Wellness Is Complex, Misunderstood, and Oh-so Important—Here’s What It Means to Team Well+Good

Photo: Getty Images/Martin Novak

It's been about a decade since Well+Good launched, and when I recently joined as the team's lifestyle writer, I—a worshipper of mozzarella sticks—feared I was deeply unwell and wouldn't fit in. What I quickly learned is that the meaning of wellness is murky, and one of its main, widely propagated fallacies is that it's a singular concept. And because the general understanding of what wellness is skews so complicated, as a team, we decided to discuss via Slack what it means to each of us.

We weren't surprised to find that the meaning of wellness is highly personalized—including exercise and Lizzo or ice cream and acai bowls or therapy and Frasier or so many other things. But we were able to land on some commonalities in our points of view; that self-care is also us-care, and that despite our unique preferences, we're bonded in a quest to feel happy, healthy, and human. Check out our latest edition of Slack Chats—what being well and good means to Team Well+Good—below.

Mary Grace: Hi, friends! To start, I want to discuss how I initially worried I was really unfit for W+G because I had never eaten an acai bowl or taken a yoga class. I've since eaten one acai bowl and never taken a yoga class. I've learned that wellness, for me, simply isn't about those things so much as about recognizing that I'm not perfect and still choosing to work on things I struggle with. How do you define wellness?

Alexis Berger, senior lifestyle editor: Such a great point that wellness is highly personalized, Mary Grace. Totally agree there. I try to be open to new things and not beat myself up for the things that don't work for me or add positivity to my life. Like dance cardio. NEVER.

Zoe Weiner, associate beauty and fitness editor: I think a lot of people have the same idea on what wellness means. Yes, wellness is doing face masks/taking baths/working out—but that's only part of it. It’s also taking care of THE MOST basic things you can do for your health—whether that's speaking to a mental-health professional or going to the gyno. Wellness is taking care of yourself as a full person.

Jessie Van Amburg, senior food and health editor: For me, wellness is a lifestyle that doesn’t have to involve expensive ingredients or exclusive boutique fitness classes—it’s about a person deciding what health and well-being looks like for themselves, and working with others to help achieve that.

Abbey Stone, managing editor: I think it encapsulates everything you do to live a healthier life—for both your body and mind (and soul, if that's your jam). Plain and simple. So, like you said, Mary Grace, that will look different for everyone.

Kate Spies, SVP content, audience development, brand: Before I started at Well+Good, I looked up the definition of "wellness." Turns out it's "the active pursuit of health." That resonated with me SO much. I want to be healthy, I want to be strong, and I want look after my mental well-being. I try hard to protect these things.

Rachel Lapidos, beauty and fitness editor: To me, it’s doing whatever it is that uplifts both your mind and your body—and that doesn’t necessarily mean eating an acai bowl or yoga. It’s whatever keeps you mentality positive, in a good space, and makes you feel good in your body. It is a very personal thing, not a one-size-fits-all prescription that says “do these things, and you’re going to be healthy.”

Zoe: Also, I hate acai bowls.

Rachel: Me too.

Kate: I love them! But that doesn't make me a wellness luminary. I also LOVE wine.

Kara Jillian Brown, editorial intern: For me, wellness is treating my body and soul with the respect it deserves and doing the things that make me feel good. That changes day to day, and I'm learning to listen more to what I need and accepting that those needs aren't necessarily what you'd see under #wellness on Instagram. Also, hate acai bowls.

Abbey: Ugh, acai bowls. Why would you eat a smoothie with a spoon?

Jamie Thilman, senior news editor: The biggest focus for me is on mental well-being. It seems like the easiest part to neglect, the most easily stigmatized, the most unrecognized, undefined, unobvious.

Kells McPhillips, news writer: I think wellness is about consistently reminding myself that I have autonomy over how I think and feel. Autopilot is so easy to fall into, and deciding to be on autopilot is great, even needed, sometimes! But I want to know that it was my decision.

Kate: Exactly, Kells. Active.

Abbey: I really love the "active pursuit" bit of that definition, Kate. Living a well life requires making a decision to do so—and constantly making micro-decisions about what's best for you at any given time. And sometimes, that's wine and Schitt's Creek.

Jessie: Or, in my case, Frasier and gin.

Abbey: Seriously, Jessie, how old are you?

I feel like "wellness" and "diet" are often unfairly conflated and spun negatively, but the labels on food and also imagery and messaging from fitness initiatives can certainly be interpreted as coded language for promoting a goal to be thing. Has your relationship with wellness changed your relationship with food and/or fitness? And how can we all be more responsible about the way we talk about nutrition and exercise?

Emily Laurence, senior writer: I get SO frustrated when people confuse diet culture and wellness culture. For some, losing weight in a healthy way is part of their wellness journey, but wellness and dieting aren’t the same.

Jessie: As food editor, this can be challenging, especially because certain health terms are also co-opted in disingenuous ways ("detoxing" as coded language for "crash dieting," etc). It’s important not judge people’s food choices. Yes, I can eat a Sweetgreen salad for lunch today. And yes, tonight I’m probably going to go have ice cream. The latter thing doesn't make me a bad or unhealthy person.

Kara: Wellness ABSOLUTELY changed my relationship with food. I remember going on the Special K diet and waking up at 5 a.m. to get on the treadmill in FIFTH grade. Wellness has allowed me to be kinder to myself and helped me learn to make kinder choices for myself. Eating healthy foods wasn't an issue for me, but I've always struggled with craving "comfort" foods. Wellness has taught me that's okay.

Zoe: I dealt with pretty serious eating and exercise disorders for all of my high school and college years and beyond, and am really, really sensitive to the way we talk about these things (and do find that there's a LOT of triggering language out there masking itself as "wellness"). But I actually think the most significant part of my wellness journey has been how it's changed my relationship with both of those things: Food and exercise were both always about calories versus how either made me feel. But becoming more well-versed and involved in wellness has forced me to look at the bigger picture and how things are helping me mentally and emotionally?

Kate: Well+Good has a huge job to make sure that we only provide factual information about food and nutrition: We don't cover eating plans that have no research backing up their claims, and we don't conflate eating plans with "dieting." People (like me!) have various health issues that mean they need to eat a certain way, and that has NOTHING to do with dieting and losing weight.

Jamie: The men's wellness and fitness space is still very much focused on aesthetics (being healthy means big muscles), and I think that's because emotions are scary, and not something men are supposed to discuss, but physicality is something we can control. What I like about what we do here is that we smash that. It's brave, really, because it's not easy and it is hard to control, and I want to encourage more of it for all people.

Alexis: On the fitness front, for me, I think it's about making choices that I don't LOVE but that I know will make me feel better holistically. Like, I don't enjoy doing cardio. At all. But I know doing it every now and then is good for my body and general health—and if I'm being honest, I feel awesome about myself afterward. Making those choices makes me feel empowered.

Abbey: Like you alluded to in your opening question, Mary Grace, when I first started working at Well+Good, food was a big sticking point and source of embarrassment for me. I love to eat and hate to cook, which can lead to some “unhealthy" habits. I was so worried that people would judge me for that! But the more I've learned about healthy eating, the more I'm convinced that food isn't good/bad/right/wrong. Sure, it's a smart idea to be conscious of the nutrients you consume, but that doesn't mean eating a pizza is "cheating" or "indulging."

Mary Grace: I straight-up had a pizza 15 minutes ago and feel amazing.

Abbey: Also happiness and joy that comes with eating the things you like is often overlooked. I love going out to eat, and I love dessert. That me happier, and for me, that's wellness.

There's a great Simpsons episode where a public speaker encourages Springfieldians to be like Bart and impulsively do whatever they TF want, and I worry that's what people think self care is. I believe a self-care ritual can be listening what your body and mind need in that moment, but my most important act of self-care is honoring my commitment to therapy, even if it means doing the hard work of figuring out health insurance, etc. Is there a distinction between a self-care ritual and the practice of self-care for you?

Kate: I don't think there is a distinction for me! I once had a therapist say to me, "Write down the 10 tiny things that make you happy each day, and then make sure you do as many of them as possible, every day." I took his words to heart, and this list is the cornerstone of both my self-care rituals and the active practice of my personal form of self care.

Emily: I think it's important that people don't use self-care as an excuse to be selfish. If you're bailing on a friend for the third time because you "need a night in," that's using self care as a cop out. To me, self care is taking time to rejuvenate yourself so that you have the energy to go back out into the world and make it a better place.

Kate: That's a good point. Don't be rude to people or disrespectful of their time. Ever.

Abbey: Rituals do not spark joy for me. I have a tendency to become obsessive—I don't use that word lightly—with checking items off a list. A self-care ritual like journaling ends up increasing my stress. Instead, self care for me, more often than not, means giving myself permission to do nothing. To just sit (bonus points if someone I love is with me) and not think too much.

Rachel: Self care has this reputation of needing to take an Instagram-friendly bath or invest in an expensive skin-care routine. But I feel self care is really whatever you NEED to do in order to stay sane, whether that's going to therapy, FaceTiming with your mom, or taking your dog for a walk. It’s the basic things in life you need.

Kara: Doing the things that make us feel good is important, but taking care of yourself isn't always pretty. Thinking through your trauma or acknowledging when you've done something wrong are all important ways of taking care of yourself that aren't necessarily enjoyable, but will make you so much stronger in the long run.

Jamie: I go to therapy every Wednesday evening, and I talk about it, because I see it as the same as going to the doctor to get an annual checkup or going to the gym before work.

Zoe: My Monday morning is: Work out, walk 20 blocks listening to Lizzo, go to therapy, walk 20 more blocks listening to Lizzo. It is the most important part of my week.

Kate: LIZZO. She makes me feel like I'm bouncing on air.

Jessie: Self-care ritual: my nightly skin-care routine, which sounds basic, but the 20 minutes I spend washing my face and applying my various prescription acne meds has two functions. It literally helps my skin be healthier (and helps my confidence and happiness in the process), and it also slows me down to get my brain ready for bed.

Self-care routine: making space and time for myself, which often involves saying “no.” Or prioritizing myself and my health over other demands. Sometimes that's my skin-care ritual, sometimes it’s blocking off time to go to the GD doctor, and sometimes it’s putting my phone in another room for a whole evening and watching Deadwood with my fiancé.

Jamie: If this is turning into confession time, I like to cook, sometimes just for the praise! (Yes, that was a humble-brag—I'm good at cooking!) Anyway, it makes me feel good.

Rachel: Honestly self care for me is just making out with my puppy. That keeps me sane.

Kells: I love coming home and spending quality time with my air fryer. I love buying books at the bookstore and being super honest with myself that I may never read them. I think rewatching movies is honestly one of the most calming things. Also, I think laughing at myself is the best self care ever.

Last question: I try to take stock of criticism that wellness can be classist, since not everyone can buy $80 (and up!) yoga pants, not everyone can go on vacation when they feel burnt out, and, unfortunately, not everyone can afford health care. But we contend everyone is worthy of and can access self care. So my question is this: What's an act of self care that you practice, and/or one wellness resource you enjoy that is absolutely free? 

Emily: Running! Endorphins! Nature! Running is the best.


Rachel: Reading, running, and petting animals (gonna keep peddling the animals here).

Alexis: A shower that's definitely unnecessarily too long (I know, I know, the environment, but I love it).

Kells: Meditation is also free!

Abbey: I also try to mindful of the fact that having time is a privilege as well—it's not just about money.

Kate: I do think the time constraint for so many people is a huge barrier.

Emily: Yes, especially people working two jobs or in caregiving roles.

Kate: One thing that takes 15 seconds, and "grounds me" every day is telling myself one thing I'm grateful for. I used to think gratitude was BS, but it definitely isn't.

Abbey: It might sound cheesy, but listening to music can be a great one! It's something you can do while you're commuting or doing housework, and it's is such an instant mood-booster. And dancing! I dance with my dog a lot.

Kells: Dancing! Yesss! Even if you’re bad at it.

Zoe: I've started throwing solo dance parties. When I'm feeling a mess, I'll make lists of three things I'm proud of myself for.

Emily: Love that, Zoe!

Kate: I think letting yourself really, really laugh is a really good one. If I feel low, I call my friend Jess to have a good belly laugh.

Kells: ALSO, YouTube has amazing nature documentaries that are free and very calming.

Zoe: To go back to your earlier point, Mary Grace, I had a similar expectation that coming to work for a wellness company, that everyone would be these super-healthy, picture-perfect versions of what we’ve been conditioned to think “wellness” looks like. The reality is we all have “wellness” things and practices that we love, but we also aren’t 100 percent perfect. We're all just doing the best we can and what works for us.

For some self-care inspiration, check out the smallest acts of self care 22 people swear by. And here's the surefire sign docs say it's time to see a therapist.

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