Maybe Your Wellness Ritual Isn’t Making You Well at All

Could our relentless pursuit of wellness actually be making us unwell? There are a growing number of skeptics who have some pretty serious misgivings about the movement as a whole. Read on before you sign up for that detox diet or salt room sesh.

Being healthy is great and all, but being well, ah, that’s a whole lot sexier. It’s a concept so broad and inherently ambiguous that it can be bent, moulded and shaped to encompass what you do every day, where you travel and even the home you buy (who wouldn’t want to stay in a hotel that offers cryotherapy and gravity colonics, or own a house that adjusts to your Circadian rhythm?).

“Wellness has wormed its way into every aspect of our lives,” writes Stockholm University associate professor Carl Cederström in The Wellness Syndrome. At first, this might seem like a good thing. After all, instead of relying on our overburdened medical system, we’re taking a proactive approach to bettering ourselves. We’re booking yoga classes and seaweed body wraps like never before, lacing our meals with the latest superfoods, tracking our sleep, detoxing our livers and trying to make a habit of doing all of the above as mindfully as possible. You’d think we’d be healthier than ever, except that we’re not. In fact, some of the biggest threats to our health—cancer, heart disease, obesity, anxiety, depression—are on the rise.

Why aren’t our wellness practices working?

At best, our collective unhealthiness suggests that wellness simply doesn’t work, or at least not in the way we’ve been promised. But could our relentless pursuit of wellness actually be making us unwell? There are a growing number of skeptics, Cederström among them, who have some pretty serious misgivings about the movement as a whole. I tracked him down in Italy where he was vacationing (not a wellness vacation, he was quick to point out, just a regular family holiday). One of his biggest beefs with wellness is that it’s now an ideology, a standard by which we’re all judged. “Wellness is not just something we choose,” he says. “It is a moral obligation.”

Timothy Caulfield, Canada Research Chair in Health and Law Policy and research director of the Health Law Institute at the University of Alberta, is also worried about the path wellness has taken. “Wellness started as a great idea,” he says. “It meant considering more than just measurable physical health and was designed to include, as noted in the World Health Organization’s 1948 constitution, ‘complete physical, mental and social well-being.’” But, Caulfield says, somewhere along the way that lofty ideal got lost. “It has been overtaken by pseudoscience and become synonymous with wiggling concepts like ‘holisticness’ and ‘root causes,’” he says. Even worse, it has become a marketing tool. “As a result of aggressive marketing and alternative medicine branding strategies, wellness now requires the adoption of a range of science-free practices, such as supplementation, detoxification and the embrace of superfoods.” So, when exactly did wellness go wrong?

When did wellness stop being about health?

It’s hard to believe that “wellness” wasn’t even a thing just a few decades ago. People have peddled magic cure-alls since the beginning of time, but wellness as a movement is a relatively new phenomenon that, according to Cederström, really took off in the ’70s with the rise of self-help culture. “It was then,” he says, “that people began to believe that the only way to be happy was to take ownership and responsibility for your own life.” Wellness became linked to the idea that you can refashion yourself and be successful simply by signing up for a gym membership, a self-improvement course, a diet plan, or a yoga retreat—anything that promises better health, a better outlook, a better life. “The self-help idea is strong in wellness culture and is especially attractive in times of hopelessness,” Cederström says. “And that’s true now more than ever, when the institutions we normally draw strength from, like politics, religion, even family and work, feel less stable than they did in the past.”

As wellness culture grew, being healthy suddenly wasn’t good enough. Back in her 20s, Dr. Jennifer Gunter says she would have defined “wellness” as “health.” Not anymore. “Then it was the idea of, ‘Are you well?’ and ‘Why yes, yes I am in good health, thank you for asking,’” says the outspoken OB/GYN and author of The Vagina Bible whose personal blog has become a one-woman crusade against insidious Internet health content. Now 51, Dr. Gunter says she no longer equates wellness with health. “Today ‘wellness’ means a display of disposable income, or a competition, or a certain number of likes on Instagram, which is the very opposite of health.”

Somehow, Dr. Gunter says the idea of eating healthy or the joy of going for a walk became corrupted. “I get a pedicure for my personal wellness because I enjoy the look of nice toenails, but I don’t kid myself that it’s doing anything medical,” she says. “I often wonder why people no longer do things because they like them—it always has to be couched as some kind of personal growth moment or tainted by a fake health claim.”

Is wellness only for the wealthy?

By the ’90s, those “personal growth moments” were already becoming big business. Eventually corporations caught on and soon, Cederström says, “wellness speak” began slipping into company mission statements. It was then that the idea of fixing whatever ailed you with the power of “positive thinking” and “developing your full potential” went from slogans on gym walls to slogans on coffee mugs in office cubicles.

“The wellness movement is now fully integrated into capitalism,” Cederström says. “To be fit is to be the best version of yourself, and better health is equated with being productive and having greater success.” At least, for those who can afford it. Today, wellness has the same element of exclusivity as a high-end spa, and it’s a luxury only available to a select segment of the population. According to the Global Wellness Institute, the global wellness market grew 10.6 percent to $3.7 trillion from 2013 to 2015. (Meanwhile, the global economy shrank 3.6 percent over the same period.) Yes, there is wealth in wellness.

Could wellness have negative side effects?

“I think the wellness movement is nothing more than a cash grab,” Dr. Gunter says. “It isn’t telling people to go for more walks, it’s presented as impossibly beautiful people doing impossible things.” Then there’s the extent to which the movement demonizes those who aren’t part of it, Cederström adds. “There is an individualistic notion attached to wellness that’s aligned with ruthless capitalist ideals,” he says. “We’re all competing in an open market, and it’s up to each of us to thrive under these conditions.” Inevitably, he says, our preoccupation with succeeding at wellness creates anxiety and guilt because wellness is an impossible goal — every day there are new products, therapies and regimens that promise even better results than yesterday’s products, therapies and regimens. “It creates an impossible demand that reconfigures the way we live our lives.”

And society quietly punishes those who fail to live up to the ideals of wellness culture from the start. “Where does our preoccupation with our own wellness leave the rest of the population who have an acute shortage of organic smoothies, diet apps and yoga instructors?” Cederström writes in The Wellness Syndrome. When I ask him to elaborate, he uses exercise as an example: “We think of those who don’t exercise as lesser people. I happen to exercise and I enjoy it, but that doesn’t make me a better human being.” He says those who can’t afford to be onboard (or simply choose not to be) are perceived as lazy, unmotivated or “weak-willed.” In wellness, nobody wins—except for the people selling wellness.

Where does wellness go from here?

In an article for NBC, Caulfield writes about waging “a wellness war,” while Cederström is adamant that we need to do whatever it takes to “escape the clutches of wellness.” Not a very hopeful outlook for the future of the movement. And yet, they also suggest there is still a glimmer of good in wellness, we just have to get better at recognizing—and eliminating—the bad.

“I wish we could just reclaim the term and stick with the basics,” Caulfield says. “I do like that there is an embrace of a healthy lifestyle and an emphasis on real food, exercise, and sleep. But for the wellness industry it can never be straightforward, it always has to be wrapped up in a blanket of pseudoscience.” For our part, he says the key to achieving wellness is to keep it simple. “Exercise, eat real food, sleep, have good relationships, don’t smoke. There is no magic.”

But Caulfield also urges medical professionals not to simply dismiss wellness culture. “I think there is a need to recognize that many in the public are getting something from the wellness movement,” he says. “Perhaps some feel their needs are being ignored. Perhaps some think there isn’t enough of an emphasis on prevention. Or perhaps some no longer trust the conventional system. We should listen and try to improve our approach.” Dr. Gunter agrees. She says doctors need to listen not just in their offices, but in society. She cites the anti-vaccine movement as an example of where the medical profession was too dismissive — and we’re still living with the consequences. “We all thought people would read the science and be swayed back to the truth, but that didn’t happen,” she says. “Many wellness trends are like religions; they’re a brand people associate with and it speaks to them, so we need to listen more and try to figure out what is sending people in that direction.”

To avoid being duped into going in that direction, Dr. Gunter recommends relying on evidence-based recommendations and staying away from anecdotes, fads, and celebrities. She echoes Caulfield: “Wellness is the boring stuff that you already know: eat balanced meals, get exercise, socialize, and do things that make you smile,” says Dr. Gunter. “If someone is trying to sell you something, their goal is not your health or wellbeing, it’s to sell you something.”

In the end, the best thing we can do to be well is to not buy in.

Originally Published in Best Health Canada