Are Your Health Resolutions Really A Free Choice?
Shelley Z. Reuter, 9 Jan 18

Modern citizenship in the West increasingly involves a duty to care for ourselves – to eat healthily, exercise enough and even screen ourselves for disease – to minimize our health-care costs to the state. (Shutterstock)

“I really should be taking better care of myself.”

Who hasn’t thought that at least once in the past year? And maybe you’ve made a few health resolutions for 2018 — to cut back on the junk food, up the daily exercise, start meditating or get more sleep?

In 2014, the Canadian Community Health Survey (CCHS) found that 72 per cent of respondents thought they should do something to live more healthily — an increase of 13.9 per cent since 2001.

Seventy-seven per cent planned to actually do something to improve their health, such as reducing stress, changing their eating habits or getting more sleep and exercise — another increase of 9.5 per cent since 2001. And 59 per cent had already made some improvements.

It’s clear from these statistics that “healthism” — an elevated consciousness about health, lifestyle and related practices of risk and disease prevention — is on the rise.

On the surface, this might seem like a positive cultural development. Who can argue with trying to be healthy? But healthism has another side — a tendency to locate responsibility for health and well-being squarely on the shoulders of individuals.

Or, to put it another way, it lets the state off the hook for looking after its citizenry. (Remember the good old days, when Ottawa used to pay 50 per cent of the provinces’ expenditures on health care?)

Health is now a moral duty

The fact is, we’ve progressively been “responsibilized” in recent decades to look after ourselves, with less and less support from our provincial and federal governments. The pursuit of “wellness” has become a kind of moral imperative that cannot be separated from the state’s broader political and economic objectives.

Is your choice to get more hours of sleep really a moral imperative? (Shutterstock)

With recent efforts in the United States to repeal the Affordable Care Act (also known as Obamacare), the link between individual health responsibility and the state’s agenda has become starker than ever.

As Canadians, we enjoy the benefits of a socialized health-care system, but even so, this imperative of individual responsibility to the rest of Canadian society consistently figures in, say, health promotion and popular lifestyle rhetoric.

For example, a recent health column in a Canadian women’s magazine declared it possible to “retrain your brain,” claiming that unhealthy habits can be fixed simply by “changing your perspective.”

If your bad habit is that you “often put off exercise,” you just need to “choose more positive online influences.” If your bad habit is an inability to stick to healthy eating goals, then you just need to “predict your feelings about food” before you begin eating.

Are you responsible for training your brain to resist the sugar cravings while that brain is bombarded with junk food advertisements?(Shutterstock)

Exhorting individual readers to become entrepreneurial self-managers and take responsibility for their well-being, this magazine column goes on to list a series of other personal weaknesses and their quick fixes, all of which boil down to the reader’s good and bad choices and their ability (read: obligation) to conduct their lives more responsibly for the good of everyone.

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