What Do We Mean by ‘Wellness’?

For many, ‘wellness’ is the health Holy Grail – a catch-all term that encapsulates a holistic approach to a better you. It’s also a buzzword in the truest sense, beset by fluid definitions and spurious industry ‘experts’.

So what does being ‘well’ actually mean?  

Penny Weston’s journey into wellness began with an early diagnosis of asthma resulting in a collapsed lung in her 20s, as well as an unhealthy relationship with food that led to her being hospitalised for stomach cramps. Since becoming a mother, she also points to struggles with her mental health, all of which feeds into her quest to be well, and help others to do the same.

Today, Weston describes herself as a “fitness, wellness and nutrition expert” as well as an “wellness entrepreneur and business owner” as director of Moddershall Oaks Country Spa Retreat, and the founder of MADE, a 360 degree wellness centre with an on demand wellness membership. Clearly, ‘wellness’ is vitally important to Penny’s career, as well as her own sense of physical and mental health. But then, what does that word actually mean?

What do we actually mean by ‘wellness’?

Weston points to eight different dimensions of wellness: physical, social, emotional, intellectual, vocational, environmental, spiritual, and financial. It’s a list Ellie Crawley – PT, gym owner, and founder of sustainable fitness wear brand FEEL FIT – agrees with.

“Wellness at its core now today means to look after your mental, physical, emotional and social wellness,” she says. “We are more aware of what we are reading, who we are following; it isn’t just what we eat or do these days. It is a WELL -FULL -NESS approach to things.” It can be argued then that wellness can be found in every little thing we do.

“Wellness begins with the absence of disease, but it is more than that; it encompasses energy, vitality, mental clarity, purpose, and extending healthspan,” explains Professor Nathan Price, chief scientific officer of Thorne HealthTech, and a member of the Institute for Systems Biology. “In essence, wellness is the basis on which to build everything else we want in life – the health to pursue our dreams, to be engaged with our loved ones, and to develop our highest self.”

Kate Scott, a registered nutritionist and the co-founder of DNApal agrees.“Everything we eat, how we choose to exercise, what we read and watch, how we spend our leisure time, the quality of our relationships and our sleep habits all impact us for better or worse. The basic premise of wellness is to consciously practise positive habits in each of these areas daily to keep our mind, body, and spirit healthy and in balance.”

In other words, wellness is about maximising all aspects of your life so that you feel good about everything from your bank balance to your relationships and career. Not to mention your health. But, if a term has such a wide definition, how can we actually apply it? If wellness is everything, is it in danger of meaning nothing?

How did ‘wellness’ get everywhere?

According to an April 2021 report from data analysts McKinsey & Company, the global wellness market is currently valued at $1.5 trillion. Given the GDP (gross domestic product) of the UK is estimated at $2.708 trillion, the wellness industry is clearly a monumental force to be reckoned with.

The authors of the report write: “These days, consumers view wellness through a much broader and more sophisticated lens, encompassing not just fitness and nutrition but also overall physical and mental health and appearance”, explaining that consumers have a huge range of choice in what they buy and how they buy.

But how did we actually get here? How, seemingly out of nowhere, did every Instagram account with over 10k followers belong to a wellness influencer without qualifications? How did your parents start doing online pilates in their lounge, and calling it wellness? Why are more and more workplaces talking about ‘mental health first aid’ and employing wellness officers? Why are we tracking every metric from sleep to daily steps to blood composition? And why is a jog around the park twice a week no longer good enough?

Weston explains that the World Health Organisation was the first to define wellness as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

She points to Dr Halbert L Dunn’s 1961 book High Level Wellness in which Dunn described wellness as “dynamic — a condition of change in which the individual moves forward, climbing toward a higher potential of functioning.”

Dunn’s book, and wellness, were seen as something for hippies. Sure, jogging became big in the 1980s and home workouts were huge in the 1990s, but as a movement encapsulating nearly everything and appealing to nearly everyone, we have to go back even further, as Kate Scott explains.

“Wellness is a modern word with very ancient roots,” she says, pointing to the principles of wellness first appearing in Ayurvedic and Chinese traditions in 3000 B.C. We then see Hippocrates theorising on medicine in 500 B.C. The first use of the word ‘wellness’ was in the 1650s, then used to describe the opposite of illness. Homeopathy and osteopathy are developed in the 1790s and 1870s respectively, while research into nutrition heats up in the 1880s, chiropathy is invented in the 1890s, and naturopathy comes along in the 1900s.

wellness

What does ‘wellness’ look like today?

Scott points to the 1980s, however, when wellness began to be taken more seriously by the medical, academic and corporate worlds. More funding was invested into it, which continued into the 1990s.

Fast forward thirty years, and wellness is all everywhere. “Wellness has always been around, it has always been important to take care of yourself,” says Rebecca Lockwood, a neurolinguistic programming coach, and pole dance fitness instructor. As that job description illustrates, today wellness really does encapsulate branching out into mental and physical fitness. Arguably, as many of our varied C.V.s show, wellness is as much about hustling and success as it is feeling good.

“Modern life is demanding on everyone,” Lockwood continues, alluding to this pressure. “We are all expected to be able to work, increase our incomes, bring up children, have a social life, chase our dreams and goals, and take good care of ourselves at the same time as sharing how amazing life is on social media.”

In a society that values success above everything – and showing this on social media – how well you’re doing at being well is now a status symbol. In that context, Price sees wellness as “the most meaningful luxury.” Consumers, he argues, have put wellness at the forefront, making it a priority. “There are now so many visible brands that focus on consumer wellness and they’ve spread like wildfire thanks to social media, vitality, and influencers,” he says. “The COVID-19 pandemic also really starkly brought health to the forefront of people’s minds, as resilience to disease and the cultivation of wellness under adverse conditions became critically important and time-urgent.”

He adds that wellness has become such a modern phenomenon simply because, for the first time in history, we have the time and energy to devote to being and feeling well. We’ve (largely) eradicated most diseases. Human lifespan is increasing globally. And many formerly ‘third world’ countries are now adopting a Western standard of life, including more protein-rich diets.

“[Wellness’s modern popularity] is probably a function that modern societies have done such a dramatic job of releasing us of much of the brutality of natural life for most of the time that humans have existed,” Price explains. “We no longer have to worry about predators daily like the whole animal kingdom, food is plentiful, and in fact, obesity is our major problem, we have dishwashers, air conditioning, indoor plumbing, and so much more. That is, we have the luxury in much of the world – but, very importantly, not all – of being free enough to focus on cultivating our wellness.

“The internet with social media and being exposed regularly to the “wellest of the well”, at least by appearance, in a way that would have been impossible before also certainly accelerates this trend.”

Is modern ‘wellness’ harming us?

But it isn’t all peace, harmony and kombucha. In the nutrition industry there is conflict between groups such as vegans and carnivores, Scott explains, as well as among those advocating for diets like keto or intermittent fasting. According to some, it isn’t enough to be well; you have to be well the right way.

Likewise, practices such as homeopathy and naturopathy – key steps in the evolution of wellness – are today largely seen as, at best, eccentric offshoots of wellness and, at worse, unfounded and potentially life threatening beliefs. Ditto the anti-vax movement, which in the case of Covid-19 claims that being inoculated against a pandemic-causing disease could have long-term adverse health effects.

For many, these sort of opposing ideas about wellness are confusing, but in 2022 we’re free to follow the wellness trends that we feel most apply to us and that, in a way, is one of the best things about wellness; for the first time, we’re all prioritising our health and are free to pursue it however we best see fit.

“Regarding the mass of information out there, there isn’t a one size fits all for mental or physical health,” says Ben Bidwell, who describes himself as a “Human Potential coach and breathwork healer” and is the founder of The Naked Professors Podcast. “The reality is what works for one person might not be right for another, so it’s up to us all to make conscious choices about what we consume and find the right sources of information that we feel can help us in the place we are currently at. I don't think we can vet everyone voices so the onus has to be on individuals being smart about what we consume.”

With that in mind, with a good degree of unregulated information out there, is our pursuit of wellness at risk of having an adverse effect? Can wellness harm us? Bidwell believes that by focusing so much on wellness we can miss out on life. It’s the old argument about being present and mindful of what is going on around us, and not attaining some ideal state. “The truth is we’ll never be perfect, and nor should we strive to be,” he says. “A healthy balance lies in seeing the opportunity to grow and being willing to invest in our growth, while also learning to accept ourselves fully in the present moment.”

Crawley believes an over-reliance on influencers can negatively impact our own self-image. “I think it can harm us. Following untrained people on diets, exercise and what they eat in a day can lead to body image issues, disordered eating and injury during exercise,” she says, stressing that we’re all different and each have our own requirements.

Weston adds that our drive for wellness can often become conflated with a drive for perfectionism – a damaging obsession. “There are so many posts on social media and it is easy to get sucked into any new trend promising us complete ‘wellness’ or ‘happiness’,” she says. “You can feel that you aren’t doing the best you can if you don’t regularly soak your chia seeds, make sure your children never have an ounce of sugar, or start each day with an organic smoothie after you’ve done your yoga routine. But this just isn’t practical when most of us are trying to just find time for breakfast in the morning and get out of the house on time. If it becomes an obsession, it can become dangerous.”

Lockwood agrees that wellness should not be seen as a trend, but a way of life, and one that works with and for you. “It’s important to remember that embracing wellness shouldn’t be seen as a trend but as something that is vital in life,” she says. “When we eat well, drink plenty of water, do things that we love and understand ourselves and our wants and needs then there is no trend to follow.”

What does the future of ‘wellness’ look like?

As we’ve seen, wellness can sometimes get a bad rep, which isn’t to say there isn’t real, scientific work being done under the banner of wellness. It’s easy to get distracted by celebrity cookbooks and workout TikToks, but across the globe there are private and government-backed institutions and individuals exploring the forefront of healthspan technology.

For the uninitiated, healthspan technology is a subdivision of wellness that aims to explore how human beings can enhance our bodies in order to extend not just how long we live for, but how long we remain healthy, mentally sharp, and productive for. In his book Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari, professor at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and author of Sapiens, argues that this will eventually lead to two classes of human: the enhanced and the old-tech, flesh and blood model. It’s a far more dystopian view of wellness than shirtless bros posting their workouts from Clapham Common. But the idea of biohacking isn’t inherently sinister.

“We see now the emergence of what Lee Hood and I have termed as ‘scientific wellness’,” explains Professor Price, who will publish a book on the subject in 2023. “This is the domain of the ‘biohacker’ who wants to optimize his or her body, usually with the goal of obtaining an unusually long and deep ‘healthspan.’ This new style of wellness leverages modern science and newly developed measurement technologies to monitor thousands of measures in the blood, genomics, microbiome, data from wearables, physiological assessments and so forth – seeking to understand the complex interplay of our biochemistry and physiology in optimizing wellness.”

Biohacking en masse may still be some way off, however. Bidwell points out that many of the things shown to significantly extend life and/or health in animals do have functional effects in humans, but are at too early a stage for us to know how they will manifest in extending human healthspan.

From a consumer perspective, the previously mentioned McKinsey & Company report suggests that consumers will focus on sustainable and green wellness products, and that wellness services like apps and guided Peloton videos will continue to grow in popularity, as will our reliance on influencers. “In the United States, Europe, and Japan, 10 to 15 percent of consumers say they follow social-media influencers and that they have already made a purchase based on an influencer’s recommendation,” the authors write.

Weston predicts we’ll put even more emphasis on the importance of sleep, especially because of the anxiety brought about by the current cost of living crisis, which might also see people cut back on gym memberships and (often more costly) healthier food options.

But, “at home wellness is definitely still going to rise and wearable tech is only getting bigger and smarter and more integrated,” she says. “And supplements and quick-fix type things are growing as well.”

For his part, Bidwell sees a continued shift of the general mindset around wellness, and hopes for better education around it. “Things are changing but there’s still a lot of work to do,” he says. “For us to live in a truly ‘well’ state, I'd like to see education on nutrition and how our mind works begin in schools from a young age. A lot of the education doesn't need to be rocket science, however the older we get, the harder change can be.”

Finding a wellness that works for you

Ultimately, however you choose to define it, the pursuit of wellness is a noble one for you and your family. But, whatever the future holds, the key is retaining a semblance of balance. No one can tick every wellness box. Even influencers – who are paid to pursue wellness, or at least the idea of it – struggle to do so.

Whether it be exercise or nutrition, sleep or stress, we can all make better choices in our lives. But we won’t make the best choices in every area every day. And that’s OK. Realising that, and letting yourself off the hook is arguably true wellness.

“I do hope there will be a move away from feeling pressured for perfection in all areas of our lives, and a focus on looking more for contentment in what we already have around us,” says Weston. “There is a dangerous element of wellness where ‘positive thinking’ is meant to get where you want to be and that if you don’t make it, it’s your fault.

“This is such a harmful way to think. We have to remember there are outside factors that affect our wellness too. We must be aware that wellness is also something that is sold to us. Do we need to take part in every aspect? No. Do we need to look after our health? Yes we do, and wellness can help us do that.”

Words: Tom Ward

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