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17 September 2014
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Health Psychology

  • What does it mean to be healthy?
  • Lifestyle and disease
  • Then and now: changing patterns of disease
  • Seven healthy habits
  • Following doctor's orders
  • Don't keep the patient waiting

What does it mean to be healthy?

Health psychologists are interested in how behaviour and attitudes affect our health, with the aim of promoting and maintaining health in the population.

But what does it mean to be healthy? In 1946, the World Health Organization decreed that health is "a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." But how many people could count themselves healthy on that definition? This version of what it means to be healthy probably creates an unrealistic goal for the vast majority of people.

Lifestyle and disease

The way in which we live our lives can have profound effects on our health. These personal habits and lifestyle choices are known as behavioural pathogens, because they influence the onset and progression of disease. We can see this if we look at how patterns of illness change as lifestyles in society change.

Then and now: changing patterns of disease

One hundred years ago, contagious and infectious diseases like smallpox, rubella and influenza were much bigger killers than today. Nowadays, more deaths are caused by heart disease, cancer and strokes. And while advances in medical science have made a big difference, our lifestyle choices also contribute to this changing profile of disease.

Seven healthy habits

The Ancient Greek philosopher, Plato, believed that "where temperance is, there health is speedily imparted." Plato has been proven right by health psychologists. Research shows that moderation in all things is the key to a long and healthy life. In particular, seven healthy habits have been identified:

  • Not smoking
  • Having breakfast every day
  • No more than 1 or 2 alcoholic drinks per day
  • Regular exercise
  • 7 to 8 hours sleep per night
  • Not eating between meals
  • Not being more than 10% overweight

One group of people were studied over a 25-year period. Those people who stuck to all seven healthy habits had significantly lower mortality rates than people who followed fewer than three.

Following doctor's orders

People are more aware than ever of what is good for them. But knowledge by itself does not lead to changes in behaviour by itself. Even when we are ill and have been prescribed medicine, many people do not follow their doctors' advice. Research has shown that people are more likely to be compliant if the doctor adopts a friendly approach, communicates well with the patient and provides them with information about their condition and its treatment.

Don't keep the patient waiting

Even being made to wait a long time to see the doctor can affect how compliant people are. Many people forced to wait more than 30 minutes to see the doctor will be reluctant to follow their doctor's advice. In one study, only 31% of long- suffering people complied with their treatment. In contrast, 67% of people kept waiting less than 30 minutes were quite happy to follow the doctor's orders.


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