What Is the Extent of a Global Wellness Economy? A Critique of a Global Wellness Institute Report


The latest Global Wellness Institute (GWI) report, part of a White Paper Series, is entitled Understanding Wellness: Four Global Forces Driving the Growth of the Wellness Economy.

The report traces factors going far back in history that were seeds for the eventual emergence of wellness, starting with ayurveda, traditional Chinese and ancient Greek medicines from around 3000-500 B.C. to the present day. Of special interest is a section entitled 20th Century: Wellness Spreads and Get Serious. This sub-heading sketches a 30-year period from the 1970s to the end of the century.

Full disclosure: Any assessment on my part of initiatives by GWI will be influenced, even if unconsciously, by the fact that I’m an enthusiast for the role GWI has played and continues to contribute to the advance of the art and science of the wellness concept. Furthermore, I’ve shared a platform with the Chairman/CEO of the organization at a National Wellness Conference in Stevens Point and was a featured presenter (along with Dr. John Travis) at the 2014 summit in Marrakesh, Morocco.

So, bring along a few grains of salt should the encomium that follows seem overly high at times.


The focus of Understanding Wellness is not wellness as a personal philosophy, mindset and lifestyle but rather the business of services, programs and facilities that are represented here under the broadest possible label of wellness. Understanding Wellness describes what GWI considers a four-plus trillion dollar global wellness economy. Dollar values are assigned to diverse sectors of this purported economy.

The Report describes the world’s population as growing sicker, lonelier and older. Chapters address an environmental crisis, a health crisis and a medical systems crisis – all failing to keep up. Add to these dysfunctions an economic burden for vast numbers of people along with worrisome consumer demographics and value systems.

However, all is not lost – other chapters offer the bright side of things. A case is made that lifestyles are rapidly evolving for the better and investments in wellness by industries noted above portend even more wellness-related spending in the future. The authors, Ophelia Yeung and Katherine Johnston, believe that wellness has become ubiquitous in media and advertising, public discourse and private conversations, as well as in purchasing decisions and lifestyle choices all around the world.

Yeung and Johnson make the following statement:


The concept of wellness is often not well understood, and the usage of the term can be inconsistent and confusing.

This is an important point, and somewhat ironic, as the 14 pages of the Report are based upon a representation of wellness different from the initial meanings of wellness as a philosophy, mindset and lifestyle.


In any case, it could be argued that the authors have an understanding of wellness unique to the spa industry, not the movement that evolved over the 30-year stretch when, as this GWI report states, the concept spread and got serious (i.e., the 1970s to the end of the 20th century).


The Global Wellness Economy Report accurately expresses the basic nature of plain vanilla wellness:

Wellness is an (active) individual pursuit – we have self-responsibility for our own choices, behaviors and lifestyles – but it is also significantly influenced by the physical, social, and cultural environments in which we live.

However, in my opinion, the Report strays from the quite specific dimensions of REAL wellness in at least two ways:

By claiming four global or macron categories, six dimensions, five sectors of merchandising (spa, real estate, tourism, thermal/mineral springs and worksite wellness)! What could be missing? Perhaps a partridge in a pear tree? The authors of the REPORT are guilty of associating products, services and facilities with the concept of wellness that are not really wellness in nature, not even as defined in this GWI document.

In the section about four global forces driving the growth of the wellness economy, the Report authors state that:


… wellness becoming a selling point for all kinds of products and services – from food and vitamins to real estate and vacation packages, and from gym memberships and healthcare plans to meditation apps and DNA testing kits.

Only by including such matters, all clearly beyond the GWI’s own definition of wellness (active individual pursuit… self-responsibility for our own choices, behaviors and lifestyles), can a $4.2 trillion global wellness economy be fantasized.


The most jarring statement, however, appears on the first page of the Report:


Wellness is a word that was not often spoken or seen in print just ten years ago.

What? I had to read that several times to be sure it wasn’t a misprint.


In fact, the wellness movement was well along and thus the term was spoken and seen in print at least 35 years before 2008. Recall that this period was described in the Report itself as a time when wellness spread and got serious.

Wellness has been a standard feature of worksite programming since the early 80s, and hospitals, universities and non-profit organizations have invested in such programs and facilities at least as long. Evidently, it was not seen in print or spoken in the company of the authors before they went to work at GWI in 2008.

Let’s very briefly review a few instances of wellness being spoken, seen in print and otherwise emerging before 2008.


It has been a long time since Halbert Dunn introduced the phrase high level wellness around the middle of the last century, and nearly 50 years since John (Jack) Travis hung a sign (Wellness Resource Center) on the door of a three story building nestled between trees in beautiful downtown Mill Valley. I published an article in Prevention Magazine about Travis and his wellness center entitled, Meet John W. Travis, Doctor of Wellbeing.

Here are examples that demonstrate, contrary to the assertion that the wellness word was not often spoken or seen in print before 2008, that is is wildly mistaken. Start with seven different histories of the wellness movement. These were all written well before 2008. They document the extent to which wellness was nearly a household word, albeit one with meanings inconsistent and confusing.

* Seven illustrative histories (there are more) document the extent of the term – 1) James Miller, 2) the Library of Medicine, 3) James Strohecker, 4) Jana Stara – A Hungarian Perspective, 5) Univ of Victoria, 6) NIH Worksite Wellness and &) My own book The History and Future of Wellness (Kendall-Hunt, 1986).

* Dan Rather interviewed Dr. Travis at the WRC in 1979 for an episode of 60 Minutes. Not so enlightening about the nature of wellness, but a big national boost of recognition for the word.

There were dozens of books published, hundreds of conferences held, thousands of courses taught, lectures given and articles written, both scholarly and popular, all at least 25 years prior to 2008. Every year since 1980, approximately a thousand attendees, including delegations from abroad, spent five days in July at wellness conferences on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. This event was widely known as wellness summer camp for adults (with children¹s programs going on concurrently).

The GWI report about wellness history, wellness definitions, wellness trends and a wellness global economy contains 29 citations or references, but not even one to a wellness book, wellness article or wellness journal. The references are to U. N. and World Health Organization, Census Bureau and medical journals dealing with global health data.

* A third of all regional/metropolitan planning agencies promoted the concept in their areawide plans by the mid-70’s.

* Almost all large and most moderate size corporations offered employees worksite wellness learning opportunities on the job.

* The American Hospital Association board of directors passed a resolution at their annual conference in Chicago in 1979 urging all member hospitals throughout the U.S. to promote wellness. Most did so.

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