Monday, 17 December 2012

My cheapest and first priority. People who devote more resources to purchasing sophisticated food and joining health clubs are not necessarily those who enjoy the best physical condition. By all means, do make health your first priority, but make it an inexpensive and workable one

When people talk about priorities, they usually refer to items on which they spend substantial sums of money. A comfortable car and a large house are on the top of the list of many individuals, together with a well-paying, stable, and interesting job.

Health is also important for the great majority of men and women. Products sold in supermarkets and convenience stores respond to this concern by promoting low-calories drinks, low-fat cookies, sugarless sweets, and cooking magazines.

Organic-food stores represent the last step in the evolution of this trend. Consumers want to buy the best produce, the purest bread, and fresh natural pastries. Even though the cost associated to those choices can be considerable in some cases, customers seem to be willing to pay for it.

The problem with spending additional money to consume so-called healthy products is that it does not seem to make a lot of difference. People who devote more resources to purchasing sophisticated food and joining health clubs are not necessarily those who enjoy the best physical condition. Paradoxically, in the field of health, more investments do not always result in additional benefits.

Making health your first priority is an excellent choice that works better if you implement it as inexpensively as possible. Are you surprised? Does this sound illogical to you? Before you discard this theory, you might wish to check out longevity statistics around the world. Those who spend the most to preserve their health are not necessarily the people who live the longest.

The Ancient Greek physician Galen (circa 130 - 200 AD) recorded many interesting ideas on this subject, which was later expanded by other medics in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Although many centuries have passed, many discoveries of antiquity are still adhered to by modern medicine.

Galen spent his youth learning about sickness and treatments before he moved to Rome in the year 162. He has gone down into History as much for his medical discoveries as for his tremendous output as a writer. Even though a great part of Galen's work has been lost, what remains fills more than 20 volumes.

His aphorisms, which condense medical truths in short sentences, reflect fundamental aspects of physical and mental health. One of the threads that runs through his writings is the search of simplicity. His advocacy of straightforward methods to improve man's well-being contrasted with the semi-magical medicine that was still being practised by most of his contemporaries.

Galen maintained that health and philosophy are closely connected. As a consequence, a man who wishes to maintain his vitality will do well to act prudently and respect ethical principles. Galen's four prescriptions for preserving health do not demand large financial resources and can be followed by most individuals. Here is a summary of his four fundamental precepts:

[1] Maintain a balanced diet: At the time of Galen's writings, the biochemical properties of vitamins and minerals had not yet been discovered. Nevertheless, what he had learned from other physicians and his own observations led him to recommend vegetables, fruits, and herbs on many occasions. Nowadays, those are items that most people can afford to purchase without making extraordinary efforts.

Ancient medicine believed that each element in the universe had a purpose. This conviction led Galen to experiment with different dietary treatments in response to sickness. His goal was to find the right combination of elements that fulfilled the purpose of health recovery. A balanced, prudent diet was also advocated in the Middle Ages by Maimonides, a famous physician who was familiar with Galen's work.

[2] Take up moderate exercise: While modern times favour body building and other forms of muscle training, Galen was an advocate of moderation. In his own life, he gave example of this precept by avoiding strenuous assignments. When he was offered a post of physician in the Roman army marching against the barbarians in Northern Europe, he declined and stayed in Rome.

One of Galen's aphorisms says that sickness caused by excessive strain should be cured by rest. In this sense, the inordinate professional stress that many people endure in our age should not be exacerbated by further tensions in their private life.

Spending time with friends, cultivating hobbies, and enjoying art will do more to re-establish balance in your life than watching television or practising demanding sports. Galen also recommended walking as a beneficial form of exercise.

[3] Practise good hygiene: Even though bacteria and viruses had not yet been discovered in antiquity, Galen's books show that he was conscious of the major role that external influences play in human health. The purpose of medicine, he wrote, was to re-establish the patient's health in relation to his environment, taking also the seasons into account.

Galen's early training as physician took place in Greece, which at that time comprised part of the Middle East. Ancient Greeks considered thermal baths salutary and those attracted far-away visitors seeking to cure physical or mental illness.

In those days, a journey to a renowned thermal location involved disproportionately high costs that few individuals could afford. Luckily, modern plumbing, shampoo, and tooth brushes now allow practically everybody to enjoy excellent levels of hygiene inexpensively.

[4] Adopt preventive measures against health problems: The need to preserve the natural limits of life is a theme that permeates Galen's books. The best way to maintain our health, he wrote, is to adopt preventive measures to counterbalance excesses.

He warned against lack of moderation and advocated measures against exaggerated eating as well as against insufficient food intake. Similarly, he advised to avoid excessive immobility and immoderate exercise. The purpose of prevention should be to maintain the natural balance in all areas of our lives.

Galen's principles emphasize the importance of preserving health at the same time as the need to do it in a simple and straightforward manner. By all means, do make health your first priority, but make it an inexpensive and workable one. Your goal should be to develop effective habits that maintain your vitality with minimum effort and expense.

For more information about rational living and personal development, I refer you to my book about how to be rational  "The 10 Principles of Rational Living"


[Image by Jim Linwood under Creative Commons Attribution License. See the license terms under]