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The word wellness probably conjures up the image of a spa in your mind’s eye. The smell of massage oil and the sound of relaxing music wafting through the air as you sip calming ginger lemon tea. In other words, wellness invokes a sense of time spent away from life’s daily stresses to revitalize.

An effort at wellness can indeed be a good massage and herbal tea because nothing helps to relax your muscles and to rehydrate you better. But your quest for wellness doesn’t have to end there.

Wellness is an active process of moving towards a better physical, social, mental, emotional, even spiritual, state of being. Thinking about wellness is a far more positive experience than worrying about illness and disease. Yet if the World Wide Web is a measure, we seem to be more occupied with illness and disease than we are with wellness and well-being. A Google search on the words disease and illness yielded 684 million hits, while the hits on wellness and well-being were fewer by 135 million, at the time this column was written.

Perhaps we think of wellness less because we tend to take our health seriously only when we fall sick.

Doctors and medical researchers find it challenging to quantify wellness. Madhav Deo, vice-president of the Moving Academy of Medicine and Biomedicine, Pune, and a pre-eminent scientist, says the reason we are more tuned to illness than wellness is that Western medical science demands measurable parameters. If these parameters, like blood tests, MRIs and ultrasounds, establish a lack of disease, then the patient is termed healthy. But a healthy person need not be well.

Dr Deo gives an example. “Some lifestyle diseases cannot be diagnosed in their incubation periods," he says. “Cancer is one such disease, with an incubation period that can stretch for years, and someone who is going to get cancer in a decade may show no signs that are medically measurable 10 years before he or she is diagnosed." Such a person would be considered medically healthy, but they would not be on a path to wellness.

Bhushan Patwardhan, director of the Institute of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, Bangalore, agrees: “It is easier to diagnose a disease state than to measure a wellness state.There are hardly any reliable and validated measurement tools to know the ‘state of well-being’ or wellness in an individual. The measurements available are all subjective."

So health practitioners base their definition of wellness on the area of medicine that they specialize in. Meena Malkani, paediatrician with Jaslok Hospital and Research Centre, Mumbai, says her definition of wellness depends upon the age of her patient. For babies and toddlers she is largely concerned with physical well-being—but by the time they are teenagers, she is far more concerned with their mental and social well-being. Duru Shah, obstetrician and gynaecologist, Gynaecworld and Gynaecworld Fertility Clinic, Mumbai, finds that empowerment, a social and spiritual aspect of wellness, is crucial. She asks, “If a woman is physically in good health but isn’t empowered to decide when she gets pregnant or to choose to keep the baby should she get pregnant, how is she well?"

For Arpita Anand, a psychologist based in Goa, wellness and mental wellness are inseparable. “You can be completely free from mental illness but may still need to work on your mental well-being if you want to move towards feeling better and preventing disease in the future," she says.

A health practitioner looking at your wellness from a professional lens will give you an accurate but incomplete picture. Wellness has five elements—physical, mental, social, spiritual and emotional—and they resonate with your life’s current frequency. You need to address each element and it requires a decisive investment in time and effort. Perhaps that’s another reason why we think of wellness less than we think of disease.

But making a commitment (by thinking and practising wellness rather than cure) towards wellness while life happens has its rewards. One of the outcomes is that you’ll be much more likely to prevent lifestyle diseases—cancer, heart disease, diabetes and depression. And should the genetic cards you are dealt destine a disease despite your best wellness efforts, you will still be better off because your body and mind will be stronger to cope. You’ll be armed with the right tools and strategies to improve your condition.

An outcome we can all live with. That’s the power of wellness.

Sujata Kelkar Shetty, PhD, writes on public health issues and is a research scientist trained at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, US.

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