Never one to thumb my nose at an exercise substitute, I decided to go on a two-week discovery mission, exposing myself to a range of treatments and experiences. (You can read the full story here.) Only when I was preparing to step into a cryotherapy chamber with temperatures approaching minus 200 degrees did I pause to ask myself if this was how I wanted to achieve maximum wellness.
I’m all for anything that helps us feel better and/or improves our health, and I’m not here to criticize anyone who seeks effective alternatives to reaching those goals. But something about the booming wellness industry is troubling. We seem to have become so distracted by the quick fixes that we can no longer see all the reasons we are broken in the first place.
Like many other people, I use January to set resolutions for the new year. Of the top five resolutions set by Americans, four are related to some aspect of wellness — fitness, better mental health, weight loss and improved diet, according to a recent survey from Forbes Health.
You’ve likely received solicitations over the past few weeks directly advertising products, practices or services that promise to help you achieve those ever-elusive goals.
We are more knowledgeable about pharmacology than at any point in the past. Over the last year, I have had conversations with at least a dozen friends about weight-loss drugs. About half of those friends shared they use or have used drugs to jump-start or maintain weight loss.
We spend more than $450 million annually on wellness products and services, and that number grows more than 5% each year, according to 2022 data from McKinsey & Company. Experts expect annual sales of weight-loss drugs alone to hit $100 billion within a decade. For two weeks, I experimented with compression and forest bathing, in addition to several other wellness practices.
But, even as we spend billions to fix and improve our bodies, we are getting sicker, fatter and dying earlier.
Instead of turning to additional treatments and products to supplement our well-being, we often aren’t making the healthiest decisions to start with. There are many reasons why it’s difficult to do the right thing, and here’s a big one: We live in a society that has increasingly made the healthier choice the harder choice.
While we’re busy berating ourselves for not eating better, exercising more, getting more sleep or reducing stress, it’s worth remembering the societal challenges that we are facing.
We want to eat nutrient-rich foods, but our modern food supply makes processed foods most convenient.
We want to be more active, but we live in communities that are car dependent, with little planning for green space or walkable thoroughfares.
We want to relax and de-stress, but we work in a country that rewards those who are constantly busy and put in long hours.
There is no single barrier to wellness, but it’s clear that we are collectively not doing very well.
The current average life expectancy in the U.S. is 77.5, and it has been declining for years. This was happening before the pandemic (a slight recent uptick is attributed to lowered deaths from COVID-19). Georgians have a life expectancy of 76, ranking 19th in the country.
Public health officials were sounding the alarm a decade ago, but none of that has resulted in enough action from elected officials to improve access to healthy foods, promote walkability in communities and make sure people are paid a living wage.
In a recent survey of the 100 sitting state senators conducted by The Washington Post, fewer than half acknowledged reduced life expectancy as a public health problem.
The commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates drugs, food and other products, called the lower life expectancy trend “quite alarming.” Meanwhile, we have no national strategy to reverse the decline that has placed us well behind nations such as Canada, Germany and China.
Building a better standard of wellness isn’t one of those issues that is easily addressed.
But it is possible for national policies to enhance the health of citizens. After all, it was the Japanese government that introduced forest bathing to its citizens in 1982 as a strategy for stress control and relaxation.
For those of us who have the time and money to supplement wellness with treatments and medicines, great.
But my hope for 2024 is that, while we are all pursuing our individual wellness goals, our state and national leaders will also acknowledge the barriers to health that we face as a nation — and look for ways to make wellness more accessible to us all.
Read more on the Real Life blog (www.ajc.com/opinion/real-life-blog/) and find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn) and Twitter (@nrhoneajc) or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.