The Early History of the Wellness Concept

(Die frühe Geschichte des Wellnesskonzepts, Autor: Dr. Donald B. Ardell, original version released on May 25, 2012)

The term wellness has been in the public domain in America for about 120 years. Halbert L. Dunn got things started, but decades passed before his efforts reached a critical mass and went public. In the late seventies, my doctoral dissertation about an alternative to doctors, drugs and disease was published by Rodale Press. It described the wellness concept and gave Dr. Dunn's term a visibility boost, as did Dr. John Travis' Wellness Center in Mill Valley, CA. In a 1976 Prevention article about this ground-breaking center, I described the Travis Illness-Wellness Continuum. This now-famous paradigm distinguished the nature and consequences of treating illness versus promoting health. The Wellness Center was the first designed to inform, inspire and support clients whose goals were to become healthier.

Wellness got another boost from a series of summer gatherings at a small central Wisconsin university. Initially a local event, the setting and forums proved attractive to a wider audience, including exemplars of health (the wellest of the well) and many regular folks curious to know more about the new idea. Under the leadership of the charismatic physician Bill Hettler, the modest summer gatherings morphed into the greatest wellness show on planet earth, the annual National Wellness Conferences. For the best summary of that era, read Bill Hettler's commentary here.

pioneers of wellness Ardell, Travis, Hettler, Allen

Väter des des Wellnesskonzepts und Pioniere der frühen Wellnessbewegung (v.l.n.r.: Don Ardell, Jack Travis, Bill Hettler, Robert Allen)

In addition, a number of influential industry and medical system leaders convinced the  directors of several key agencies to adopt the word wellness, including the American Hospital Association and several large companies (e.g., Sentry Insurance and Kimberly-Clark). These and other companies christened their fitness complexes as wellness centers and added classes and other offerings under the wellness banner for employees. Soon enough, the word had gone public and wellness programs began to take root like kudzu.

Alas, the meaning of the term wellness was widely diffused. Before long, the word confused more than it informed - and the result was that the original and, in my view, the most important qualities of the wellness concept got left out of the ensuing wellness movement. What a pity that while the word wellness has became popular, the foundation ideas of the concept described by Dunn, Travis, myself and others have been neglected. It might be helpful, before discussing astrobiology and contemporary worksite wellness, to review the original elements.  

Four basic elements expressed decades ago when the concept was first promoted can be summarized.

The first is that personal responsibility is a key to well-being. The health or medical system in the last four or five decades of the 20th century (as today) has done little or nothing to promote personal responsibility. For this reason, a focus in the early wellness years addressed this reality and noted how changes could be instituted. Was was described as a mindset or philosophy that embraces personal responsibility. A person who perceived him or herself accountable for the quality of life experienced would be more inclined to embrace positive possibilities and would thus spend less energy feeling sorry, making excuses or being resigned to mediocrity.

A second idea is that environments matter. Accepting personal responsibility and acting on it is a lot easier for a few than for most - and nearly impossible for some. Norms and customs, genetics, cultures, most not even subject to conscious awareness, affect health status and life quality more than anything else. This includes a desire to be responsible for one's health and quality of life. Another way to express this reality is to acknowledge that while we might wish otherwise, life simply is not fair - get over it and try to do what you can anyway. Many early wellness promoters, particularly Robert F. Allen (shown at far right next to Bill Hettler, Jack Travis and yours truly around 1980), emphasized environments and developed systems to appreciate, assess and selectively change cultures. This work gave those exposed to the wellness concept a better chance to appreciate, understand and, most important, adapt wellness insights for healthier, more satisfying lifestyles in concert with others similarly disposed.

A third idea is that wellness is a positive philosophy. It is not a strategy for risk reduction, disease avoidance or life extension. It is not a form of alternative, holistic, complementary or other variant of medical care. These may be as important as wellness but none is the same as or part of wellness. They all seek to address problems, real or potential. However, wellness is not intended to represent a better way to cure or even prevent - it was described in the beginning and remains a way to advance, to enhance and to flourish. Worksite wellness has been exclusively about reducing or eliminating hazardous conditions (e.g., being fat, having high blood pressure or other dangerous symptoms) and bad behavior (e.g., smoking, drinking too much, not exercising, lacking social skills). Programs dealing with problems are not wellness in nature. It might be that the best returns from worksite wellness (so-called) have been the lessons learned about effective and not effective ways to motivate employees to do things management deems desirable. It may be true that the risk-focused efforts under the wellness banner have saved companies a bit of money on health insurance for their workforces. It is unlikely that anything of merit has been gained relative to advancing the level of wellness that most employees enjoy.

The fourth idea is that physical health is a means, not an end. The purpose of wellness is to enhance existence. Wellness entails initiatives and choices that promote good cheer, happiness, optimism, exuberance, critical thinking and the like. The idea of wellness is and always has been to build strengths, not to overcome problems. Wellness is about nurturing the best life manageable, focusing on enjoyable social networking and connections with others, gaining added love and self-respect from service, from good choices, from enriched relationships and so on. Wellness is about creating a pleasant life and exploring possibilities large and small for doing so.

Credit: Don Ardell's latest book is entitled, Not Dead Yet: World Triathlon Champions 75 + Offer 56 Tips for Thriving and Flourishing in Later Life. His website is