by Mark Gutman

I have always tended to see the worst health “sin” as smoking. Next worst probably and right close behind smoking is a tie between alcohol and “no-no” drugs. I guess I’ve gotten my hierarchy from the church manual, which rates those particular problems as bad enough to merit church discipline (or to prevent acquiring membership). I didn’t see much drinking or drugging when I was growing up, so I guess that’s why I thought smoking was worst.

A church certainly has the right to set standards. People have benefited because the church discourages certain activities and provides programs to help people quit smoking or drinking. But why are some harmful behaviors allowed, while others aren’t? Some health rule violations rate as F, but others can be considered as C or D, so that your particular health style may not make the honor roll but at least you pass.
Maybe the church manual guidelines cover the most serious health problems. But perhaps it’s time to revise or modify the rankings. “Two RAND researchers, health economist Roland Sturm and psychiatrist Kenneth Wells examined the comparative effects of obesity, smoking, heavy drinking, and poverty on chronic health conditions and health expenditures. Their finding: Obesity is the most serious problem. It is linked to a big increase in chronic health conditions and significantly higher health expenditures. And it affects more people than smoking, heavy drinking, or poverty.” ( The RAND article quoted goes on to describe the problem in more detail, but the point is that obesity is hurting us (at least the U.S.) more than smoking.
Because smoking has been recognized as a problem even in the secular world, all kinds of measures have been taken to limit it.  “. . . increased education, access control (including smoking bans in many buildings nationwide), taxation, better enforcement of laws relating to minors, curbs on advertising, and increased clinical attention, have resulted in decreased rates for both smoking and drinking (ibid).” The squeaky wheel gets the grease. And the grease seems to be helping. Why not apply that same grease to some other areas that are hurting us physically, as well as mentally and spiritually?
Lack of exercise contributes to overweight, and also to lack of fitness regardless of weight, but exercise deficiency is still way down the list. The words “exercise” and “fitness” do not appear in the church manual. As long as you don’t smoke, drink, or do drugs, you can sit on a couch all day and stuff yourself at no risk to church membership.
How about time wasted on the internet? Recently I started posting a book report each week on Facebook, trying to provide something more than the “I played a game” reports and other trivia that are becoming more frequent on that site. Overeating and lack of exercise and spending a lot of time browsing or playing games online are part of the same package that is considered OK because it isn’t as bad as smoking.
How about getting too little sleep? The book Be Excellent at Anything, by Tony Schwartz, has led me to change my sleep habits, so that I aim to have my light out by 10:00 most nights. On page 57, Schwartz writes, “No single behavior, we’ve come to believe, more fundamentally influences our effectiveness in waking life than sleep. . . . William Dement, the widely acknowledged dean of sleep researchers, argues that sleep may well be more critical to our well-being than diet, exercise, and even heredity.” Lack of sleep affects driving, working, just plain thinking, and, of course, spirituality. So if we’re going to discipline people who can’t quit smoking, why don’t we discipline people who don’t get enough sleep? “We’ll be happy to baptize you, brother, as soon as you can report to us that you’re getting at least seven hours of sleep each night.” “Sister, we see the bags under your eyes, and we need to warn you that we may have to disfellowship you if you don’t start getting more sleep.”
My health habits are far from perfect, but I have never smoked, drunk an alcoholic beverage, taken a no-no drug, or even eaten meat. I don’t advocate doing any of those things. Loosening of health standards is not progress. I’m referring to the problem of failing to notice our own deficiencies because we are focusing on other people who have officially “bad” habits. Even people who aren’t overweight can have lousy diets or be physically unfit. And to realize how hard it is for others to change bad habits, we only need to pay attention to our own struggles to change.
If we were willing to point out the problems with and make help available for other habits the way we’ve done with smoking, people might be more motivated to work on other behavior changes. But when we single out a few problem behaviors (three, to be exact) and say virtually nothing about others, we help reinforce the idea that those other behaviors are unimportant matters. We’ll help people quit smoking so they can join the church, but we haven’t made a priority of helping with other health struggles.
Work at getting enough sleep, and you might think more clearly to eat better. Think of your weight, and you might be more interested in exercise and eating. Think of exercise, and you might shut off the computer (or television) more. Tackling one area often leads to tackling a second and then a third area. What seemed like a huge task gets taken care of one habit at a time.  (See The Power of Less, by Leo Babauta. The whole book is about focusing on goals, one at a time. See also Be Excellent at Anything, p. 38.) Work on good health habits the way some motivated people work on quitting smoking.
We don’t need sermons or articles that tell how us how bad we are because of the way we eat, sleep, or use our time. More than two-thirds of smokers say they want to quit, but few actually succeed, according to a new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). ( That sentence can probably have the words “smokers” and “quit” replaced by “overweight people” and “lose weight” or “couch potatoes” “get more exercise” and . . . . You can fill the blanks with your own relevant words.  
We can improve in problem areas. Like smokers who have to quit several times before they quit for good, we may have ups and downs before we finally stop a damaging habit or start a healthful one. In The Willpower Instinct, Kelly McGonigal describes how we are often set up for failure at reaching a goal despite our best intentions. But if we’re as motivated to change as we want smokers to be if they’re going to join our church, we’ll keep looking for better ways to accomplish our goals. How about using the buddy system, used by the Five-Day Plan to Stop Smoking? Find someone else who’s sharing your struggles, and help each other tackle them.
We’re not healthy just because we avoid three bad behaviors. Let’s help each other with exercise, healthful eating, sleeping, use of time, and other healthful practices that can improve the quality of life for us and those around us.