The wellness paradigm: You got it all wrong!

Wellness is not about preventing or minimising the risk of disease; it is a mindset of living your life to the fullest

Weighing apples and

Years ago, I visited a medical centre for a standard physical examination. I was not ill or concerned about difficulties. Nothing was wrong—I had no concerns. Of course, one never knows, so there’s always some trepidation involved in medical checks. I think a standard workup was required for an insurance policy, and that was the reason for scheduling the examination. At the time, I was in great shape. I was training for the Ironman Triathlon in Hawaii. My heart rate was low, my weight was down and I’m sure my VO max [volume of oxygen one can consume while exercising at his/her maximum capacity] was beyond the normal range.

I have to admit—I was expecting a compliment from the doctor! [vanity, such vanity] I’d have settled for a modest tribute, something like, “You’re in pretty good shape, for an old guy.” It was not to be. When the tests were done and results compiled and assessed, the doctor came over, confirmed my identity, looked at the test results, then at me, and said: “Well, I couldn’t find anything wrong. You seem medically uninteresting.”

I thanked him, paid the bill and departed. I wondered about his conclusion all the way home—“medically uninteresting…hmm”.

Does medically uninteresting mean I’m healthy? Are these the signs of health?

  • No pain
  • No symptoms
  • Not sick
  • Not always sore/tired
  • No life-threatening disease
  • Not unconscious
  • Still alive

Of course not—there IS more. There truly is a great deal more to health than the absence of illness or the presence of medical non-interest. For today, simply acknowledge that the term ‘health’ is not often used in the best and fullest sense of the word. You can truly do much better than “medically uninteresting”—aim for wellness.

Wellness is the word

Well over half a century ago, a physician named Halbert L. Dunn began talking and writing about “high level” wellness. Though I used the “high level” phrase for a while, I gave it up after a few years, thinking it a bit redundant. After all, wellness is by nature and definition “high level” compared with just an ordinary lifestyle.

I was attracted to the word "wellness" because it is an alternative to the common word so poorly understood, namely, "health." People usually think of health as a state of non-sickness or absence of pain or injury. Health, in short, was then, and still is, viewed as the absence of something.

There truly is a great deal more to health than the absence of illness or the presence of medical non-interest

This perspective is not only inaccurate—it’s also hazardous to health! If you think you’re well just because you’re not experiencing sickness, you might be less motivated to take steps to advance beyond that state. There is, in such case, too little incentive or vision for something more. You might settle on taking the minimal steps for maintaining the sub-level normalcy of a low-standard normal health.

The alternative, which wellness invites, is to view health in a variety of positive dimensions. This includes recognizing levels and degrees of wellbeing, stages and positions along a continuum of functioning. In this way, quite specific images of optimal existence come into sight.

So what is wellness?

Wellness embodies new parameters and expectations of wellbeing. Here are a few of them.

Wellness is multi-dimensional

Man with his fitness sheetA wellness lifestyle has multiple dimensions. Let me outline to you my first model that has five dimensions. Each dimension was used as a chapter in my 1977 Rodale book entitled, High Level Wellness: An Alternative to Doctors, Drugs and Disease. Maybe it will appeal to you, and be helpful as a starter way of organizing things

  1. Self-responsibility
  2. Nutritional awareness
  3. Stress management
  4. Environmental sensitivity
  5. Physical fitness

Self-responsibility entails a conscious recognition that you are in charge of your health and the quality of your life. Without an awareness and full commitment to the idea that you are the prime cause for what goes well or poorly, you are not likely to invest the time and energy to pursue excellence in the other dimensions.

Wellness is positive

The reasons for pursuing wellness are always related to satisfaction, payoffs and pleasures, not sickness avoidance or life extension. It’s likely, of course, that wellness will lead to less illness and probably a longer life, but these are welcome side effects!

Negative appeals to behave sensibly, such as “don’t do X [often something appealing, like drinking, dancing and carousing] or else Y [something unpleasant, like inebriation, fatigue or accusations of moral turpitude] will happen, are not effective and they certainly are not much fun. People often look for ways to outwit negative admonitions. In wellness, the emphasis is on short-term pleasures gained from choosing positive path, not on long-term penalties or negative-reinforcement. This is why wellness is so much more pleasant than traditional health education.

The reasons for pursuing wellness are always related to satisfaction, payoffs and pleasures, not sickness avoidance or life extension

Wellness is about you

Wellness lifestyles must be shaped in a manner unique to each person. No guru or other expert can tell you what to do or how to do it. Your style, opportunities, situation and resources are unlike those of anyone else so you must adapt all advice to your situation and circumstances. That’s another reason why self-responsibility is a foundation for this concept.

Wellness is beyond body

Wellness includes physical health and emotional/mental wellbeing. The physical element is equally important as the mental, but the two are actually inseparable. One always affects the other. Physical fitness is a pathway to psychological and emotional equanimity and if the latter is going for you, you will realize the necessity of daily physical exercise “devotionals”.

Wellness is an attitude

Old lady with an apple
A great lifestyle is as important to the old as the young, the poor as the affluent, the sick as the well

You can practice wellness at any point in the life-cycle. A great lifestyle is as important to the old as the young, the poor as the affluent, the sick as the well. This is about an attitude and a mindset, a context by which to perceive what matters and what to do about matters large and small affecting your life and purpose. It is not a stagnant position to take on one thing or another.

Wellness isn’t…

Wellness is not the same as holistic health, complementary medicine, prevention or medical self-care. There are sometimes common themes, but more often there are not. Most important of all, wellness is almost certainly not about wellness! That is, not about the misrepresented nature of so-called wellness by pushers of products and services who have borrowed or rather hijacked the word. Many shysters and mountebanks and just plain hustlers have taken the word and shaped it into forms unrecognisable to those of us who view wellness along the lines described here.

Complementary medicine and holistic health are often oriented toward treatment; the terms are most often employed by healers, usually by persons who are not licensed medical doctors and others who practice standard, evidence-based care. Prevention and health education are terms used by healthcare professionals who dispense illness and disease avoidance advice. Medical self-care is primarily focused on teaching you how to accurately, economically and efficaciously identify and attend to emergencies, injuries or relatively minor medical problems. This kind of care-giving and teaching is fine and desirable, if done properly. However, they are different from what is herein described as wellness. Such distinctions enable an appreciation that lifestyle choices affecting quality of life are not matters administered by others and directed at problem areas.

Wellness is that which is up to you, with the focus upon becoming “weller” and happier, not less troubled or to suffer less. The latter happens as a pleasant side-effect as you advance toward or succeed in remaining at or near a dynamic high level wellness state of being.

The everyday experience of a lifelong quest for attainable but challenging peaks of optimal life quality is its own reward.

Wellness is not the same as holistic health, complementary medicine, prevention or medical self-care

Make your journey joyful

It might be fun to think of wellness as a game, especially if you want to have fun while getting serious about a more ambitious lifestyle. Wellness is not complicated. Imagine a game about boosting your quality of life. Why not? Games are enjoyable and often effective as a learning tool. A wellness lifestyle game might be an attractive way to approach a higher quality of life. To play what could be called “The Wellness Game” [TWG], you first decide to participate. A wellness lifestyle usually does not come about accidentally. Instead, it is a choice. Like any game, you play TWG best if you know and abide by the “rules.” Here are a few basics.

  • Decide to play
  • Make a commitment to try to win
  • Recognize TWG is something you want to do—nobody is pressuring you to play
  • Don’t put it off till tomorrow or next week—get started now.

You are already abiding by these basic rules: you are reading this article. The next step is to follow a rule not included in most games, but helpful for TWG—express your commitment to play. Do it in writing.

Use a sheet of paper to write these words or words of your own choosing along the same lines: I am committed to playing the Wellness Game. Sign your name to this agreement.

“I, _______________, agree to learn the rules and play The Wellness Game.”

To make TWG fun, feel free to add your own rules. After all, it’s YOUR lifestyle that is to be won or lost.

OK, if you put your name in the blank or wrote a note to this effect as suggested, you are on your way. You are committed to learn about and shape a wellness lifestyle. Games, though associated with frivolity and play, are hardly frivolous when they have a long-lasting positive impact on your life.

Wellness is that which is up to you, with the focus upon becoming “weller” and happier, not less troubled or to suffer less

Follow the kind of rules [or guidelines, traditions or principles] that seem most likely to complement your circumstances and ambitions. Remember, this process is about enjoying and winning TWG. The bottom line is to identify, create and sustain a lifestyle that boosts your well-being, particularly your happiness and capabilities to live well.

A key rule in TWG is to take your lifestyle choices seriously without being grim or rigid about it. Find the balance that works for you—that’s what the best lifestyle players do. You can learn to play as well as anyone else.

What counts as lifestyle?

Soft drinkLifestyle includes the entire range of actions that are or could be brought under your control, including but not limited to:

  • How and what you eat. In the course of playing TWG, you will discover that it is less important to think in terms of specific foods being “good” or “bad” for you as it is to eat wisely most of the time. Nobody is, or needs to be, perfect. If a certain food is a big treat for you, enjoy it now and then, but not so often if it’s the kind of item that might give the average dietician a heart attack to look at, let alone consume.
  • How often, how long and how intensively you exercise.
  • Your ability to enjoy some aspects of everyday life, find rewarding work that is of interest and maintain friendships and community support. A game? Yes, we can think of it that way, but the stakes are higher than any game you might play in Las Vegas, Monaco, Mumbai or elsewhere.
  • Your understanding of the medical system, particularly its limits and how little it can do, under the best of circumstances, beyond diagnosis and treatment of injuries, illness and disease. Becoming healthier is entirely up to you—based on the lifestyle you create.

A key variable

For TWG, the environment is important. You can’t exert as much influence on the environment as you can on your own lifestyle. Yet, you must pay attention to the nature and influence of your surroundings. To the extent possible, rearrange it to your favor, at least at home and in your work setting and friendship circles.

Because only your lifestyle is under your direct influence, the emphasis in TWG will be on elements that fit the lifestyle category. But, the culture is important. An environment or a culture that belittles certain qualities needed for happiness or hope, optimism or, in our case, a wellness lifestyle, will make success at TWG difficult, no matter how outstanding an individual plays TWG. An individual can only do so much.

The efforts you make to succeed at TWG and enjoy wellbeing and joy in life, happiness, a positive outlook and multiple levels of meaning and purpose are shaped by the quality of the physical, emotional and mental surroundings.

When you think of wellness as a game, the pursuit of advanced well-being becomes a lifelong no-lose contest in which you get to win every day, find continuing meaning and experience recurring satisfaction. Good luck.

You can’t exert as much influence on the environment as you can on your own lifestyle

Where are you on the wellness scale?

Woman joggingAll lifestyles patterns fall into one of four categories [called the Ardell’s Four Lifestyle Patterns]. They portray a range from the highest level of wellness to the minimal level of functioning. Occasionally, we all behave in ways that fit each category. However, for the most part we follow a certain pattern, one of the four described below:

Low level worseness

A few examples of egregious choices that diminish life quality and personal effectiveness:

  • Insufficient exercise
  • Poor food choices
  • Alcohol and/or other substance abuse
  • Use of nicotine
  • Reliance on caffeine
  • Severe weight issues and attendant poor body image
  • Misuse of medications
  • Unrealistic expectations for medical care
  • Uncritical acceptance of information

Middle-level mediocrity

A few examples of choices that reflect mediocrity. This is “absence of illness” level of health. It does not so much diminish life quality as it fails to advance it. It’s a form of being stuck nowhere in particular, a boring and uneventful place of being.

  • Non-sickness associated with good health
  • Apathy
  • Low energy levels
  • Lack of commitment
  • Poor self-image
  • Unaware of negative norms and their influence.

Intermediate-level omnibus tinkering

This level entails sporadic efforts toward better health and advanced functioning. A beginning, but still missing is the conscious, determined commitment to sustain an all-out wellness lifestyle. A few examples:

  • Non-systematic health initiatives
  • Cyclical efforts to change
  • Experiments with short-term fixes and programs [e.g. the rhythm method of girth control]
  • Illness-avoidance motivations
  • Excessive faith in experts with all the answers, not to mention products and services on offer

High-level wellness

A systematic and pleasure-based understanding of what to do and how to sustain a deliberate commitment to a high quality of life. Examples might be:

  • Embracing personal responsibility
  • Initiating efforts at shaping supportive environment
  • Balancing positive initiatives in different dimensions of living
  • Resolving to adopt and utilize healthy scepticism and initial doubt while looking for objective data to assess choices
  • Conscious commitment to excellence
  • Developing a personal wellness plan

Which one would you guess, at this stage describes your lifestyle pattern? Are you closer to one of these broad-brush stages than another? Most people are likely to have features of all the patterns in their lifestyles, but one usually stands out as most representative of an overall pattern. Not to be concerned—this is only of personal historic interest. What matters, is where you want to go next—unless, of course, your pattern is High Level Wellness. In that case, the goal is to keep doing what you’re doing. Things are going great if that’s the case.

Remember, maintaining a wellness lifestyle is rarely done accidentally—it is more likely if done deliberately. To function at the heights is a choice and while satisfying and rewarding, it’s not always easy. That might be the most important “rule” to emphasize in approach to wellness.

Kickstart your journey to a fuller life

You are ready to begin journey to wellness. Let me send you off with ten simple suggestions for improving prospects for advancing, day after day, until you are better informed, more motivated and well prepared to pursue, achieve, and enjoy a wellness lifestyle.

  1. Advice can come from many sources but ultimately you must make the unique decisions for designing and maintaining quality for your health, work, and wellness.
  2. It is very difficult to be well and focused on excellence in lifestyle if you can’t express your talents and passions at work, in some manner.
  3. Coming to terms with the fact that change is inevitable and happening at a faster pace than ever before will enable you to deal more effectively with its manifestation at home, at work, and at play.
  4. Your lifestyle choices, including your attitudes, beliefs, emotional responses, and actions, will have a greater impact on your health and wellness performance than any and all doctors. Such choices also matter more than the economy, the environment, your income level, your age, your employer, your horoscope or your luck.
  5. Wellness is too important to be pursued grimly. Whatever your choices, make sure you are having fun.
  6. Modern medicine’s a wonderful thing but there are two problems: people expect too much of it and too little of themselves.
  7. Balance is a good thing and a worthy goal but there are times when you should forget about it in order to pursue a passion. Passions are not for the moderate or “balanced.” Passions are for lovers of life, paragons of artistry and champions among men and women.
  8. It is far better to take up healthy practices than to give up unhealthy habits. This is especially true in the beginning of a change program when you are seeking to enhance the quality of your lifestyle. It is wiser, for instance, to take up a satisfying activity that gives early positive results, such as vigorous daily walking for an hour or more, than to struggle to refrain from smoking. Of course, doing both is best.
  9. Lifestyle quality is seldom achieved by accident. You have to make a choice to live and work this way.
  10. It’s never too late to start a wellness lifestyle though sooner is always better than later.

This feature is an excerpt from the latest edition of Donald B Ardell’s 14 Days to Wellness. If you enjoyed this excerpt, you might also enjoy Donald’s other book REAL Wellness: It’s What’s New in Wellness Today.


A version of this article was first published in the July 2011 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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Donald B Ardell
Donald B Ardell, PhD is considered the topmost authority on wellness. He has written over 15 books and numerous articles on the topic. He has delivered talks on wellness-related topics in almost every state in the US, all Canadian provinces and across Australia. He doesn’t just write or speak about wellness but embodies it. He is considered one of the fastest runners in the world in his age category and has won four World Triathlon Championships. He is also one of 10 Americans given the Healthy America Fitness Leaders Award in 1991 by the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, Allstate Insurance Company and the U.S. Jaycees

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