Does it seem to anyone else as though everything you do is somehow bad for you? As though everything enjoyable is actually too good to be true? As though even things that are supposed to be good for you are actually bringing you closer to death?

According to sources such as The New York Times and WebMD, sitting down for more than 20 minutes at a time increases your risk of cardiovascular disease and cancer. Taking afternoon naps increases your risk of developing respiratory problems. Running too much or too intensely can actually increase your risk of heart failure.

Dark leafy greens are full of nutrients, as well as high levels of cancer-causing pesticides. Your cell phone is giving you brain cancer. Your laptop is giving you lap cancer. Your multivitamins might be giving you everything cancer.

And forget about the dangers of sugar and salt.

Do I sound flippant? As if there are so many risks that there is no point in worrying about any of them? Sometimes it’s hard to avoid that attitude. If I were to follow every piece of advice, I would have no electronics, eat only food I grew myself, and stand up and do jumping jacks eight times over the course of my three-hour seminar class. Doable? Possibly. Pleasant? Not so much, especially given the society in which I live.

But being flippant is a cop-out: it’s an easy “solution” to a difficult problem. It’s easy to believe that the things you enjoy can’t actually be causing problems, or at the very least, not problems you will have to deal with until an unimaginable 40 or 50 years from now. Science will have fixed everything by then! Many take flippancy to an extreme and decide that because there are so many harmful activities and substances in the world, they might as well ignore basic health maintenance. Sure, in the end we’re all dead anyway, but maybe we will live longer and happier if we put in some of the legwork now.

Let me be clear: I am not making any definitive arguments about what people should do “for their own good.” There is no universal “should” about what choices people make with their bodies. For many, smoking cigarettes is worth the increased risk of medical complications, and with no external factors such as dependent children or second-hand smoke, that’s completely their own choice to make. Personally, I know I would be better off consuming less salt, and while I make an effort in that direction I am not willing to cut olives out of my diet. Life would be so boring.

Moreover, it’s important not to terrify yourself into a bubble. Cellphone radiation may pose a risk, but that doesn’t mean you should hang up on your grandmother when she calls to talk. French fries may often have trans fat, but if you’re passionate about them, well, whatever. Enjoy life. Very few of the activities that are harmful in the aggregate pose a significant risk when done on an occasional basis.

Instead of preaching “shoulds,” I think it is important that we move toward conscientious decision-making. No matter what, the next cookie you eat probably will not be the one that kills you. Besides, cookies are great. However, not to get too liberal-artsy-philosophical, it is important to recognize that you are a timeline of choices: the ones you made in the past count. The ones you make in the future will count too. You have a lot of power over yourself, and the choices you make matter.

Put more simply, it’s important for us to acknowledge that we are making decisions. Though any study should be evaluated on merit, people too-often latch onto the notion that all of this health science is invented, because they want it to be. (I guess that’s where natural selection kicks in.) Even more often, people decide they just don’t yet care about the risks, in a form of procrastination more similar to Russian roulette than pushing off homework until Sunday night. Making “unwise” health decisions is perfectly legitimate (I certainly do it sometimes), but to keep things balanced you have to recognize when decisions are being made.

One other common problem is the all-or-nothing approach. Just because you cannot control everything that poses a risk to you doesn’t mean that it’s not worth making an effort to take care of yourself. It’s like saying, “Hey, I accidentally ate some lead-contaminated food, so I guess I might as well go gnaw on the walls of my dorm room.”

The “live fast, die young” mentality is fantastic, until you’re no longer young and you don’t want to be dead. At the same time, there’s no point to life if you’re not going to live it. You probably cannot control everything or make the “right” call every single time without feeling incredibly claustrophobic. The key to both surviving and thriving is being aware of choices. Go for a run. Get X-rays only when you need them. Treat yourself to a pickle. Maybe avoid eating a container of Crisco for dinner.

Everything will still be killing us, but at least we can go out with class.


Zalph is a member of the class of 2016.

  • Anonymous

    So glad to see a young adult with this perspective. Hope that all is not lost in our ever-increasingly nanny-run state. Perhaps the tide will turn.