"You're your own worst enemy!" How often have we all heard that, and it seems in terms of enjoying good health, it could ring true for far too many of us.
New figures revealed this week by Public Health England show that illnesses associated with lifestyle are costing the NHS in England more than £11 billion per year. In other words, far too many of us are damaging our own health through our lifestyle choices, whether that be poor diet, smoking, drinking too much, or exercising too little.
In Victorian times and earlier the most prevalent health concerns were conditions such as diphtheria, cholera, typhoid and polio. The biggest factor in who succumbed to these conditions could also be termed 'lifestyle' – things like extreme poverty, inadequate sanitation, poor diet, substandard housing, appalling working conditions and lack of access to medicines.
The difference between then and now is that these were not lifestyle choices, but the grim inevitability of everyday life for millions of people. Thankfully these conditions have been all but eradicated in modern western society thanks to better living, working and social conditions and advances in medical care. But other problems have taken their place.
Today the 21st century 'epidemics' putting the greatest strain on the NHS are often directly related to our lifestyle choices. Serious conditions like lung and heart disease, cancer, type 2 diabetes and a host of issues connected to obesity are all heavily influenced by lifestyle choices. Put simply, we are making ourselves ill by eating the wrong things, eating too much, smoking, drinking too much and not getting enough exercise.
Ultimately these are things in which we have a choice, though no-one is suggesting it's an easy choice to make. And just as in Victorian times, society has a big part to play. Figures show that conditions like those mentioned above are much more prevalent in areas of high unemployment and poverty – areas which also have significantly reduced rates of life expectancy. It is in these areas where a new approach is needed to try to promote better lifestyle choices, and it could take many years to start seeing results.
While we can all make individual choices for a healthy lifestyle, it is much harder to be the odd one out in a group. If everyone around you smokes, you're much more likely to be a smoker. If you're family lives off fast food, ready meals and takeaways, so will you. If your parents drink a lot, there's a strong chance you will too.
But the fact remains there are choices to be made and we can stop being our own worst enemy when it comes to our health and wellbeing. It is possible to eat healthily as cheaply as eating unhealthily, once you know how. There is a lot of help available to stop smoking or drink less, though it still requires the will to do it. And there are lots of ways to exercise which cost nothing at all.
Ultimately it's a matter of choice, but a great deal of support, information and guidance is still needed to help us all make positive lifestyle choices and begin to reap the health benefits. If we choose to, we can become our own best friends when it comes to our health.