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What does it mean to be healthy?
Being healthy is about more than not being sick. Learn how doctors measure good health — and what you can do to improve your well-being.
Everybody wants to be healthy, but what does that mean exactly? It sometimes seems like an impossible ideal. You may assume that healthy people have flawless habits and bodies. They run every day. They stay away from fatty foods. They never gain weight. And they’re always in a great mood.
Fortunately, “good health“ and “100% perfect health“ are not the same thing. “Being in perfect health isn’t realistic for most people,” says Jennifer Donahue, MD. She’s a family medicine physician at ProHealth Physicians, part of Optum, in Farmington, Connecticut. “It’s not an attainable goal. And having an unrealistic goal can make people want to give up trying to take good care of themselves.”
Good health is also determined by other things outside your doctor’s office: your mood, your relationships, where you live, your family history and more.
In fact, as much as 80% of a person’s health is determined outside a medical office or hospital. That’s according to a 2019 report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.7 How healthy you feel and how healthy you are depends on the balance of all parts of your life.
It’s true that there are many things that impact your health that aren’t directly under your control. But there are plenty that are. And that’s where your choices and decisions come in. Read on for a clearer look at what it really means to be healthy, how it’s measured and the goals that can improve your well-being.
If your doctor says you’re healthy after an annual checkup, what does that mean?
To check how healthy you are right now, your doctor will perform several types of tests. They will also check for issues that could cause medical problems in the future.
If your doctor has said you’re healthy, the results of these tests were likely in the normal range or very close to it. Some of the things that doctors check include:
Blood pressure. When your heart pumps blood, it puts pressure on arteries. These are blood vessels that carry oxygen and other nutrients to the rest of your body. This force is known as your blood pressure.
A blood pressure test measures this force when your heart beats and when it rests between beats. Blood pressure is considered normal if it’s below 120/80. High blood pressure raises your risk of a heart attack, a stroke and other serious health issues.1
Heart rate. Measuring how fast your heart beats can help your doctor find several types of health conditions. Normal heart rate is between 60 and 100 beats per minute when you’re at rest. A fast heart rate may suggest certain heart or breathing problems. It can also be a signal that you have an overactive thyroid gland. A slow heart rate may be a sign of:
- Heart attack
- Infection (such as Lyme disease)
- An underactive thyroid
But if your heart rate isn’t in the normal range, it may be perfectly fine. It could be elevated simply because you drank caffeine that day or because you’re nervous. A slow heart rate can be caused by a medication you’re taking or because you’re physically fit.8 Learn more about how to keep your heart healthy.
Cholesterol levels. Cholesterol is a waxy substance that travels through your bloodstream, and your body needs it to build healthy cells. But too much cholesterol raises your heart disease risk. Using a simple blood test, your doctor measures various types of cholesterol, including2:
- Total cholesterol (normal level is 125 to 200 mg/dL)
- LDL (bad) cholesterol (normal level is less than 100 mg/dL)
- HDL (good) cholesterol (normal level is 50 mg/dL or higher)
- Triglycerides, a type of fat (normal level is below 150 mg/dL)
Blood sugar levels. This is a test that screens for diabetes. A normal reading is between 70 and 99 mg/dL. Higher levels may signal prediabetes or diabetes. This is a chronic illness that makes it harder to turn food into energy. If you don’t treat diabetes, it can harm your eyes, heart, blood vessels and other organs.9
Getting a physical every year is key for good health, even if you’re feeling well. “Many health problems take people by surprise because they don’t cause symptoms at first,” says Howard Bland, MD. He’s a family physician at Optum Medical Group in Orange County, California. “If problems such as high blood pressure are caught early during a physical, they’re easier to treat.”
Which screening tests do you need to stay healthy?
Your doctor may also suggest these important exams:
- Colon cancer screening
- Breast cancer screening
- Prostate exam
- Skin cancer check
- Hearing and eye exams
- Bone density test
Major medical groups guide doctors on when to offer these tests. But your provider may want you to get them earlier or more often depending on your health history.
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What role does your weight play in good health?
Keeping your weight in a healthy range is important. Being overweight or obese can raise your risk of:
- Type 2 diabetes
- High blood pressure
- Some cancers
Losing extra weight isn’t easy, of course, but you don’t have to be model-thin to be healthy.
“Having a body mass index [BMI] between 20 and 25 is ideal. But even if you don’t get there, losing a moderate amount of weight can improve your chances of avoiding disease,” Dr. Donahue says. Your BMI is a measure of body fat based on your height and weight.
This is true even if you’re obese (meaning your BMI is 30 or higher). Even a small amount of weight loss can reduce your risk of developing heart disease, high blood pressure and more. That’s according to the National Institutes of Health.3
Already living with a chronic health issue? Losing extra pounds can also improve your health. “If you have diabetes, arthritis or sleep apnea, losing just 5 or 10 pounds can improve it,” Dr. Bland says.
Is it important to sleep well to stay healthy?
Sleep matters more than you may think. “If you get less than seven hours of sleep a night, you may feel like you can still function well,” says Dr. Donahue. But being sleep-deprived on a regular basis can be bad for your health.
Risks of not getting enough sleep include:
- Gaining too much weight
- Type 2 diabetes
- Sleep apnea
- Mood disorders
- Higher blood pressure in people who already have high blood pressure
- Pain in people with certain health conditions (such as arthritis)
Getting enough sleep also helps your brain work well, Dr. Bland says. “Lack of sleep can cause poor concentration and poor memory. It can also slow your reaction time, putting you at increased risk of having a car accident.” Tell your doctor if you’re having trouble falling or staying asleep. (Get tips on how to get more sleep and shop products that can make getting to dreamland easier.)
How much exercise do you need to be healthy?
You should get at least 150 minutes of moderate activity each week. That’s according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).4 A good way to divide it? Aim for 30 minutes on most days of the week. With moderate activity, you should be working hard enough that you can talk but not sing.5
If you do vigorous activity, 75 minutes per week is enough. With vigorous activity, you shouldn’t be able to say more than a few words without taking a breath. You can also do a mix of the two types.
Here are some ways to get moderate-intensity exercise:
- Bike riding
- Brisk walking
- Walking up stairs
- Active yoga
- Group exercise class like water aerobics
Here are some vigorous-intensity activities:
- Swimming laps
- Tennis (singles)
- Jumping rope
- Group exercise class like kickboxing or boot camp
- High-intensity interval training (HIIT)
You should also strength-train at least twice a week using weight machines, dumbbells or resistance bands. Use enough weight so your muscles tire after 12 to 15 repetitions. You can also do simple exercises that use your own body weight to build muscle. Some examples are lunges, planks and pushups.
What are the health benefits of regular exercise?
Regular exercise can help you lose weight and prevent many conditions, including:
- Heart disease
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Type 2 diabetes
- Some types of cancer
But it’s also essential for helping you feel good on a day-to-day basis. “Exercise increases your energy. It improves your mood. It decreases stress and makes you feel better overall with fewer aches and pains,” Dr. Donahue says. It also helps improve your sleep. Need some help getting started? Try our two-week fitness challenge.
If you have a lifelong disease such as asthma or diabetes, can you stay healthy?
Absolutely. “Most people will have some health conditions as they grow older,” says Dr. Donahue. “But that doesn’t mean you can’t live a good life, because ‘good health’ doesn’t have to be ‘perfect health.’”
Of course, you may not always feel well, depending on the condition you have. But it’s important to take good care of yourself. That means sticking to healthy habits. Watch your what you eat. Get enough sleep. And move as much as you’re able to.
Another part of good health for people with a chronic disease? Seeing your doctor regularly and following your treatment plan. Plus, having certain conditions can raise your risk of developing other ones. People with sleep apnea are at increased risk of heart problems, for example. Checkups give your doctor a chance to see how you’re doing.
Looking for a doctor who gets you? Optum providers offer personalized care close to home. Find care near you.
What does having good mental health mean?
Being in a bad mood sometimes is normal. So is feeling sad or stressed once in a while. “Everyone is going to have ups and downs,” Dr. Donahue says. “But if you consistently feel down or worried, that’s when you should check in with your doctor.”
There is no official definition of good mental health, Dr. Donahue says. But there are certain habits that can help you cope with negative emotions and handle setbacks. These include:
- Having a good support system of family and friends
- Spending time with friends
- Exercising regularly
- Getting enough sleep
- Spending time outdoors
- Reflecting on or writing down things that make you feel grateful
It’s also important to take breaks from your phone, social media and the 24-hour news cycle. “These cause a lot of stress and fear and intrude on your downtime,” says Dr. Bland. “I tell my patients that it’s OK to be ‘selfish.’ And don’t always be reachable, because that’s hugely important for mental health.”
If you need mental health support, these resources from Optum can help.
What vaccines do adults need to stay healthy?
There are several vaccines adults need to protect themselves from disease, says the CDC.6 All adults should get:
- The seasonal flu shot every year.
- COVID-19 shots and boosters. The pandemic is still with us. COVID shots can protect you from getting seriously ill or even dying.
There are also some you’ll need to get depending on your age. These include:
- Shingles shot (for adults 50 and older). This protects against a painful skin rash caused by the chickenpox virus.
- Pneumonia shot (for adults 65 and older). This reduces your risk of lung infection.
- Hepatitis B vaccine (for adults 19 to 59). This protects against liver damage.
(Free coupons from Optum Perks can help you save on your shots. Explore your options now.)
What other things can affect adult health?
Good health is about more than good medical care. Wellness is also about your mental health, the relationships you have, your financial health and whether you have enough food to eat and a secure place to live. Making sure a person stays healthy means taking all these things into account. Experts call this approach whole-person care.
And when your providers know all the parts of your life that are impacting how you feel, they can better help you reach your goals. So if you’re struggling to buy healthy food or are worried about losing your home, tell your doctor or primary care provider. If work stress is overwhelming or your marriage is rocky, tell your doctor. Together you can work together to overcome those challenges so you can get back to living your healthiest life.
- American Heart Association. Health threats from high blood pressure. March 2022. Accessed June 9, 2022.
- National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Cholesterol levels: What you need to know. Accessed June 9, 2022.
- National Institutes of Health. Assessing your weight and health risk. Accessed June 9, 2022.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How much activity do adults need? June 2, 2022. Accessed June 9, 2022.
- Department of Health and Human Services. Physical activity guidelines for Americans. 2018. Accessed June 9, 2022.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What vaccines are recommended for you. March 2022. Accessed June 9, 2022.
- Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, LLP. Medicaid’s role in addressing social determinants of health. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. Updated Feb. 2019. Accessed June 9, 2022.
- National Heart, Lung & Blood Institute. What is an arrhythmia? Last updated March 22, 2022. Accessed July 6, 2022.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What is diabetes? Last reviewed December 16, 2021. Accessed July 6, 2022.