The terms health and wellness have become interchangeable in the complex world of wellbeing, but is there a difference? And does it really matter either way? 

It’s safe to say the wellness industry is booming. In these stressful and uncertain times, taking care of our physical and emotional health is more important than ever, but with so much info and so much jargon out there, it’s getting ever more difficult to know what we should be doing to live our best lives.So, what’s the difference between health and wellness? And which is more important for our everyday happiness?

What do we mean by ‘health’?

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), ‘health’ is defined as “a state of complete physical, mental and social wellbeing, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.

“Overall good health is a jigsaw made up of many pieces,” agrees Geraldine Joaquim, a clinical hypnotherapist, psychotherapist and wellness coach. “Every tiny habit, choice, behaviour and thought you have has an impact on it. Too often we focus on just one aspect, such as exercise, but it’s important to consider health in a more holistic way.”

Anji McGrandles, a mental wellbeing expert and founder of The Mind Tribe, agrees that defining health is complicated. “Health and wellness go hand in hand, but there are differences. My understanding of health focuses more on diseases, genetics, and illness, along with physical, social and mental wellbeing.”

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And what about wellness?

“Wellness for me is more about a way of living,” explains Joaquim. “It’s about the everyday habits – daily movement, looking after your nutritional needs, getting enough good quality sleep, including relaxation, getting outside, managing thoughts and behaviours – that’s how you create a feeling of wellbeing that is both physical and mental.”

McGrandles believes that we are in control of our wellness in a way that we may not be when it comes to our health, which is influenced by factors such as genetics and socio-economic circumstances. “Wellness is making proactive choices and building habits that support a healthier, happier lifestyle that allows you to reach your full potential,” she says. “While health focuses more on diseases, genetics, and illness, wellness is focused on intentions, choices and actions that work toward an optimal state of health and wellbeing. It’s a lifestyle choice.”

“When we think about being well, we think about the absence of disease [or] the absence of illness, but I don’t think that’s quite right,” says Dr Noreen Nguru. a wellness coach and founder of What the Doctor Recommends.“For me, I see health as a spectrum. On one side you have illness and on the other side you have wellness. And just by treating the illness and having the absence of disease, you don’t get all the way to wellness – you only get halfway.”

Is wellness filling a space left by medicine?

Wellness culture often gets a bad rap, with connotations of filtered social-media influencers plugging expensive brands, combined with a lack of regulation. But with a gender health gap where quality healthcare for women isn’t always easy to access, it’s easy to see how wellness advice can be used to fill the void.

But that’s not to say that wellness culture doesn’t have a place in contemporary lifestyle and wellbeing and, used correctly, it can help to ease the burden on our healthcare services by keeping us all fitter and more aware of our health. 

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Does the difference matter?

The experts are divided on this one.

“I think health and wellness can kind of sit in two completely different camps,” says Nguru. “You can be well and still have a medical diagnosis, such as being asthmatic, or you can have all your illnesses treated and not be ‘well’.”

But Joaquim believes that distinguishing the terms is not only unnecessary, but it could also be unhelpful. “We’re so used to separating health in our Western culture,” she says. “Modern healthcare has a silo structure – treating individual issues – and there can be a lack of joined-up thinking or cross-communication. For example, you might see a number of different specialists for a variety of issues without any of them talking to each other and determining that there might be links or even one root cause for the symptoms you’re experiencing.”

Experts are divided on whether to differentiate between health and wellness

Ultimately, we’re all searching for the same thing, so perhaps it doesn’t matter. “Wellness is achieved by constantly making choices to further health and fulfilment,” argues McGrandles, “and this obviously has a direct influence on our overall health. So, while the terms are different, they’re intrinsically linked; I don’t really think the exact interpretation matters.”

Donna Noble, a wellbeing and yoga coach and author of Teaching Body Positive Yoga, sums it up nicely: “Health is the goal while wellness is the active process of achieving it.”

“When you look at health and wellness in this way, the goal of health becomes more achievable,” says chartered psychologist Catherine Hallissey. “This way, you can break it down into small daily habits where the compounding effect leads to good health. This is an empowering and affirming approach to wellbeing.”

Now that sounds like something we should all be striving to achieve. 

Images: Getty

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