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an interview with Bill Hettler, MD

by Donald B. Ardell, Ph. D.

Gerhard William Hettler, III, MD. is the president of the board of directors of the National Wellness Institute (NWI) and one of its co-founders. At the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, Bill acts as staff physician and the director of health service and lifestyle improvement program. He is probably best known as one of the creators of the National Wellness Conference. This week long conference has influenced the lives of thousands of people over the last 20-plus years. The hexagon shaped model of wellness dimensions that he created in 1976 can be seen at http://www.hettler.com. The wellness definition that Bill has used since the early 70's is: Wellness is an active process through which people become aware of, and make choices toward, a more successful existence.

Don:I remember very well a snowy night in the Winter of 1978 when you brought me to UW-SP to speak to students and small groups of wellness conspirators who were in the first stages of creating what has become the annual National Wellness Conferences. On the way in from the airport, you described why you planned to remain at a small college in Wisconsin despite other then more glamorous opportunities. You went on at some length and with great enthusiasm about your vision for a well campus. Almost a quarter of a century has passed since those days of our relative youth. Now the week long annual wellness conferences held during the third week in July are the biggest event of the year for all manner of health promoters. Are you surprised at the extent of wellness awareness that has been achieved during these years at the University of Wisconsin Stevens-Point? And, are you satisfied with the current state of affairs and planning a few new worlds to conquer?

Bill:I must admit that when we started the Wellness Conference in the mid 1970's we never thought that we would be part of such a large movement. A little history may be in order. UW-SP was among the first schools to use the health hazard appraisal (HHA) and other elements of "prospective medicine." In the early 1970's, one of our nurses participated in a seminar in California conducted by John Travis, after which she persuaded the director of our health service to purchase materials from Dr. Travis. This was the introduction of wellness to Stevens Point.

About this time, I started to work on what we call the Lifestyle Assessment Questionnaire (LAQ), a variant on the HHA. We included in our instrument a wellness inventory, among other new features. Our LAQ was computerized and made available nationwide. Later, I collaborated with two UW-SP colleagues (Dennis Elsenrath and Fred Leafgren) to upgrade this instrument and to respond satisfied users who wanted more, including training in order that they could adapt and utilize these materials.

Soon, another colleague, Bob Bowen, joined our little group and I became director of the student health service. Since Bob and I had been part of the workshops held the previous two summers, we decided to identify the next conference as the Third Annual Wellness Promotion Strategies Conference in order to attract a national audience. Besides, we thought "Third Annual" sounded better and more persuasive than something like "This is the first time we tried this and we're not too sure anybody will come but, for what it's worth, here is description of the crazy idea we have for the First Annual Wellness Promotion Strategies Conference!"

Apparently it worked for about 250 people registered for the "Third Annual" conference and many more have attended every year since then. Last year, the event attracted over 1600! We are busy at this time making plans for the 26th Annual National Wellness Conference (which, of course, is really "only" the 23rd) set for the week of July 14-20, 2001.

So, that's a brief history of what happened before and since your "historic" visit in the 1970's.

Don:Many friends of the National Wellness Conference, myself included, think that it has become too airy-fairy in recent years, with religious and/or New Age speakers holding revival-like sessions marked by hand-holding, magical thinking, sentimentality, and promises of holistic healing. I know you don’t promote or discourage this, but staff leadership seems to enjoy full reign to take the Conference in this direction, provided it continues to prove popular and thus profitable. There remain many positive features of the event, enough so that those of us who favor a rational, secular focus continue to promote the conference at every turn, serve on the Institute board, and make the time to spend a week in Steven Point in July, year after year, at our own expense. Are you aware of this disgruntlement, does it seem reasonable and are there plans to make any reforms along the lines of less wishful thinking and touch-feely, and more critical thinking and rationality?

Bill:The Board of Directors has encouraged the staff to provide a wide array of sessions each year. There are a number of reviewers involved in making recommendations for the final program each summer. We try to offer challenging topics that will draw people to the conference. The conference is the main revenue source for the National Wellness Institute.

An objective evaluation of the content of the conference and the attendance at the wide variety of sessions will confirm that our participants, most of whom are professionals in the field, believe that the planners have done a good job of offering variety.

These reviewers include traditional health providers and university professors who are dedicated to quality content. Conference presentations and workshops represent a wide range of topics that are intended to stimulate and challenge participants intellectually and serve as a source of personal and professional renewal, as well.

Don:I know you are preparing for the challenging Kortelopet X-country ski race at the end of the month in Wisconsin and that you, along with your lovely wife Carol, maintain a high level of fitness year-round. Your children Anna and John (13 and 14, respectively) are also very fit, as are your marvelous two grown children from your first marriage, Toby and Joeli. Where do you stand on the continuing debate about the relative influence of parental guidance, heredity, environment, and personal choice in leading young people to grow into healthy, positive adults with a commitment to the kind of personal excellence which you yourself embody so well?

Bill: I think we teach best by the example we set. As Gandhi is supposed to have said, "Be the change you wish for the world." Our kids have always been encouraged to be active with us. Skiing, biking, running, and sports are all part of our lives.

Having said that, my colleague, Dennis Elsenrath, would remind us that there is a lot of data to suggest that heredity is the largest single factor influencing children's behavior and personality. The next most important influence seems to be peers -- especially for adolescents. Research seems to suggest that parents have relatively little influence on personality traits and behavior, compared to genes and peers.

My oldest Joeli climbed Mt Kilimanjaro last summer. Even though she is a busy emergency room doctor, she works hard to stay fit. I'm sure we all would like to think we have made a positive difference for our own offspring. It could be that the best we did was pass on some genes that were better than ours or connected with someone else who passed on genes better than ours.

Don:What is your assessment of the impact of the wellness movement to date? Is it clearly defined, in your opinion? Specifically, do you think many understand the difference between wellness and prevention? Has the NWI played an effective role in promoting any particular ideas, perspectives, and mindsets that are unique and different from general good advice about the value of exercise, a healthy diet, managing stress, and so on?

Bill:The wellness movement has become part of the landscape. The term is misused as often as it is correctly used. There are many people using the term to refer to anything that is not medical care, but health related. This is a far cry from the true meaning of wellness. The institute has tried to meet the needs of the professionals working in the wellness fields. We provide a forum for sharing ideas and informing members of topics of common interest. We have had the good fortune to have many outstanding wellness leaders as presenters and participants each year at the conference, which has given all participants the opportunity to share and learn from one another.

Don: Recently, I interviewed Grant Donovan and that interview contains numerous mentions of the NWC and the Institute. Among other things, Grant said the likely explanation why he has never been invited to keynote the conference is due to the politically incorrect issues he and I got people to talk about when we did a certain workshop about six years ago. He surmised that the conference organizers worry that I (we) might corrupt the assembled masses by asking them all to think for themselves during keynotes and workshops. Personally, I think doing so would be a big improvement on the hand holding, hugging, and swaying that goes on ad nauseum.

What is your response to this?

Bill:Each year the staff and the board wrestle with the decision as to which speakers to select for keynotes and featured speakers. The decisions are based on consistency with the theme for the year, balance within the various professional tracks, appeal to our intended audience, proven success of the presenter, and cost. The fact that there were a few dissatisfied participants at a session years ago does not enter into the decision about keynote speakers. The message/topic that would be requested for a given slot is the main consideration. The staff and board respect the conference attendees and assume that they do think for themselves. We also look for speakers who can connect with participants in a manner that will help take them take the next step in their understanding and perhaps readiness to change. We respect that you, Grant and others may have a different view. I personally find Grant a man with great ideas. I have enjoyed every opportunity to discuss issues with both you and Grant.

Don:In the face of increasing obesity and lower levels of physical fitness, what should governments, companies, and other key influence groups do that they are not now doing or planning that might make a difference?

Bill:The future costs of "illth" will eventually lead people and the organizations responsible for paying for the costs of illth care to build in incentives to encourage self-care. There is a trend of shifting much of the cost of illth care to the employee (citizen). The golden rule ("He or she with the gold will make the rules") will prevail. Up to now, many people have had someone else paying most of the cost of illth care. If George W. Bush is smart, he will bring back Arnold (as chairman of the President's Council) and give him some support. It is time for leadership at the top to promote living well as if it were a part of the national goal.

Don:What does the future hold for you, Bill? Will you be retired anytime soon? How will you spend your years after you reach 65 or 70 or so?

Bill: I still have a 3rd grader. I plan to continue working as long as my health is good. I still have fun every day. I enjoy sharing ideas and creating new approaches to wellness promotion. I enjoy the interaction with students at UW-SP. My colleague John Munson and I have team taught the Healthy American course for over ten years. We have taught over 15,000 students during this time with a clear goal of raising their consciousness about the choices they have as individuals and collectively within society to promote health and wellness. We have generated over 30,000 student credit hours. 

Last weekend we took a group of students to a camp for a brainstorming retreat. I enjoyed hearing their ideas for how the university could be better in the future. They were able to have fun without using any chemicals. They had good ideas, and were not intimidated by the faculty and staff. It could be that inter-generational dialogue is another behavior that leads to useful longevity. I am always impressed by the energy and enthusiasm of college students.

I love creating material for the Internet. My latest projects will include digital streaming audio and video. I will be adding to my personal website at http://www.hettler.com.

February 2001

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