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How the Wellness Industry Conquered the World
16 May 2019

The spa weekend on your anniversary, your daily vitamin supplement, the Fitbit sitting on your wrist, and a course of acupuncture. Your weekly yoga class, the off-site team building day, and a superfood salad with a coconut water to go. Wellness choices? Or just, life? Edwina Langley examines the rise and rise of the wellness phenomenon.

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Our quest for wellness is a global phenomenon, so widespread and now ingrained it has woven itself into the fabric of myriad lives. What began as a self-care movement in the 1970s has become, to many, second nature. Far beyond the occasional massage, wellness is part of our everyday life choices. Indeed, the Global Wellness Institute valued the wellness market at an astonishing $4.2trillion in 2017; an estimated 5.3 per cent of global economic output.

How on earth did we get here? And more pertinently, what lies ahead? To find out, let’s start at the beginning. What actually is ‘wellness’?

Although the word itself dates back to the 1650s, the first interpretation of what we might recognise as the ‘concept of wellness’ was put forward by Halbert L. Dunn – the American physician, widely regarded as the ‘father of the wellness movement’. In a 1959 article entitled What High-Level Wellness Means he wrote, “Good health can exist as a relatively passive state of freedom from illness in which the individual is at peace with his environment – a condition of relative homeostasis. Wellness is conceptualised as dynamic – a condition of change in which the individual moves forward, climbing toward a higher potential of functioning.” Wellness was not limited to individual body parts, like the heart and nervous system, he added, but involves “the total individual, as a personality and in all of his uniqueness.” 

Today, we might see it as health in mind, body and soul. And it is a concept that has slowly crept up on us in recent years, presenting itself now as the definitive 21st century goal. However old the word might be, wellness is a modern aspiration. Right?



Dissect a number of wellness practices and their roots can actually be traced back thousands of years. Take Ayurveda, for instance. The ancient Hindu health system based on the connection between body and mind, of which yoga and meditation are vital components, is believed to have originated as an Indian oral tradition as far back as 6,000 B.C.E. Traditional Chinese Medicine – also centred on the link between body and mind, and our interactions with the environment, encompassing acupuncture, massage therapy and feng shui – is similarly thought to date back millenniums, to around 3,000 BCE.
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It wasn’t until much, much later – the latter half of the first millennium later – that the world was introduced to such alternative medicines as homeopathy (brainchild of German physician Samuel Hahneman) and osteopathy (founded by Andrew Taylor Still, an American surgeon), in 1796 and 1874 respectively.

But it was in 1948 that wellness entered the global sphere; the World Health Organisation (WHO) was founded that year, and in the preamble to its constitution it defined health as ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’.

Health now meant wellness.

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Ten years on, father of wellness Dunn published his book High-Level Wellness (1961) and whilst it received little recognition at the time, it was devoured a decade later by Dr. John W. Travis in 1972. So engaged was he, in 1975 he set up the Wellness Resource Centre in Mill Valley, California; an organisation offering self-care programmes to achieve that most coveted of states, ‘wellness’.

National fame came for the centre in 1979 when journalist Dan Rather included it in a CBS News 60 Minutes episode. Wellness was a movement “catching on all over the country” among the medical profession – “the ultimate in something called ‘self-care’ in which patients are taught to diagnose common illnesses, and where possible, to treat themselves,” Rather described.

“It’s recognising that there’s more to life than the absence of sickness,” explained Travis. “That health is simply not the absence of disease. It’s an on-going dynamic state of growth.”

From the Eighties onwards and into the new millennium, wellness initiatives gathered momentum as more and more people focused on healthy eating, fitness and meditation as a means to achieving well-being. Slowly but surely ‘wellness’ became part of the vernacular; by 2013, only 29 per cent of millennials defined ‘healthy’ as ‘not falling sick’ (far below the 46 per cent of baby boomers, a study by Aetna found). But why is it that wellness is so especially prominent today? Richard Watson, author of Digital vs Human: How We’ll Live, Love, and Think in the Future, says, “Where our interest in wellness has emerged more recently is through personal technology. On the one hand, fitness tracking has put more focus on physical well-being, but on the other hand, the individual mobile phone and the smartphone have focused more attention on mental health of late. Social media has accentuated this even more.”

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Of course, there are other factors at play too. Juxtaposed against our interest in self-care is the unsettling rise in preventable lifestyle illnesses. According to the WHO, obesity has nearly tripled since 1975, with 650million people classified as obese in 2016, and the statistics on diabetes are similarly dire. 108million people were living with the disease in 1980, but by 2014, this had risen to 422 million – an increase largely attributed to a surge in type 2 diabetes, of which obesity and being overweight can be factors.



Then there is stress, the ‘health epidemic of the 21st century’ as the WHO dubbed it. A 2018 YouGov survey by the Mental Health Foundation found that 74 per cent of adults in Britain alone had been so stressed at times in the last year, they had felt ‘overwhelmed’ or ‘unable to cope’.



With such serious conditions on the rise and with them, the cost of treatment, attention has turned other solutions: wellness solutions.



Of course, where there is demand, there is opportunity, and what opportunity has been seized. A casual glance at what makes up the umbrella term ‘lifestyle’ –diet, beauty, fashion, health, fitness and travel etc – and it’s hard to identify a sector wellness hasn’t infiltrated. Has it become just another commodity? So it would seem.



Indeed, the GWI has identified an entire ‘Global Wellness Economy’, made up of no less than ten markets. These range from ‘Personal Care, Beauty and Anti-Aging’ to ‘Healthy Eating, Nutrition and Weight Loss’, ‘Fitness and Mind-Body’, and ‘Workplace Wellness’.  One of the fastest-growing of these sectors was ‘Wellness Tourism’, up 6.5 per cent between 2015 and 2017. Yet faster-growing still was the ‘Spa Economy’, which leaped up 9.8 per cent, from $99billion to $119billion in the same timeframe, and is predicted to reach a whopping $128billion by 2022. Why so popular?



“Spas have become part of the language of hotels,” says Suzanne Duckett, spa and wellness expert and author of Bathe: The Art of Finding Rest, Relaxation and Rejuvenation in a Busy World. “Wellness and health are at the front of our minds as we are all more anxious and stressed than ever before. We have to have help now to slow down – it’s more of a necessity than a luxury… Without a spa, it’s as if the hotel hasn’t committed to your total relaxation, mentally as well as physically. Health and hospitality are more linked than ever before.”



Hotels around the world are stepping up to meet demand, and with competition rife, they are under pressure to create ever-more innovative ways to cater to customers’ wellness requirements.



“Our guests are typically looking to relax, disconnect and explore,” affirms Paloma Espinosa of Jumeirah Port Soller Hotel & Spa in Mallorca, home to the Talise Spa, which won Best Hotel Spa in Spain at the World Spa Awards for the last four years’ running. To accommodate to this, Talise Spa taps into ‘environmental wellness’– living in harmony with nature – offering unique experiences to bring guests closer to Mallorca’s natural surroundings: treatments based on ingredients grown on the island (almonds and olives) and a hydropool looking out over the Serra de Tramuntana mountain range, are two examples.

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But it isn’t just holidaymakers that spas are hoping to attract. As Duckett explains, they are also appealing to locals. “I think in the future, big name hotels will bring in handpicked roving experts – more therapeutic therapists, like psychologists, and proper stress and sleep experts – so that the local community, as well as leisure and corporate travellers, will visit when they’re there.”

Spas and tourism are, of course, just two of the markets cashing in on our preoccupation with wellness. There are a number of others. Take a look at the food industry and that lucrative buzzword ‘superfood’. Although nothing more than a marketing term to describe foods with apparent ‘health benefits’, everything from quinoa to avocados, chia seeds and seaweed have found themselves attached to the label in recent years. Whilst the EU did its best to curb pseudoscientific claims – in 2007, banning the marketing of products made or sold in the EU as such, unless there was credible scientific evidence to support each claim – our appetite for superfoods has proved insatiable. By 2014, a YouGov survey for Bupa revealed 61 per cent of Brits alone revealed they had bought, eaten or drunk specific food because it carried a ‘superfood’ stamp.



Then, of course, there is beauty. The GWI valued the ‘Personal Care, Beauty and Anti-Aging’ sector as a $1trillion market in 2017. An examination into the impact wellness has had on the beauty industry would be a report in itself, and a lengthy one at that. But one need only look at current fads within the beauty sphere to see its impact.



As health and beauty move closer together – as awareness of how inner health can affect our physical appearance increases – we could see wellness’ influence over the beauty market develop at a faster rate. And so it seems undeniable: wellness is much more than a health goal or a lifestyle choice. It is an industry. One with so much clout, it is impacting all-manner of others, the world over. This leads to a pointed question: where is wellness going?



For a year-long forecast, we might look to the Global Wellness Summit’s 2019 Wellness Trends report. A number of these trends are predicted to develop over the coming year, and one of which is linked to the very trend-led of industries, fashion. Think that means more athleisure? Think bigger. Wellness is, in fact, expected to permeate the full cycle of fashion. From how our clothes are designed (via ‘slow fashion that transcends trends’, or clothes catering to gender fluidity or a greater range of body shapes), to how they are made (using cruelty-free and vegan fabrics, or those with ‘zero-waste sustainable fibres that decompose’, or those made from waste), to what we get from wearing them (smart clothes bolstering wellness or incorporating fitness tech), to how our clothes are cleaned (more ‘self-cleaning’ garments) to what happens at the end of the line – more recycling and ‘take-back programmes’ in stores – wellness is expected to permeate the fibres of what we wear. Literally.

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Other areas the report looked at include how nature (specifically, time spent in it) might soon become a GP prescription, how we are entering into the ‘age of personalised nutrition’ – an era where science and tech will decide what diets are best-suited to our health and well-being – and how wellness is even reaching into death… A contradiction in terms? More, based on a shift towards things like ‘greener burials’, and the exploration of death to lessen fear and therefore lead to greater mental well-being day-to-day.



So that’s in the next year. Beyond? A report released last year by the Gottlieb Duttweiler Institute – Wellness 2030, The New Techniques of Happiness – looked a little further into the wellness future, at ‘a new era of wellness that will likely be shaped by the high-tech world of tomorrow’. Humans will merge with tech, it predicts, as digitalisation will influence ‘our habits, needs and desires’. Biohackers (people who ‘hack’ physiology in order to find better ways of functioning) will come to provide various fast tracks to wellness, and so-called data selfies – digital replicas of ourselves made-up of our personal data – will become ‘intelligible to machines and thus able to be coded for improved well-being’.



In relationships, algorithms will help us pinpoint partners best-suited to our health and happiness, and as for self-awareness, tech will be able to read our emotions and behaviours so acutely, they will be able to provide comprehensive pictures of our health, in body and mind.



That’s where industry is heading. But what about us? Where are we going with our wellness journeys? “In the future, there is going be this phenomenal demand for ways to disconnect and relax,” says Watson. “We are seeing much more questioning of our use of tech. Not a luddite thing – ‘smash it up’ – it’s trying to seek more of a balance to switch things off occasionally. Expect more interest in sleep – better quality of beds and bedding, and beds and pillows using tech to aid sleep – and a shift in focus from the physical – ‘I want to look nice’ – to the mental: yoga, meditation, mindfulness, and beyond.”

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Poignantly he adds, “Human interactions and relationships are increasingly being mediated and replaced by machines, so in the more distant future I think we’ll also see people wanting to reconnect with other humans – especially for those who live and/or work alone.”



Whatever the future may hold for wellness – the goal, the lifestyle, the industry – it seems clear it certainly has one. “Busyness, the increasing pace of life, feelings of fatigue, stress, burn-out and anxiety – due to globalisation, tech, de-layered organisations, unstable work and relationships, and errand angst – are all reasons we continue to turn to wellness,” Watson says. “And I don’t see any of that calming down any time soon.”



It’s taken thousands of years to get here, but wellness has truly arrived. And it appears it is here to stay.

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