The quest for wellness has become a hallmark of modern society, with a plethora of products, practices, and programs promising to lead us to the ever-elusive state of holistic well-being. From meditation apps and wellness retreats to superfoods and self-care routines, we’re inundated with opportunities to pursue wellness. Yet, in the fervour to embrace wellness, there’s a growing conflation with the concept of health, and it’s not always serving us well.
As a strength and conditioning coach and the owner of a S&C gym, I’ve observed a fascinating trend: a rising number of individuals equating the passive pursuit of wellness with the active endeavour of maintaining health. But it’s essential to clarify that while wellness is an integral component of a fulfilling life, it is not interchangeable with health. This conflation can lead to a paradox where we’re seemingly doing everything “right” for our well-being but neglecting the bedrock of physical health. It’s crucial to understand that a balanced approach to both a healthy mind and body is necessary, and yes, that includes embracing discomfort and challenge as a part of growth.
Understanding the Nuance: Wellness vs. Health
Let’s begin by differentiating the two concepts. The World Health Organization often defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” In essence, it’s the baseline requirement for a functional life. Health is quantifiable and visible in blood work, body composition, and performance metrics. It’s the foundation upon which wellness can be built.
Wellness, on the other hand, extends beyond health; it’s a more subjective and multifaceted pursuit. It encompasses the mental, emotional, spiritual, and environmental factors contributing to overall life satisfaction. Wellness is about balance and harmony, often pursued through practices that enhance one’s state of being, like yoga, meditation, or aromatherapy.
The Wellness Illusion: Easy Does It?
In our pursuit of wellness, there’s a trend toward what can be perceived as “easy” wellness activities—comforting, unchallenging, and quickly gratifying. For instance, purchasing a juice cleanse kit or enrolling in a gentle yoga class feels good and can certainly contribute to one’s sense of wellness. However, this shouldn’t be confused with the rigorous work required to improve health, like committing to a structured exercise program or following a balanced diet.
The danger lies in believing that by solely engaging in these unchallenging wellness activities, we are taking care of our health. This is akin to mistaking the soothing calm of the forest’s edge for the robust life found within its depths. Yes, the edge is part of the forest, but it does not represent its entirety.
The Missing Link: Embracing Discomfort for Growth
Health often necessitates stepping into discomfort. It involves pushing our bodies to adapt and grow stronger, be it through resistance training, cardiovascular work, or flexibility exercises. Discomfort is not only physical; it’s also in the discipline of eating nutritious foods when junk food is tempting or waking up early to exercise when the bed is exceptionally comfortable.
This concept is rooted in the principle of hormesis, which postulates that exposure to moderate stressors can promote health and resilience. Just as muscles grow through the stress and repair cycle, so does our overall health through the challenges we willingly face.
Wellness Without Health: A Half-Told Story
Practising wellness activities while neglecting health can be compared to building a beautiful facade without a sturdy structure. For instance, someone might meditate regularly, which is excellent for mental wellness, but if they’re sedentary and eating poorly, they’re missing a fundamental piece of the health puzzle. We cannot overlook the importance of cardiovascular health, strength, flexibility, and nutrition, which are integral to preventing disease and optimizing body function. The phrase: “You cannot Namaste the bear away” comes to mind here.
Health Without Wellness: The Incomplete Equation
Conversely, an exclusive focus on health and disregard for wellness can lead to burnout and a lack of fulfilment. Rigorous physical training, strict dieting, and meticulous health tracking without self-compassion or joy can be equally unhelpful. The body may be in peak condition, but if stress, anxiety, or a lack of spiritual connection pervades, the picture of well-being is incomplete. I have come across this more frequently as the rise of social media fitness gurus makes the pursuit of strength, fitness and general health more about how you look rather than how you feel, what your body can do and how capable, resilient and confident in your own skin training can make you. It can be a hollow and unfulfilling pursuit when the person focuses on the mirror only.
Striking the Balance: A Synergistic Approach
The goal is to find a balance where wellness activities enhance our health endeavours and our health pursuits support our overall wellness. Here’s how we can strive for this balance:
1. Combine Challenge with Comfort: While it’s essential to engage in restorative wellness practices, balance these with activities that challenge you physically and mentally. Combine gentle yoga with strength training, or follow a guided meditation after a HIIT workout.
2. Seek Purposeful Discomfort: Choose health-related activities that push you out of your comfort zone in a controlled manner. This
might mean lifting weights that are challenging but doable or trying a new sport that requires skill development.
3. Embrace Holistic Nutrition: Eating should be both pleasurable and nourishing. Instead of fad diets, focus on whole foods that provide the nutrients your body needs to thrive while allowing for the occasional indulgence.
4. Cultivate Mindful Resilience: Mental toughness and emotional resilience are part of health and wellness. Practices like journaling, cognitive behavioural strategies, or engaging in a challenging hobby can foster this resilience.
5. Nurture Connections: Social wellness is crucial. Engage in community sports, join a fitness class, or participate in group meditations. The camaraderie in these activities can boost both health and wellness.
6. Invest in Rest: Recovery is where health and wellness converge beautifully. Prioritise sleep, incorporate rest days into your exercise regime, and engage in relaxation practices that soothe the mind and body.
The Bottom Line
In the final analysis, wellness without health is like a ship with a sail but no rudder; it may capture the wind but lacks direction. Health without wellness is the rudder without the sail; it may know the way but cannot move forward. Together, they can navigate the vast ocean of life.
As we continue to chart our personal paths, let’s not confuse the serenity of wellness activities with the foundational requirements of good health. It is in the synergy of both that we find our strongest, most vibrant selves. Let’s embrace the challenges, the comforts, and the full spectrum of experiences that contribute to our holistic well-being. It’s a journey that’s not just about being easy on ourselves but also about being whole.