • How can I improve my health fast?

    Getting more sleep, doing a little bit of movement every day, controlling your stress, and ensuring (but not obsessing over) proper nutrition will go a long way in improving your health.

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Verywell Fit uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Paige Waehner
Paige Waehner is a certified personal trainer, author of the "Guide to Become a Personal Trainer," and co-author of "The Buzz on Exercise & Fitness."