Swimming With the Sharks Is a Team Effort… And So Is Personal Health

Judging by the extensive recent news coverage, Diana Nyad’s successful attempt to swim from Cuba to Florida struck a chord for many people around the world. There were many strings that Diana Nyad plucked to sound that chord of public adulation.

There was her age—64 years old—that certainly appealed to Baby Boomers everywhere looking for some good news. She survived water brimming with sharks, jellyfish, squalls, and an unpredictable Gulf Stream. And she persevered—this was her fifth attempt. As the New York Times notes, “Ms. Nyad’s success was built on her failures — the first in 1978, when she was 28, and the most recent at age 62.” All of that spells admirable.

But what struck me most poignantly were the words she spoke upon leaving the water, her face scorched and puffy from exposure to the ocean water. She said, “I have three messages. One is we should never, ever give up. Two is you never are too old to chase your dreams. Three is it looks like a solitary sport, but it takes a team.”

Yes, it takes a team. Diana Nyad had a support team of 35 members, including shark scouts and a pulmonologist who joined this year after she suffered a severe asthma attack on her previous attempt two years ago.

Nyads-team copy

Andy Newman/Florida Keys News Bureau, via Associated Press

Few of us can afford our very own shark scouts, where we swim or where we work. But we can protect ourselves with our own personal health team. Here at our Center for Sustainable Health at ASU’s Biodesign Institute, we have re-launched a major initiative called the Healthy Challenge. The Healthy Challenge is a workplace wellness program that encourages the adoption of healthy behaviors through team support and gentle competition. In the course of managing the Healthy Challenge, we’ve seen time and time again that people thrive with the challenge of improving their personal health, but it takes a team to keep us on track and provide a healthy environment and context for sustaining health over the long haul.

While our Healthy Challenge focuses on the workplace, a personal health team can be formed for any situation. My wife’s family has banded together to help with the complex and demanding tasks of caring for a loved one suffering from advanced dementia. My older brother has formed a team to help him deal with the challenges of a wife requiring end-of-life care. Or, a married couple can link arms and form a team of two to do battle with our fast-food, high-stress, and low-activity culture that seems designed to work against our better health efforts.

Regardless of your health situation, I recommend avoiding all contact with sharks. Instead, take Diana Nyad’s words to heart. You can build a team at any age to help you live a longer, healthier life – even if you don't want to swim with the sharks.

Written by Michael Birt, Director, Center for Sustainable Health.