By John Agwunobi, M.D., M.B.A., M.P.H., chief health and nutrition officer, Herbalife Nutrition
April 3, 2017
A career in health care is in my DNA. My Scottish great-grandfather on my mother’s side was a pharmacist, his son (my grandfather) was a family physician, and my mother enrolled in nursing school. There she met my father, who came from Nigeria to study medicine at the University of St. Andrews and became a surgeon. So, I obviously followed suit.
My first position was as a pediatrician in Washington, D.C. I did my residency in an inner-city hospital during the waning days of the major urban crack epidemic. On a daily basis, I saw young teenagers getting sick, getting pregnant, getting shot, and I started to realize that I was kind of on the “cleanup” crew—there were much larger social issues that were contributing to these public health crises. So many people were suffering from ailments and conditions that were preventable—or at least if they had health insurance—treatable. I started to think about broadening my scope. Instead of just sitting at the end of this long string of events, I wanted to go upstream and impact lives before the diseases and the illnesses and the poverty and the lack of nutrition set in.
Eventually, I enrolled in graduate school to study public health, and I started to learn about epidemiology and social factors that influence health and nutrition of a population. As a pediatrician, I’d always been taught about nutrition at the individual level. In public health, I started to learn about these concepts as it relates to entire societies.
Public health is a unique interface between the illnesses of the world and the behaviors of communities. That’s why National Public Health Week is so important.
The entire infrastructure of public health is really designed to try to promote not just the absence of disease, but cultures of wellness. This requires active participation—education, engagement, communication—within the community.
We are all part of a community and our behaviors impact others. If your co-workers see you losing weight gradually over the course of a year, it influences them. If your regular smoking buddies notice you’re no longer joining them and instead, you opt for a walk around the block, they’ll assess their own behavior. You can even influence strangers. The other night, on my way home from the gym, I stopped into a convenience store to buy some electrolyte water. Two guys outside, drinking beers, saw me and asked how old I was. I told them. “You’re the same age as we are. We need to get into the gym,” one of them said.
When you announce your health and wellness goals to your circle, other people will witness your efforts, and you’re more likely to transcend the challenges. It works the other way around too—if you think nobody is watching, you’re more likely to fall off the wagon.
Our health is determined largely by the choices we make each day around things like physical activity and nutrition. Helping just one person eat healthier food more often, and helping them understand the importance of being a little more physically active, is a particle in the public health wave. We are all messengers. When information about health or public health resonates with us, we should talk about it—in person, on social media, wherever we’ll be heard.
Because even if we’re not living next door to each other, we’re part of the same community—humanity. We owe that to each other.
National Public Health Week is organized by the American Public Health Association and runs April 3-9.