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Exercise & fitness

Where did the idea of “wellness” come from?

05 Apr 2023 | Written by By Kathy Feest

“Wellness” has recently become a hot topic in Western culture – but where does this cultural fad originate from? The Joy Club member Kathy Feest shines a light on what wellness is and where the concept comes from…


The term wellness, according to the Oxford Dictionary, was first used  in a 1654 diary entry of Sir Archibald Johnston: “I … blessed God… for my daughter’s wealnesse.”  A little later in the 1600’s Dorothy Osborne of Sussex wrote to her husband Sir William Temple and asked him “Pray what is meant by wellness and unwellness?  (Letters from Dorothy Osborne to Sir William Temple edited by Edward Abbott Parry). We aren’t quite sure of his reply!  Suffice to say, there is nothing new about the idea of wellness!  But where did the current  concept originate and how has it become a word that not only do we all know, but many aspire to achieve?

Since the ancients, health has been an important, if not crucial, element of life. One of the first systems that incorporated an inclusive approach to health began in India, three thousand years ago. Ayurvedic therapies encouraged  people to maintain or regain a balance between the body, mind, spirit, and the environment. Indeed, ayurveda translates as “knowledge of life.” Not a million miles away from the current thinking of wellness!  

According to the World Health Organisation, health, and wellness constitution is “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.  This definition of health was ratified in 1948 when the WHO was set up and continues to underpin their work around the globe. In addition to this definition, the WHO set out five main aspects that they include as necessary for personal health: physical, emotional, social, spiritual, and intellectual.

The American doctor known as the “father” of the wellness movement first published his ideas about what he called “high level wellness” in the 1950s. Dunn, a medical doctor and statistician gave twenty nine talks about the “condition of change in which the individual moves forward, climbing toward a higher potential of functioning.” This original book on wellness can be accessed here

Dunn’s ideas were picked up and given publicity throughout the 1970s with the first “Wellness Centre” opening in (can you guess?!) Mill Valley California, which is fourteen miles north of San Francisco. Dr. John Travis, influenced by Dunn, published The Wellness Inventory (1975) and The Wellness Workbook (1977) as a health assessment tool – which is still in use today.  

By the late 1970s university campuses across America were setting up “Wellness” centres and both the National Wellness Institute and the first National Wellness Conference took place in 1978 in America.

Today, “Wellness” has become a major global economic industry. The world wide market was estimated at over 4.3 trillion (in US dollars) in 2020, and is expected to increase to almost 7 trillion by 2025. Everything that has the word “wellness” attached to it these days, however, is not always what it first appears. Wellness products, services and procedures haven’t all followed rigorous scientific applications and – without the proof of science – many are, at best, misleading. Nevertheless, wellness is part of our twenty first century vernacular and there are many who work in the expanding field offering excellent help and advice to us all. It’s worth remembering that the people who began the modern wellness wave were all traditionally trained practicing medical doctors.  

If you want to begin a wellness journey without spending any money, the folks at the Berkeley Institute collated information from several studies which Radio 4 recently shared. 

Later this month, I will consider some further wellness strategies, particularly with those pesky down days in mind. But, in the meantime, try these!

  • Go for regular walks. Brisk walking burns almost as many calories as a moderate run. Studies suggest it can also reduce the risk of developing high blood pressure, heart disease and diabetes, enhance brain function, improve mood and increase creativity.
  • Eat a Mediterranean-style diet. Analysis of over 7,700 older adults’ eating habits suggests a balanced diet that’s rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, fish and olive oil supports brain function as we age. In a study of women, it’s also been associated with a lower risk of heart attack and stroke.
  • Be compassionate. Although research into the benefits of being compassion is only in its early stages, there’s already some evidence that connecting kindly with others could help us feel good, become more resilient to stress and develop stronger relationships.

Enjoy!  


Kathy Feest has a wealth of experience with writing, leadership and personal development mentoring. Kathy fulfilled her dream at the age of 41 and earned her first University degree; she went on to complete a PhD in Medical Education. She regularly runs self-development workshops at The Joy Club so keep your eyes on our events calendar for one of her next live sessions.

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