Sunday, August 19, 2012

What is Health?

You know what the most horrible sight is to a runner? It's a runner who doesn't enjoy running. They're easy to spot — drenched in sweat, not moving very fast, and the look on their faces is of utter misery. On the hottest days of the year I see them advancing upon the sun-drenched sidewalks, sullen circus animals without a ringmaster. Why do they even bother? They do it for their health.

I've run since middle school, and among runners who've run for that long, it's common knowledge that the things you must do to be a good runner are not necessarily healthy. In fact, running can be incredibly unhealthy, and has landed me in the doctor's office way more than necessary for someone my age. I've had x-rays, MRIs, bone scans, physical therapy, Graston technique, masochistic massages, and acupuncture, all for the sake of my unhealthy hobby.

If all I cared about was health, I would run a lot less. I would swim more, I'd do yoga and weights. I'd be balanced. But I don't want to be balanced. I want to run, because running feels better than swimming, and running feels better than balance. It hurts in a way that I love so much that sometimes, when I get back from a particularly great run, I have to stop at my doorstep for a while and close my eyes and just notice the charge going through my body, thinking, this must be what heroin feels like — but healthier.

Maybe the problem is that we ask too much of the word "health." When a doctor advises a patient to run because it's healthy, he's referring to something very particular. But there are so many different kinds of health: there's heart health, mental health, the health of your spleen and your bowels and your skin and your hair. There's the health of all the many cells in your body, each measured on its own separate axis. Sometimes your body works like a positive feedback loop, with health in one place promoting health in another. But just as often, health in one place diminishes it in another. Or maybe trying to be healthy in two certain areas at the same time cancels them both out.

Here's how this plays out in my life: To go on a run, I have to get up early. So to feel rested, I try to go to bed early. But then, what if some nice boy is nudging me to have sex at two in the morning? That's healthy too. So maybe I decide to run after work, but then I'm less relaxed when I'm at my desk all day. I feel like I'm constantly juggling all these different types of health, and constantly dropping a ball or three.

But maybe that's okay. To continue with the ball metaphor, maybe what matters most is that I'm still juggling. If that's the case, choosing to drop a ball every now and then is actually what allows me to be healthy. There is only so much room in life, and so choosing to be healthy is actually about choosing what you want to sacrifice. That's a little sad, because all the different types of health are wonderful, and nobody wants to give any of them up. But when you can't bear to sacrifice anything — now that's really unhealthy.