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Undoubtedly, life in highly developed countries provides many benefits and conveniences. However, the things that make our lives easier and more comfortable in many areas, often lead to serious health risks, says Joanna Zapała, psychologist and psychotherapist from SWPS University.

Grocery stores offer many preserved foods and ready-to-eat meals and technology allows people to save time. Mobile phones and the Internet make communication easy and enable users to complete many tasks and errands without leaving home. Credit cards and bank services allow people to purchase goods, which they were not able to afford before. Transportation is rapidly developing. The number of cars on the roads is increasing. Moving around the city or travelling around the country or even around the world is much easier than ever before. However, all these advances and developments also carry negatives, such as pollution, faster pace of life, noise, deterioration of social bonds, and ubiquitous stress. These phenomena lead to many lifestyle related health risks.

Lifestyle-related diseases

According to the health authorities, lifestyle related diseases constitute a serious health problem in highly developed and rapidly developing countries. Paradoxically, the phenomenon that to a large degree is responsible for the development of the lifestyle-related diseases is technological development, which is conducive to a sedentary lifestyle and consumption of processed foods that contain too much sugar, fat, preservatives and additives. The most prevalent life-style related diseases include cardio-vascular diseases (e.g. hypertension, coronary heart disease, heart attack, atherosclerosis), cancer, diabetes, obesity, gastrointestinal diseases, allergies, respiratory diseases, mental disorders, such as depression, anxiety, anorexia, bulimia and addictions. Preventing these conditions depends on personal engagement and commitment to changing unhealthy habits. In this case, the society and health-promoting policies play a larger role in impacting individual lifestyles than the medical profession.

A positive side of the technological and economic development is an improved social awareness. The need for health-promoting behaviors increases, however despite the increased popularity and promotion of the healthy lifestyle by the media, people still fail to engage in healthy behaviors. Professor Irena Heszen from SWPS University, who specializes in health psychology, defines health-oriented behaviors as “all forms of intentional activity aimed at the preservation or improvement of one’s health”. As a society, we create healthy trends for healthy eating, work-life balance, good family relations, physical activity or spiritual development, which is very positive. One has to admit that slow living, minimalism and mindfulness are doing a lot of good, but even here people can go too far. The problem lies in the lack of proper balance.


One of the critics of the exaggerated focus on health, Professor of Medicine Petr Skrabanek, wrote: “The pursuit of health is a symptom of unhealth. When this pursuit is no longer a personal yearning but part of state ideology, healthism for short, it becomes a symptom of political sickness.” The declared aim of healthism is “the health of a nation with a hidden promise of happiness for all”. Being healthy becomes politically correct. An attitude supported by this type of philosophy may lead to varied consequences. For example, the diet and the fitness industries, worth 20 billion dollars each, are trying to convince people that by taking pills, following diets and fitness regiments, they will live longer. Most likely there is a lot of truth to this, however the problem is that these habits do not last. The research quoted by American writer and educator, Dan Buettner, who is interested in longevity, suggests that dieting works for merely two percent of the people who embark on this type of healthy behavior. People stick to a regular exercise routine for only nine months and keep taking various pills for less than three years. on average. The production and sales of health-related products, such as clothing, sports equipment, dietary supplements, diet guides and fitness DVDs are growing rapidly. People are treated like consumers and health becomes a commodity.

As a society, we create healthy trends for healthy eating, work-life balance, good family relations, physical activity or spiritual development, which is very positive. One has to admit that slow living, minimalism and mindfulness are doing a lot of good, but even these healthy habits can go too far. The problem lies in the lack of proper balance.

Orthorexia and bigorexia

When healthy eating becomes an obsessions, coupled with a belief that a rigorous and super healthy diet will prevent lifestyle-related diseases, we are dealing with orthorexia. Orthorexia is a form of a mental disorder, where a belief that only a certain type of diet is healthy. It often leads to conflicts with other people, isolation and concentration on everything that relates to the preparation and consumption of food. It occurs in wealthy societies, mostly among very successful people, perfectionists, who follow the latest trends. Moreover, body ideals promoted by mass media increase anxiety related to social acceptance and lead to subsequent attempts to follow various diets, in order to obtain the perfect body.

In the era of various fitness crazes, another symptom of an unhealthy balance between a healthy lifestyle and an illness is bigorexia, a body building obsession. Approximately ten percent of men who practice intensive body building, suffers from this disorder. Usually, symptoms include a disturbed body image, following a strict diet, taking frequent measurements of one’s body and (sometimes) taking steroids. Many studies have shown that daily intensive physical activity may lead to an addiction due to the so-called “runners high”, a type of euphoria, which occurs due to chemicals released by human body during exercise.

Blue zones

For a decade, Dan Buettner studied the so-called blue zones, i.e. locations on earth with the highest number of living centenarians. His research led to a conclusion that the contemporary western world would have to build a whole ecosystem, encompassing culture, religion, and the promotion of purposeful life and healthy relationships with others, in other words an environment conducive to a healthy lifestyle, to achieve the same results. In his book The Blue Zones: Lessons for Living Longer from the People Who’ve Lived the Longest, he lists the main elements, derived from a cross-cultural essence of longevity, which constitute the daily habit of centenarians, including:

Moving naturally ̶ take every opportunity during the day to be more physically active, for example walk instead of driving (if possible, walk with other people to develop relationships and to support each other), get rid of devices that make life easier, such as automatic gate openers or garden as it provides a great opportunity for moderately intensive physical activity.

The 80% rule  ̶  limit your daily intake of food. Follow the Confucian tenet HARA HACHI BU: eat until you feel 80% full. The centenarians who participated in the study had never been on a diet or had never been obese. They had eaten modest meals throughout their lives.

Plant based diet ̶ researchers analyzed data from studies involving vegetarians and discovered that people who do not eat meat live longer. The centenarians studied by Buettner had eaten meat rarely or not at all.

Moderate consumption of red wine  ̶  the centenarians did not eat much meat, but they drank a glass of red wine daily, which helped them to relax. Buetter notes that moderation and consistency are key in following this rule, because wine contains a lot of polyphenols that help to keep veins in good condition and prevent atherosclerosis.

Having a sense of purpose  ̶  in Okinawa it is called ikigai, while in Nicoya it is named plan de vida. Having a goal and a purpose in life improves brain function, leads to a fulfilled life and helps to alleviate stress.

Downshifting  ̶  slow down and relax. When you are chasing illusory goals, the most important moments of your life are passing you by. Manage your time, so the constant rushing does not lead to stress, e.g. arrive early for a meeting to avoid the stress of looking for a parking spot at the last minute or limit the use of technology, which hinders relaxation.

Belief and spirituality  ̶  being a part of a religious community, practicing faith or learning about new spiritual paths, which advocate selflessness and aim to create a more tolerant society, is important.

Good relationships with the loved ones  ̶  research on aging, conducted by Robert N. Butler, physician and gerontologist who was the first Director of the National Institute on Aging, in the United States, indicates that elderly people who live with their families maintain mental agility and social skills longer than those who do not.

Among friends  ̶  being surrounded by people who have similar values and healthy habits helps to lead a healthy lifestyle. Additionally, the friendships provide a safety net.

The majority of the centenarians who live in the blue zones enjoy life and do not complain. So perhaps following their example is a good thing?

The blue zones

  • Barbagia in Sardinia
  • Okinawa in Japan
  • Loma Linda in California, USA
  • Hojancha in Costa Rica
  • Ikaria, an island in Greece

Create your own blue zone

  • Move more
  • Eat modest meals
  • Eat a lot of vegetables
  • Drink red wine in moderation
  • Have a purpose in life
  • Downshift, don’t rush, the world will wait
  • Engage in spiritual activities
  • Take care of your relationships
  • Surround yourself with people who share your values


The article was first published in the Polish edition of "Newsweek Psychologia Extra 2/16”
Magazine available here »

258 joanna zapala

About the Author

Joanna Zapała - Clinical psychologist, psychotherapist, psycho-oncology expert and psycho-oncology supervisor. Director of the Integral Psychotherapy Center, President of the PSYCHE SOMA POLIS Association in Poznań, Head of Psychosomatics and Somatopsychology program at the Professional Certification and Training Department of SWPS University.