If you have found yourself scratching your head and nodding along to words you don’t understand while at your doctor’s appointments, you are not alone. Most of the words used in medicine speak actually come from Latin, and about 12% of the US population struggles with understanding it. Studies show that not being able to understand your doctor’s recommendations could make it less likely that you will do healthy things they recommend (duh!). This measure of understanding is called “Health Literacy”. It is like regular literacy in that it tests your ability to understand written instructions, but health literacy goes beyond that and also accounts for any type of instructions or recommendations, spoken or written, that has to do with your health.  This is kind of a big deal. We literally cannot do the things we are supposed to do for health if we cannot understand what our doctor is recommending for us to do.


But it gets worse!

So now we know that we don’t understand what was just said, but what do we do next to fix it? Tough question! It is always a good idea to advocate for yourself and ask questions, but how many of us feel comfortable asking the questions in the first place? Probably not many, especially if you have ever been scolded by a doctor for asking too many questions or coming in with your own ideas in the past. It is abundantly clear to both the patient and the provider that the patient does not fully understand, yet the patient doesn’t feel confident enough to ask more questions and the doctor doesn’t really have the time or energy to pull the questions out of us. Loose-loose situation.

So what is the solution?

There is a very simple idea with a complex design that may help. The idea is to approach every conversation, especially ones with health providers regarding your health, with curiosity and collaboration. This goes for both sides. If doctors were to approach their conversations, choose their words even, with a sense of curiosity and collaboration, I bet more patients would feel like they were able to contribute to the conversation and ask the questions that will lead to better understanding.

We are a bit off from this being the reality, but a good first step in creating a solution is understanding the problem fully. Health literacy, or the ability to understand your doctor’s recommendations, is more complex than it seems, in part because health and healthcare are complex. It is possible for a very smart person to know a lot about one part of health (like pharmaceuticals or neuroscience), yet know very little about another part of health (like nutrition or brown fat activation in cold therapy). In this instance, this person with a high education level could be said to have high health literacy in neuroscience and low health literacy in nutrition. This makes it difficult for coaches and health providers to recognize the signs of low health literacy in other people. That is why it is so important to ask! Try these question out from the SSOhealth Empowerment Coach curriculum to assess and improve health literacy in your coaching clients:

– On a scale from one to ten, how much do you already know about XX?

– Do you mind if I give you a little more information about XX?

– What questions do you have about XX?

Test Your Exercise Health LIteracy

Here are the benefits of regular exercise as outlined by the American College of Sports Medicine. I bet that some of these ideas are new to you. Before you read through, take our Exercise Health Literacy quiz to see how you do, then bookmark this page for easy reference in the future!

Benefits of Regular Exercise

  • Improvements in Cardiovascular and Respiratory Function

    • Increased Maximal Oxygen Uptake

    • Decreased Minute Ventilation

    • Decreased Myocardial Oxygen Costs

    • Decreased Sub-maximal Heart Rate and Blood Pressure

    • Increased Capillary Density

    • Increased Exercise Threshold for the accumulation of lactate in the Blood

    • Increase Exercise Threshold for the onset of disease

  • Reduction in Cardiovascular Risk Factors

    • Reduced Resting Systolic/Diastolic Pressure

    • Increased HDL and Decreased Triglycerides

    • Reduced Total Body Fat, Reduced Intra-abdominal Fat

    • Reduced Insulin needs, Improved Glucose Tolerance (decreased risk of diabetes)

    • Reduced Blood Platelet Adhesiveness and Aggregation (less plaque build-up and less artery disease)

    • Reduced Inflammation

  • Decreased Morbidity and Mortality

    • Primary Prevention (Interventions to prevent the initial occurrence of disease)

    • Lower Death Rates from Coronary Disease

    • Lower Incidents of CVD, CAD, Stoke, Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus, Metabolic Syndrome, Osteoporotic fractures, Breast and Colon Cancers, and Gallbladder Disease

    • Secondary Prevention (Interventions After Cardiac Events to prevent  Future Events)

    • Reduced Mortality (death) in participants who have started regular exercise after a Cardiac Event

  • Other Benefit

    • Decreased Anxiety and Depression

    • Improved Cognitive Function

    • Enhanced Physical Function and Independent Living in Older Adults

    • Enhanced Feelings of Well-being

    • Enhanced Performance of Work, Recreational and Physical Activities

    • Reduced Risk of Falls and Injuries in Older Adults

    • Prevention or Mitigation of Functional Limitations

    • Effective Therapy for Many Chronic Diseases in Older Adults