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The Difference Between Health & Wellness

Updated: Jan 14, 2021

Health and wellness are often used synonymously, but each has a unique definition that has evolved throughout history.

In ancient times, health, or the absence of disease, was closely tied to religion, with the belief that gods, demons, and supernatural powers must be appeased in order to achieve it. Hippocrates, considered the father of modern medicine, is known for breaking from this belief system, instead promoting the idea that health requires balance within the body. His overarching concept of health is the foundation of functional medicine, which requires looking at health from a holistic perspective.

The modern definition of health set by the World Health Organization is the “state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” With our advanced understanding of how health can be achieved, it's important to understand why wellness must also be achieved in tandem.

Health vs. Wellness

Health refers to a state of being, from physical health to social and mental health. While whole-person or holistic health is the goal, health is often achieved by breaking down the areas that need attention and taking steps to address each area, from heart health to gut health. The steps that one would take to improve either of those areas of health might start with many of the same things, such as aiming to lose weight, lowering blood pressure and cholesterol by limiting processed foods, eating more nutrient-dense foods, prioritizing sleep, managing stress, not smoking, limiting alcohol consumption, and much more.

Essentially, health is the goal, while wellness, on the other hand, is the dynamic process of living a healthy and fulfilling life. Wellness encompasses the many areas of our lives that impact our health and well-being, and not just our nutrition and physical activity! At IIN, we call these areas primary food –making the food on our plate secondary – and how well we nourish ourselves with these “foods” will determine our overall wellness.

IIN’s Circle of Life exercise is one of the best ways to figure out how much attention you’re paying to:

  • Career

  • Creativity

  • Education

  • Finances

  • Health

  • Home cooking

  • Home environment

  • Joy

  • Physical activity

  • Relationships

  • Social life

  • Spirituality

Doing this exercise will illuminate which areas need strengthening, and you might find there are crossovers, such as finances with career; home cooking with home environment; or relationships with social life and joy. Our well-being is interconnected, and optimal wellness will depend on the balance of all areas together. We find balance by strengthening each area on its own in addition to all the areas as a whole.

So is health or wellness more important than the other? No. In fact, that’s why the term health and wellness exists – to bring the two together to demonstrate that to truly be healthy and fulfilled, you can’t have one without the other.

Physical Health

Taking care of your physical health will not only benefit your body but also your mind! By focusing on eating a diet full of nutritious and colorful foods and getting enough physical activity each week, you’ll be on your way to peak physical health.

Foods that benefit your physical well-being include:

  • Fermented foods rich in pre- and probiotics

  • Fruits and vegetables

  • Healthy fats, such as omega-3 fatty acids and mono- and polyunsaturated fats

  • Protein, whether plant- or animal-based with limited red meat consumption

  • Whole grains and complex carbohydrates

Eating a balanced diet with minimal processed foods will set your body up for success as well as prevent chronic diseases in the long term, such as type 2 diabetes, obesity, and heart disease. These foods also foster a flourishing gut microbiome, which is the key to your immunity and mental health. The gut-brain connection plays a major role in your mental and emotional well-being as over 90% of serotonin – the “feel good” hormone – is made in the gut.

Bottom line? The food you eat impacts every major system in your body – so fuel them well!

Activities that benefit your physical well-being include:

  • Low-impact exercises, such as walking, biking, yoga, tai chi, and swimming

  • High-impact exercises in moderation, such as running, high-intensity interval training, boxing, and strength training

  • Movement that’s baked into your routine, such as taking the stairs instead of the elevator, gardening, chores around the house, walking or biking instead of driving, and stretching

Movement is important for physical health, from improving balance and building lean muscle to improving cardiovascular function and boosting mood and energy! If you’re not used to exercising on a regular basis, start small: Take a walk around the block, park farther from the grocery store, or commit to standing more during the workday. Every little bit counts, so do what works best for you!

Mental Well-Being

To live a healthier and happier life, create habits that promote emotional and mental well-being. In addition to eating well and moving your body mindfully, here are some ways to improve your mental health:

  • Practice regular self-care This doesn’t have to be expensive or Instagram-worthy. Self-care can look like sleeping in an extra hour on a weekday, staying hydrated, saying no to plans, or simply taking a long shower. Anything that makes you feel renewed and like yourself can be considered self-care and will go a long way in helping you show up for yourself and others.

  • Get ample sleep – Sleep is essential! Not getting enough quality and quantity of sleep can throw your blood sugar and appetite control out of whack, cause hormonal imbalances, affect your mood, and even impair decision-making skills. For less stress and more calm, work on your sleep routine, such as setting a bedtime and removing your phone from the bedroom.

  • Prioritize your connections – Having support from your social connections, from friends and family to coworkers, will promote a healthier mental state. Knowing you can turn to someone when you’re stressed or having a difficult day fosters feelings of belonging and community, both of which are attributes of some of the healthiest people in the world.

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help – If you're struggling with your mental health, seek professional help from a therapist, psychiatrist, or psychologist, depending on your needs. Mental health professionals are equipped to discuss your concerns confidentially and without bias, which can be beneficial if you don’t want to share personal things with close family or friends.

Other Areas of Wellness

We covered the big areas of wellness you’re likely familiar with, but how about the other areas of our lives that can affect our health?

Spiritual health is often overlooked because it feels as though it’s all or nothing, but it doesn’t have to be that way! Spirituality can look like organized religion or anything that helps you feel a connection to the greater universe, such as being in nature, meditation, practicing gratitude, or even your yoga practice.

Also consider occupational wellness, which is how you feel about your job or career. Many people tend to stick with their jobs even though they’re unfulfilling, and that can definitely affect well-being! The stress and anxiety of being in a job you hate can cause a multitude of physical and emotional symptoms, not to mention make you a not-so-fun person to be around. Spot the signs you’re in the wrong career, and aim to make a change.

Finally, how is your environment promoting or hurting your health? Does your home lack natural light? Are you unable to access green spaces in your community? Are you living with someone who doesn’t respect or appreciate you? Your environment encompasses all these things and more and can affect your well-being.

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