Thursday 11 October 2018

Health, Wellness, Well-being: What’s in a Word?

                Health, wellness, wellbeing: Alberta teachers are moving closer to implementing the new K-4 Wellness curriculum. As Physical Educators, we need to come to a mutual understanding of some common words used in our practice. Some terms, like health and wellness, have a long socio-linguistic history, while others, like well-being, are a more recent addition to the health education lexicon. What do these terms mean, and why does it matter?

                According to the World Health Organization, health is “a state of complete physical, mental, and social wellbeing, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity” (WHO, 2018). This definition was adopted in 1946, and it signalled reformed understanding of health. Rather than seeing health as individuals not being sick, this definition emphasized seeking knowledge about all the complex factors (social, mental, environmental, occupational, financial, intellectual, and spiritual) that influence a person who is living with, or without, illness. The adopters of this definition recognized that health was a social contract between people – not merely the outcome of individual choices.

Wellness has been defined as “a multidimensional state of being describing the existence of positive health in an individual as exemplified by quality of life and sense of well-being” (Corbin & Pangrazi, 2001, p.1).  The term came into common practice because of the work of Florence Nightingale, although it has been used since the time of Socrates (Johnson & Click, 2017).  Several theoretical models exist, and many of them place self-responsibility as central to developing wellness (Roscoe, 2009; Williams, 2009).  In these models, wellness is seen as a positive outcome of health, and an individual attains this state through balancing multiple dimensions such as nutrition, physical activity, stress, context, and spirituality.

                Where does well-being come into play? Well-being, a derivative of “be well”, refers generally to a person being in a positive state. Difficult to measure and used interchangeably with both health and wellness, wellbeing/well-being/well being does not have a settled definition (Marjanen, Ornellas & Mantynen, 2016) or even a common spelling.  Rather than measuring well-being, researchers look for evidence, or indicators, of well-being.  These indicators generally aim to measure people living satisfying lives and is a growing area of research worth keeping an eye on over the next few years.

                So why does it matter what term we use? Health – wellness- wellbeing – isn’t it all the same? Definitions matter because if we look to the origins of the words, wellness places emphasis on individual responsibility and health emphasizes collective responsibility. The word we choose changes how we teach the curriculum. If we see wellness as a state of being and a component of health, then we understand that society influences individual wellbeing: that the social and physical environment of individuals can influence their ability to sleep and eat well, drink clean water, and feel safe.

Arguably, if we see health as a component of wellness, then we place personal decision-making above society’s responsibility to the individual. Absence of positive wellbeing could be judged as the fault of an individual who makes bad choices by eating junk food, drinking too much wine, or not sleeping enough. Instead of considering all the factors that might influence a lack of sleep, like a railroad track built through the centre of a town, individual choices, like drinking coffee too late in the afternoon, can be blamed.  Keeping the focus on health is a reminder that being well results from a variety of factors, some of which are beyond our personal control.

So, the question for discussion becomes: are we teaching a Wellness curriculum or Health and Physical Education? I look forward to discussing this idea further.

Submitted by: Astrid Kendrick, Ed.D
Editor, The Runner, the annual publication of the Health and Physical Education Council

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