Francesca Butler - Health Policy Partnership

Francesca Butler

Is the wellness industry dangerous for our health?

3 July 2023

Green smoothie with ingredients around the outside of the jar including kiwi, grapes, apple and broccoli

The wellness industry may be causing more harm than good, pointing to the gaps in our current health systems.

Every day, I wake up at 6:00, check the previous night’s sleep quality on my watch, do my ten-minute app-based mindfulness practice, go for a run, eat a low-GI breakfast of overnight oats and then log in to my work computer on my treadmill desk.

In actual fact, I roll out of bed at 8:40, wash my face and log in slumped on my chair with a bowl of cereal. The former scenario is merely aspirational – what I imagine I would do if only I were ‘good’.


Health vs. wellness

What is health? It’s tricky to define, but it has been described as ‘the ability to adapt and self-manage in the face of social, physical and emotional challenges’. Wellness, on the other hand, may be defined as ‘an active process through which people become aware of, and make choices towards, a more successful existence’. It is spiritual, mental, physical and aesthetic. In other words, while good health involves getting by in the face of adversity, wellness is all about optimisation.

Driving up the prices of ancient practices such as yoga results in these activities becoming less accessible to the less privileged.


Wellness is largely the domain of the wealthy

Wellness is a $1.5 trillion industry that is expected to grow by 5–10% each year. It encompasses apps, watches, kombucha, gyms, crystals and yoga retreats, among other products and services. Opting in can be costly, granted, but what’s the harm in taking such steps to feel your best?

One major downside of this quest for health is that it becomes exclusionary. Wellness is largely the domain of the privileged. It is arguably much easier for someone to achieve their ‘optimal state’ when they can afford an expensive gym membership, a personal nutrition coach and a private therapist.

Driving up the prices of ancient practices such as yoga results in these activities becoming less accessible to the less privileged. Commercialisation also removes them from their original philosophies and contexts, appropriating other cultures for profit in the name of wellbeing. A large survey published by the British Medical Journal found that yoga can offer significant physical and mental health benefits but that practitioners are predominately white, well-educated women. Although some teachers, such as Nadia Gilani, are striving to make yoga more accessible, far more needs to be done.


The culture of wellness can, paradoxically, result in anxiety and guilt

Wellness can also be problematic when people become obsessive about it. The list of things you think you ought to do can feel relentless, taking away from your time to simply be. And then, just when you’ve settled into your new routine, the guidance changes once again, and you’re reading yet another article about the terrible harm that medium glass of wine you had last Friday may have caused.

Michel Foucault spoke of ‘self-surveillance’, which has been adopted by some feminist thinkers (Sandra Lee Bartky and Susan Bordo, among many others) to talk about women’s relationships with their bodies. The idea is that chasing the perfection dictated by consumer culture serves to keep dissatisfied customers and exercisers constantly chasing (or feeling guilty for not chasing) that which does not exist: total wellness.

What’s more, some posit that wellness culture is used as a way to perpetuate ‘healthism’, which is the idea that a person’s health is entirely their own responsibility. A growing prevalence of this idea across society raises concerns about national health services and what social provisions the government ought to provide.

Does putting the responsibility of health on the individual mean that governments are held less accountable for social provisions that affect health, such as housing, adequate school meals and air pollution? If the wealthy and most powerful among us can afford more to improve their health, there may be fewer people advocating for greater public health for all. (See Australia’s air pollution masks for an idea of where we might be headed.)

Many people, especially marginalised groups, are failed by health systems. They are under-represented in clinical trials, and many of the challenges they face, including chronic pain and endometriosis, are frequently dismissed.

Failings of the health system may lead people to seek alternatives

In The Gospel of Wellness, Rina Raphael argues that many people (especially marginalised groups) are failed by health systems. They are under-represented in clinical trials, and many of the challenges they face, including chronic pain and endometriosis, are frequently dismissed. Furthermore, significant gaps in the provision of mental health services mean that people often have to try to find other means of helping themselves. These individuals may look to the wellness industry for solutions.

Women, people belonging to ethnic minority groups, individuals with disabilities and members of LGBTQ+ communities are more likely to be distrustful of the health system. Raphael does acknowledge that because many men are hesitant to visit the doctor, women’s comparatively frequent visits may mean that they are more likely to have a bad experience. However, this health-seeking behaviour may also indicate a poorly understood chronic health problem, leaving people vulnerable to the often dangerous promises of the wellness industry.


Patient empowerment and advocacy could provide a way for people to have more control over their health

Involving the people most likely to need health services is an important first step in meeting society’s health needs. Although health is holistic, the debate on what should fall under the remit of health systems is ongoing, so it is important that decision-makers listen to the public’s opinions on topics such as social prescribing. Finally, encouraging structural changes through public and occupational health (such as adequate parental leave and strategies to reduce employee burnout) can help people be both physically and mentally healthier.

Perhaps more equal access to appropriate and sufficient health services would stop us feeling the need to strive for wellness. On a personal level, I’ll opt not to feel guilty about my Sunday lie-in and will put away my running shoes in favor of a pleasant stroll.


The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of The Health Policy Partnership.