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(Don's Report to the World)

The Word Versus the Concept of Wellness: Contrasting Experiences in the U.S. and the Federal Republic of Germany

Sunday August 24, 2014


There is more to the history of the word "wellness" than to the wellness concept. Why? Because the word has been in use longer that a genuine wellness movement has existed. The differences between the development of the word versus that of the concept can be appreciated by tracing the evolution of both during the past 30 years. Some of the key ideas are illustrated by a review of the word and the concept in German spas.

The Global Spa and Wellness Summit

Global Spa & Wellness SummitThe 2014 Global Spa and Wellness Summit (GSWS), set for Marrakech, Morocco on September 10-12, will attract about 500 industry leaders eager to explore ways to "fast forward" the business of spas. At this year’s Summit, a special focus will be on the role spas can and should play in promoting wellness. A key variable that will affect the nature of these discussions and outcomes of the Summit will be the manner in which the term and, more important, the concept of wellness, is interpreted and embraced as the leaders of the industry “fast forward” toward an expanded future promoting healthier lifestyles.

The term wellness has a complex past; the concept less so. It is my contention that while the word has been used and misused extensively, there has not yet been a consistent wellness movement. More significantly, no movement emerged that even remotely resembles the nature of the idea envisioned by Halbert L. Dunn (in the 50’s and 60’s) and, beginning in the 1970’s, by Jack Travis, Bill Hettler, Bob Allen and many others, including myself.

Lofty Aspirations

My interpretation of the current situation is that the absence of direction, the state of flux and the lack of a shared vision about the nature of wellness as a transformative idea is a good thing in that it presents a wide opening for coordinated action in a new direction. Industry leaders are not bogged down at present in dysfunctional wellness programming, as is the case with worksite wellness at the corporate level in America. This means that spa industry leaders are positioned to move forward fast if they come to accept a concept of wellness that fits with current industry models and seems likely to energize, strengthen and expand the markets of the spa world. In short, the time may be just right for a concept model of wellness worthy of the original ideas—but even better. The spa industry may be ready for wellness that means positive health, that deals with life quality well beyond the norm of non-sickness and that embraces life-long education in the art and science of good living. Destination resort spas with the sufficient resources and leadership are ideal environments wherein day visitors and guests for extended stays may learn about and be guided toward personal enrichment. The spa agenda might include matters as consequential as human happiness, the continued expansion of meanings, purposes, passions and loves and a wide range of skill sets for boosting effective decisions-making, expanding personal freedoms and otherwise discovering ways to enjoy more exuberance on a daily basis.

In summary, the spa industry may be able to do more to advance the REAL wellness concept and do it better than has been the case for the 40-some years that the term wellness has been widely recognized, in all its divergent meanings.

History Here and Elsewhere

Elements of what many people associate with the term wellness can be traced in part to 19th century American religious/cultural movements, some led by colorful quacks not unlike cereal king Dr. John Harvey Kellogg of Battle Creek, Michigan, the subject of the 1994 hit movie, The Road to Wellville

All this is quite different from the active health promotion/lifestyle change wellness concept promoted by Dr. Halbert L. Dunn and Drs. John Travis, Bill Hettler, Bob Allen, myself with High Level Wellness: An Alternative to Doctors, Drugs and Disease (Rodale Press, 1977) and others.

Alas, by the 1980's and since, both the term and the concept have been medicalized and/or transformed in the U.S. into a cost containment strategy by business organizations seeking to reduce their employee health insurance cost burdens.

Good News/Bad News

Therefore, this confluence of factors affecting the use of the term and the current understanding of the wellness concept boils down to a bad news/good news situation. The bad news is that the word wellness by itself is a term that has lost most of it’s explanatory usefulness. In addition, it is worth acknowledging that the wellness movement has not amounted to much, so far. The good news is that the term can be revitalized with a modifier that means something (i.e., REAL wellness) and spas can lead the way to a coherent movement that enhances well-being.

The key will be to shift from wellness with a biomedical, control-oriented focus to one with an orientation to life quality enrichment for the positive rewards of added human happiness, including better health status.

German Spa Wellness

German Wellness AssociationHere is one assessment of the nature of wellness in Germany, over the last 40 or so years, from a spa leader’s perspective. The information is gleaned from the writings of and my interviews with the head of the German Wellness Association, Lutz Hertel.

Unfortunately, wellness has in recent years been infected with tourism thinking at many spas, leading some to think of it more as a treatment than a lifestyle and just about anything that is pleasurable, that recharges or pampers. Too bad. There is no harm and much good in warm water pools, saunas, steam baths, massage and cosmetic treatments but they should not be confused as a part of wellness insights, attitudes and behaviors designed for optimal health (consistent with individual capabilities).

The German Wellness Association (GWA)

German Wellness Association Leaders

This non-profit association was founded in 1990. It has worked tirelessly to advance the REAL wellness concept. The organizational members of GWA share a common understanding of wellness as a positive concept focused on reason, exuberance, athleticism and liberty. Spa members must meet explicit quality standards. Debunking nonsense wellness and awarding good practice certificates and accreditations have become GWA ?s major area of responsibility. In order to set and establish quality standards for wellness, providers since 2002 have completed a certification program. To date, several hundred on-site quality checks have been performed by GWA. Hotels, resorts, spas and thermal springs are tested by professional mystery shoppers. When quality criteria are met, organizational members as well as non-members of GWA are awarded the well-respected seal of quality by the GWA.

In Germany, the REAL wellness concepts of personal responsibility for health and life quality, environmental sustainability and other life enhancement elements are being recognized by the spa-going public. Let's hope that industry leaders in Marrakech and throughout the world thereafter will profit from their leadership advancing REAL wellness, not the medical or cost containment model of ersatz wellness.

All the best. Be well.

Signed Don Ardell

(Ed. Note: Views expressed in this and other columns are those of the author and not necessarily those of the SeekWellness Editorial Board.)

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