What is wellness?

What does “wellness” mean to you? Physical wellness?

What is wellness?
What is wellness?
Allan Donsky
September 11, 2023
Health and Wellbeing

What is Wellness?

What does “wellness” mean to you? Physical wellness? Emotional wellness? To truly experience health from a holistic perspective, you must incorporate seven dimensions of wellness into your life. Find out how you can do this.

The word “wellness” pops up regularly in our lives, but what does this concept really mean? Research tells us that, for a long and happy life, it’s about nurturing a set of seven interconnected dimensions.

A holistic approach to health

According to Dr. Jennifer Hunter, a senior research fellow at the National Institute of Complementary Medicine in Sydney, Australia, holistic wellness is about “the whole person, not the parts.”

Wellness isn’t simply about evading this year’s flu bug or lowering our cholesterol level a couple of points. Rather, as the World Health Organization (WHO) stated as early as 1948, it’s about striving toward “physical, mental, and social well-being” and is “not merely the absence of disease.”

In 1976, Dr. Bill Hettler, co-founder of the National Wellness Institute in the US, developed a model of wellness that included six dimensions of health: physical, emotional, intellectual, spiritual, occupational, and social.

Some researchers have since added environmental health, making a list of seven dimensions that Hunter stresses “are completely interconnected and interwoven.” Dr. Mary Knudsen, a naturopathic doctor in Calgary, would agree, and says, “Improved physical health can directly impact our emotional health and sense of peace day-to-day, how we interact with others, and how we perform in our occupations.”

However, Dr. Badri Rickhi, a psychiatrist and clinical professor of medicine at the University of Calgary, adds that, with the “smorgasbord” of options available to us to promote our wellness, it can be overwhelming to know where to begin. He recommends starting small and seeing where that leads.

To illustrate his point, he recalls a patient who wanted to exercise more, but had reached the point where even walking had become uncomfortable. This man drove a truck for eight hours a day, and Rickhi recommended that he take a couple of breaks each day to do two push-ups. After six months of following Rickhi’s advice, the man could do 50 consecutive push-ups, and had inspired several of his colleagues to start doing the same.

Reflecting on this story, Rickhi notes, “We need people who are motivated and who find changes within themselves to become the teachers. Right now we are expecting health professionals to take the lead, but the greatest effect is the public effect.”

1. Physical wellness

Physical wellness is what often comes to mind when we think about being healthy, and for good reason: the health of our bodies is critical for overall wellness. Broadly speaking, physical wellness involves implementing regular physical activity, maintaining a healthy diet, and rejuvenating our bodies through rest and sleep—all things that protect us from chronic diseases and improve our quality of life.

Tips for physical wellness

Knudsen recommends the following:


Consume foods that aid in body detoxification such as cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, kale, and cabbage), brown rice, and green tea.


Sweat out toxins with saunas, hot yoga, or exercise.


Work with a naturopathic doctor to identify food sensitivities that can cause inflammation in the body, digestive distress, headache, skin problems, and fatigue.

2. Emotional wellness

When we feel emotionally balanced, we are aware of and able to manage our emotions, and we have a realistic and mostly positive view of ourselves, others, and the circumstances in our lives.

We also feel equipped to deal with the stressors that life throws our way.

Rickhi says that, as a whole, Canadians are “walking around stressed,” and that this is one of the core culprits contributing to physical and mental illness. Of course, some stress is a normal part of life, and can sometimes be a positive force (those butterflies before a big presentation can motivate you to do your best).

However, according to the American Psychological Association’s 2015 Stress in America study, stress keeps more than 40 percent of adults lying awake at night. At this level, stress can become debilitating and is linked to things such as anxiety, insomnia, digestion problems, and heart disease.

Tips for emotional wellness

According to Rickhi, although we can’t always change a stressful environment, we can learn ways to manage our stress more effectively. Some strategies include the following:

Gain Perspective

When faced with everyday challenges—such as getting stuck in traffic or managing a conflict with a family member—Knudsen suggests asking ourselves: “Is this the hill to die on?” Chances are, she says, the answer will be “no.”

Get into a routine

Our adrenal glands—which help our bodies cope with stress—thrive on predictability. Thus, Knudsen recommends a regular sleep routine, including going to bed by 10 pm and waking up at the same time every day—even on the weekends.

Seek extra support

Some things in life feel too big to handle on our own, such as job loss, the death of a loved one, or overwhelming feelings of anxiety or depression. In these cases, seeking help from a mental health professional can be an important way to learn coping strategies, gain clarity, and receive emotional support.

3. Spiritual wellness

According to Rickhi, “Spirituality is the life we live inside ourselves, versus the life we live outside ourselves through work and play and family.” Although spiritual wellness can certainly be obtained through religious practice, Rickhi clarifies that spirituality is much broader and involves “learning how to be more forgiving, grateful, and compassionate, to be kinder and less judgmental.”

Along with the Canadian Institute of Natural and Integrative Medicine (Cinim), where he is founder and research chair, Rickhi developed a self-study, non-faith-based spirituality teaching program. The program combines lectures and stories about spiritual concepts (such as meaning, connectedness, and forgiveness), strategies for integrating these concepts into our lives, and a daily 15-minute visualization exercise.

Research on this program has been overwhelmingly positive, and it has helped many participants achieve feelings of calmness and mental clarity, renewed physical energy, decreased depression, and improved relationships with others.

When asked why the program is so effective, Rickhi explains, “It’s helping people in simple ways to feel more compassionate and kind. Not only does that make them feel better, but it improves their self-worth.”

Tip for spiritual wellness

Rickhi recommends implementing a deep, slow breathing or meditation practice for as little as five minutes per day, noting that doing so for 60 to 80 days will start to build neurons in the brain. Research supports his claim, indicating that meditation is linked to changes in our brain regions involved in things like introspection and emotion regulation.

4. Intellectual wellness

Intellectual wellness involves a commitment to lifelong learning. We nurture our intellectual health when we engage in creative activities, learn new things, and expand our knowledge.

Canadians are living longer than ever: according to WHO, life expectancy increased by six years between 1990 and 2012. However, as we age, the risk of cognitive decline increases, and it becomes even more important to engage in stimulating activities.

A British study found that older adults (aged 70 to 91) who regularly did things such as reading and crossword puzzles had significantly lower levels of cognitive impairment than those who did not.

Tips for intellectual wellness

Leonardo da Vinci was onto something when he said, “Learning never exhausts the mind,” and it’s certainly never too late to learn or try something new. Some ways to stimulate our intellectual sides include the following.

Tap into culture

Those who attend sports and cultural events and places (museums, foreign films, or live concerts) are more likely to report good health than those who do not.

Stimulate your vocal cords

Whether harmonizing in a choir or belting out our favourite tune in the shower, research indicates that singing may improve our mood and counteract stress. And due to its influence on breath control, singing can even help improve respiratory conditions such as asthma, shortness of breath, and snoring.

5. Environmental wellness

A 2008 position statement released by the Australian Psychological Association affirmed, “It is clear that the well-being and integrity of natural ecosystems and the biophysical environment are integral to human health and well-being.”

Certainly, many of us have experienced the restorative feeling of spending time in the great outdoors. But what is it about nature that research shows can reduce our stress levels, improve our mood and concentration, and increase vitality?

One theory is that being in nature helps us reflect on our thoughts and feelings by giving us a break from the hustle of everyday life. Another is that it helps us feel connected to something bigger than ourselves.

Tips for environmental wellness

Even though most of us live in urban areas, we can still find daily ways to connect with nature.

WALK BAREFOOT Walk barefoot

A number of studies have revealed that many health benefits come from foot-to-surface contact with soil, grass, or sand—including better sleep and reduced pain—and that these benefits may arise from having direct contact with the many different electrons on the earth’s surface.

Play outside

Pack a picnic instead of eating indoors, spend the afternoon hiking instead of shopping at the mall, or even plant your own garden (saving some trips to the grocery store as a bonus!).

6. Occupational wellness

Occupational wellness involves the suitability of our work to our interests, skills, and values, and the fulfillment we gain from our professions. However, work does not only mean paid occupations—it also includes life roles (such as mother- or fatherhood), hobbies, or volunteer work.

On average, Canadians spent 1,704 hours working in 2014. We’re also working later into life: the employment rate of those 55 and older increased by nearly 10 percent for men and nearly 13 percent for women between 1997 and 2010. With the amount of time we spend on the job, it’s no wonder occupational wellness is an important component of a healthy life.

Tip for occupational wellness

A high level of work engagement—having an optimistic, dedicated, and energetic attitude—is linked to positive emotions and higher job performance. One way to increase work engagement is to focus on what you like about your career—no matter how small.

We all have things we don’t like about our work, but staying positive about even one thing (a learning opportunity or a friendship with a co-worker) can help us handle the stressful parts more effectively.

7. Social wellness

A large body of research indicates that people who have more meaningful social relationships are healthier, happier, and even live longer. In other words, there seems to be a reason we feel the desire to care for our loved ones, belong to clubs and teams, and socialize with our friends.

Throughout his career, Rickhi has found that, when it comes to what people really want to see changed in their lives, it isn’t about making more money or having more success—it’s about “the desire to be closer to family.”

Although many realities of our modern world—more screen time, longer work weeks, and crammed schedules—don’t always lend themselves well to socializing, increasing our time with others is one of the most accessible and inexpensive health strategies available to us.

Tips for social wellness

Take time to foster your most meaningful relationships. Here are some suggestions.

Go for a walk with a friend

Try leaving your cell phones at home!

Schedule in family dinners

Not only does this ritual create connectedness amongst family members, but research shows that, for children and adolescents, it’s linked to healthier eating habits, higher academic achievement, and increased emotional well-being.

Herbal and nutritional supplements that support wellness

To optimize health, Calgary naturopath Dr. Mary Knudsen recommends the following.

• Eat a cup of dark green vegetables every day, and avoid refined sugar.

• Take an omega-3 supplement from a clean fish source, which is essential for brain, cardiovascular, skin, joint, and hormone health. Omega-3 fatty acids also have an anti-inflammatory effect on the body.

• Add a B-complex supplement into your diet, which can be helpful for managing stress.

What is wellness?

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