Over the last twelve months I turned forty and had a few health scares. It made me start to reframe the relationship I have with my wellbeing, and nudged me to try and take back some control over the possible outcomes.

More people die each year because of their lifestyle choices than infectious pathogens and diseases. For me, Covid has exposed just how much health inequality has impacted how society is able to cope with potentially lethal diseases. As the pandemic continues to take so many lives unnecessarily, I can’t help but wonder why we continuously ignore some of the most obvious reasons?

As consumers, we spend billions of pounds on food and drink that makes us sick and then spend another billion to treat the illnesses caused by those poor choices; it’s a terrifying cycle when you stop and think about it rationally.

Pete Trainor, CEO Vala Health

It’s easy for people to get stuck in a cycle of bad health decisions because we all live complicated, very fast-paced, consumer-driven lives. Human-nature makes us think everything will be OK, and that we don’t need to take control over negative patterns this week, because those same patterns will still be there to solve next week.

I decided I wanted to lose some weight, drink less, get a bit fitter, feel less fatigued, and generally try to be a bit happier with myself. Integrating some health-focused changes into my life hasn’t actually been the hardest part; Deciding to make the changes in the first place, that was the really hard part.

Once I’d acknowledged that I could and should make better, healthier decisions, I was able to loosen up that tight knot in myself, and the guilt about my poor health began to dissolve. Below are six of the lessons that I learned which helped me move toward better health outcomes.

1 Take responsibility for your own health. 

Next time you feel low, tired, or under the weather, consider this: No one else can make you feel a positive change. If you’re burned out or tired, it’s yourresponsibility to make the changes. Or at the very least, it’s got to be your decision to choose to take the first baby-steps towards solving the problems. Even the amazing doctors who work at Vala can’t miraculously cure you of all your ills; it’s a process, and a collaboration. However, if you decide that you want to make some changes and start working towards being healthier or less stressed, the doctors here can begin to guide you towards that new path.

The big question you might have is; “When do I need to make the decision?

If you notice that you’re feeling low or unwell, or just feeling a bit ‘flat’, I would take that as the cue to look at finding some answers. Ask yourself;

  • Are you so depleted that you resent yourself for not having the energy to do what you consider to be normal everyday things? That’s a sign you need to take back control of your health, rather than letting it control you.
  • Are you being over-controlling, or ignoring health complications because you feel like you need to concentrate your energy on getting back control in other areas of your life? What are those other areas? Is it work? Your family or friendships? Take some time to think about your priorities. You first, or them first?
  • Do you take your health for granted, even though deep down you know it’s a precious commodity? Is it time to ask, why you might be doing that?

Ignoring our health is often a sign that we witnessed poor health decisions as a child, or that those closest to us now also take their health for granted. When I looked back at my own childhood, I realised we were never really a health-conscious household. We didn’t have the money or resources to be overtly health-focused, we just got through as best as we could. But that should not define how I live my life now.

2 Taking responsibility for your health doesn’t mean blaming yourself.

Before we can start to get some control back over our health, first we need to accept the whole glorious mess of being ourselves. Of course, being human means we’ll never be perfect, and we need to get comfortable with that. Embrace our flaws, but don’t let them define us.

Social media and so-called influencers, or even those healthy, fit-looking friends we have, will often make us feel inadequate or even guilty. You need to not let that happen. Full-stop. They draw out our subconscious, unreasonable fears and resentments. Accept the position you are in now, and move forward from there. That’s what I did last year. I had to stop thinking health was a thing that other people did, and I needed to stop blaming my past decisions for my current health challenges.

Don’t covet someone else’s health. Focus on what you can do with your own. It’s a lot trickier than it sounds, but it really helps.

Another big turning point for me was when I did the very first Vala DNA test off the production lineI was our patient zero. I remember feeling really anxious about the results coming back, but what I discovered was that my general health and wellbeing wasn’t half as bad as I thought it was going to be. When I got the results back, my general stress levels dropped. It also helped give me some goals and clarity, which is invaluable on the journey.

I would definitely advocate exploring your health on an epigenetic level. Find out how healthy you really are. It might surprise and delight you, and also give you the answers to start working on, and the problems you need to solve, rather than the anxieties you can’t control.

3 Reframe past behaviour. 

I learned that my poor lifestyle decisions (drinking a lot, eating poorly, not exercising enough, poor sleep patterns etc.) can often be a cry for help. You are not a bad person, and your behaviour is not inexplicable, even if you don’t understand it, or can’t explain it.

If you’ve been deliberately making poor health-decisions, that is sometimes a red flag that there may be some big fear locked inside. For example; I used to drink a lot, probably to make myself feel better at the end of long stressful days or because I saw it as part of my social persona. But why did I think I needed to be that way? Those are tricky questions to answer, but worth exploring.

Instead of hardening into judgment, take a deep breath and get curious about what makes you choose poor lifestyle decisions. There will always be a reason, even if deep down, you know it probably wasn’t a good one when you made it, or it’s uncomfortable to understand. Write stuff down. Go sit on a bench and daydream. Speak to our mental health support team. Whatever you decide, find some space to make peace with the decisions you made, so you can own the decisions that you make moving forward. Nothing is irreversible.

4 Look for win/win solutions. 

This should be a really simple one to get your head around.

Not waiting to get sick, but deciding you want to own your wellbeing is thewin/win solution. You don’t need to be ill to speak to a professional. That realisation was a big turning point for me – In fact, most healthcare professionals are really pleased to talk to people who seem to be healthy, just as much as those who aren’t. Why? Because they can help you identify the things that you enjoy, and the things that keep you well. Which in turn might stop you from having to come back to see them because they stop you getting sick. Or they might be able to point out a few things you could do to improve on the place where you are today, and again, contribute to keeping you well rather than waiting for you to get sick.

5 Model calm. 

When you get dysregulated because life is getting on top of you, it’s important to have a healthy mindset in order to really start to calm down. To be able to slow things down mentally and physically is a life-skill we never truly master, but must always try and achieve. I had to step back and make a lot of minor adjustments to really slow down. You are your own health role model, not an influencer or a health guru.

If you can keep your own emotions regulated, you will start to learn what your body needs to stay well and balanced. Your role in your health ownership is always to calm the storm, not escalate it.

Pete Trainor, CEO Vala Health

Whilst this might sound like spiritual wisdom more than health guidance, it’s actually not. Last year when I realised I needed to reclaim my health journey, I had to know when to go out for that walk. Or put my trainers on and go for a really short jog. I had to work out what things I enjoyed that I found comfort in (not food and good wine) and use those things to calm me down so I had the energy to make the other adjustments I needed to make to get to a healthier mindset. I simply was not going to get healthier if I was constantly fighting against stress.

6 Always keep connecting. 

People are biologically programmed to accept guidance from experts (it’s how we learn when we’re children!), but only if they’re convinced that those experts are on their side. It’s mother-natures way of keeping us alive. So if you’ve had poor experiences with health care professionals, or you have those ultra fit-friends or even people you follow online, that deep down you resent, that’s always going to stop you pushing forward. 

The best way to turn around a lousy pattern is by connecting with the right people. How? Don’t give up finding them is my advice. I’d never been a ‘fitness’ kind of person because I’d never met the right kind of personal trainer for me. I didn’t think it was affordable (turns out it is, because the money spent there just comes from other unhealthier pursuits!) and I hadn’t found someone who intrinsically felt compassion for the goals I wanted to achieve. Last year I hunted a little bit harder and found some of those people, and through trial and error, I am now a whole stone lighter, and I feel able to cope with situations that I think a year ago might have broken me.

Hard work? Very. Worth taking control? Definitely.

Sure, making changes can be annoying (and maybe for a good reason) but that’s YOUR annoyance. Another person in the same situation might be able to overcome the same fatigue or health complications because they don’t have the same health triggers, or life stressors as you. 

That other person has other triggers, which may not bother you at all. The point isn’t to compare ourselves, but to remember that what makes us feel low is at least partly about our own choices.

So these are the things I learned. They’re MY lessons of course, you will have your own. Find your own path, commit to it, and remember it’s a process.