In Chicago you can reserve a “wellness suite” at the Marriott Fairfield Inn and Suites, complete with organic cotton bedding, aromatherapy dream sachets and a healthy minibar. If you’re in danger of defaulting on your student loan, you can participate in American Student Assistance’s “wellness” program for repayment. And if your dog’s coat is a little dull, you can get Old Mother Hubbard® Wellness® Pet Food supplements (broccoli, cauliflower, kelp and garlic—yum yum!).

Your clients have no shortage of “wellness” opportunities, but they may be mystified by what the concept of wellness really means. “The word has been co-opted for so many purposes, including some that are the opposite of what wellness is,” says wellness pioneer Donald B. Ardell, PhD, of Tampa, Florida, who wrote High Level Wellness: An Alternative to Doctors, Drugs, and Disease (Rodale 1977), the first mass-market wellness book. He has since written more than a dozen books on wellness and writes a daily essay connecting what he calls “real wellness” with current events and health issues, available at

“In the 1960s Halbert L. Dunn [a physician] was the first to use the term wellness, referring to a lifestyle approach that pursued elevated states of physical and psychological well-being. He described it as a disciplined commitment to self-mastery,” recalls Ardell. “Since then, the term has gotten confused with holistic health, disease prevention, health education and health promotion. Somehow wellness got ‘stuck’ in the health field, which has more of a disease/treatment framework. But wellness could just as well be founded in psychology, sociology or even public policy. I think it’s often easier for people to think of wellness in terms of ‘quality existence’ rather than health.”

Ardell defines wellness as “a choice to assume responsibility for the quality of your life.” The areas most closely associated with wellness, says Ardell, are “self-responsibility; exercise and fitness; nutrition; stress management; critical thinking; meaning and purpose, or spirituality; emotional intelligence; humor; play; and effective relationships.”

The National Wellness Institute defines wellness in a similar way, as “an active process through which people become aware of, and make choices towards, a more successful existence.” The institute identifies six dimensions of wellness: physical, spiritual, intellectual, social, emotional and occupational.

Ardell concedes that despite our focus on wellness, people are not getting well. “Based on the evidence, we’re going downhill. Expecting more of themselves than is realistic or healthy overwhelms people. [Corporate coach] Grant Donovan and I have created a new concept, called “I Can’t Do It,” that encourages people, with a lot of humor, to recognize that they can’t do it all, and to start focusing on small, realistic things they can do.”

Well-Being, Not Wellness

Kate Larsen, PCC, founder of Winning LifeStyles Inc., in Minneapolis, also emphasizes small but significant changes to enhance wellness—but she’s reluctant to use the “w” word. Larsen is an adviser, a faculty member and a mentor coach for Wellcoaches® and has been a lifestyle and business coach for more than 12 years.

“I prefer to use the word well-being, rather than wellness,” she says. “Wellness seems like such a corporate word. People light up when I talk about well-being, but when I use the word wellness, I can practically see them sink down in the chair. Right away they start talking about how they’re not eating right, they don’t exercise enough — they feel they don’t measure up. Wellness sounds like there are grades of it that you can pass or fail, and that you can compare yourself to others. But people get that well-being is only determined by you, and that it includes happiness, contentment, having the capacity to be flexible, creative, patient — all the things that make up physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being.”

Most experts agree that well-being — or wellness — is different for everyone and is constantly changing. “ Life is constantly changing,” says Carrie Myers Smith, of Landaff, New Hampshire, coach, personal trainer and owner of Women in Wellness. “To be well is to take control of what we can at any given time, but also to be able to go with the flow and be the best we can be in any given situation.”

Debbie Rosas, of Portland, Oregon, co-creator and founder of The Nia Technique, a body-mind-spirit fitness and personal growth program that integrates martial arts, dance arts and healing arts, adds that wellness is self-defined. “Wellness is a resonance, a vibration and a state of being. It is also a perspective that is very subjective and may not look like our preconceived notions. One person says, ‘I’m well,’ while another person might say, ‘You’ve got to be kidding!’ But it’s how they’ve defined wellness for themselves. Perhaps they’re not totally well, but they’ve stopped smoking, for example, so they have improved their wellness. It’s not something anyone else can define for you.”

Larsen notes that her own recent bout with cancer expanded her view of wellness. “I was on chemotherapy, my aerobic capacity was diminished, I gained weight from the drugs, I had lots of exercise limits, and my body and skin aged 10 years. I had to ask myself, ‘How’s your well-being now that you’re sick as a dog and can barely move? If my wellness is only about physical attributes or the ability to excel, then it’s all gone. Instead, I learned that well-being changes as your life changes. It’s fluid, flexible and evolving.”

Larsen’s life-threatening experience also gave her a new perspective on clients–and gave clients a new appreciation of her. “I was able to talk about how important it is to be authentic, and that authenticity is more than looking perfect on the outside. And I could make the point by taking off my wig and showing my bald head with a 5 o’clock shadow,” she laughs. “Not every speaker can do that!”

Larsen says, “Now I relate better to clients who don’t want to or can’t work out, or who are coming back from ground zero. I know what it’s like to go to the gym to work out, get exhausted from just walking up the steps and have to turn around and go home.”

Gloria Keeling, founder of the Strong, Stretched and Centered mind-body training program and now owner of, a personal training business, says, “I work with a lot of clients in their 50s, 60s, 70s and 80s, and I see that wellness is about doing the best [you can] with what you’ve got at the moment. For younger clients, wellness might be more about goal setting and ambition, but it changes with age. Some people in their 80s run marathons; others are happy to walk a few blocks. But few people get through that last third of their lives without some major health challenges, even if they’ve taken good care of themselves. Wellness is learning how to reach past the challenges and limitations and find the joy. It’s amazing to watch what people go through and see them come out the other side. A lot of wellness is about the tenacity of the human spirit.”