Wellness is to 2015 like free love was to the ’70s – nobody can feel good without it. Yet in what seems to be a growing obsession with wellness, are we actually doing ourselves more harm than good?
The Wellness Syndrome (2015), penned by Carl Cederström, assistant professor of organisation theory at Stockholm University, and André Spicer, professor of organisational behaviour at City University London, argues that the pressure to maximise our health has started to work against us.
“Wellness has become an ideology. There’s an overwhelming belief that it can shape all aspects of our lives and that being healthy, happy and fit makes you into a morally good person,” explains Spicer. Spicer believes society now judges our success against these measures. The result is people are spending increasing amounts of time tracking their wellness and trying to maximise and improve it.
“Going for a walk and eating are no longer about pleasure, but about calculating steps and calories and questioning, ‘is this making me happy?’” Spicer thinks a decline in organised religion has left people looking for other things to believe in and commit to. He also notes mass globalisation has contributed to feelings of helplessness. “We feel loss of control over what our political parties do, our work, our family and home life.
The one thing we still feel in control of is our bodies and our personal wellness, so we have become fixated on that.” Health psychologist Marny Lishman agrees. Like other obsessions, she says our fixation on health is often about attempting to escape unhappiness. “Because of the nature of obsessive behaviour, people’s perceptions are altered and they lose perspective. Other parts of their life often fall by the wayside,” she explains.
“If individuals believe very strongly that a way of life can help with an area of pain or better them as individuals, then they can’t see there being any negative consequences.” a detox too far?
Many professionals have alluded to the downsides of a restrictively healthy lifestyle, while nutritional experts have revealed flaws in the health claims of many fad diets. Examples of these include The Lemon Detox and SkinnyMe tea. Both eliminate entire food groups and restrict vitamin and mineral intake, and topped a Dietitians Association of Australia’s (DAA) poll of diets to avoid in 2014.
“I’m seeing more and more people who are hooked on food trends and the latest diets, as well as labelling foods ‘good’ and ‘bad’,” says Kate Gudorf, dietitian and spokesperson for the DAA. “Yet, their understanding of ‘healthy’ is very murky, because they are exposed to so much inaccurate and misleading information.”
Twenty-seven-year-old Kate Horman can relate. “I made a conscious decision to eat more healthily, and initially cut out meat and carbs from my diet, and the obvious sugars and desserts,” she explains. “This quickly escalated to cutting out whole food groups, and eventually I was surviving on fruit, vegetables and low-fat yoghurt only.” Healthy eating messages and images, as well as the euphoric high she got from the declining number on the scales, exacerbated Horman’s obsession with food. “I became convinced that so many foods were ‘bad’ and, because my brain was starving, I couldn’t think straight,” she explains.
Before the physical signs of her illness became obvious to others, Horman recalls her mental suffering. “I can remember looking at myself and thinking, ‘I wish someone knew how sick I was’. I had no control over the situation anymore, and I was in a dark living hell I couldn’t escape. “I came close to dying so many times and spent a lot of time being rushed to emergency to be stabilised. I got to a point where I wasn’t living, but just existing.” With the help of her mother, Horman now has a changed attitude when it comes to healthy living and wellbeing. “It’s all about balance and it really is that simple, but simple doesn’t sell a lifestyle or diet plans,” she says. Extreme exercise It’s not just diets that have come under scrutiny.
Experts have also started exploring the negative effects of excessive exercise and over-training. A 2015 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology revealed that runners exercising at a fast pace three times weekly for up to four hours had a higher risk of dying than runners exercising between one and 2.4 hours, two to three times weekly, at a slow to moderate pace. “There is such a stigma in society that you need to be doing everything to ‘make it’, that exercise has almost become part of a social status,” explains Anna-Louise Moule, an accredited exercise physiologist. “Numerous gyms now run month-long fitness challenges where people undertake multiple high-intensity workouts each week, combined with restrictive diets or ‘detox’ plans and shared Facebook ‘results’ pages. It’s both unhealthy and obsessive.”
But this isn’t just restricted to gyms. Fitness and wellness programmes are also becoming big business in the corporate world. In The Wellness Syndrome, Spicer explains how there is now an underlying message to many employees that being unhealthy is unattractive and implies lack of willpower and discipline. “Employers are encouraging ‘walking’ meetings and lunchtime exercise, meaning wellness is now dictating the way we work,” he says.
Spicer says failure to conform brings associated feelings of guilt and internalised unhappiness. He adds this drives perpetual self-scrutiny and anxiety. And anxiety and mental health disorders are a big concern stemming from the wellness syndrome. “When individuals are putting excessive pressure on themselves, but still not achieving what they set out to do, they tend to become self-critical and this is when the negative spiral happens,” explains Dr Stephen Carbone of beyondblue, an organisation that promotes mental health across the community.
Carbone says problems arise when people become unrealistic in their wellbeing goals. “People feel they have failed if they haven’t lived up to their own benchmarks or expectations, and this can affect self-esteem and stress. This stress is the trigger for anxiety and depressive disorders.” While Spicer believes the wellness epidemic will get worse before it improves, he is encouraged by a growing backlash. “People are beginning to acknowledge that ‘perhaps this isn’t working out for me’, or ‘perhaps this is taking over too much of my life,’ and are seeking alternative ways to maximise health,” says Spicer.
If you want to escape the wellness syndrome, Spicer’s advice is to focus on the activity you are doing, rather than tracking or maximising the outcomes. “Create time and space in your life for wellness by eliminating mechanisms. Think about what makes you, as an individual, feel truly well and happy, and not about what society is telling you.”