July 19, 2019

To say I was like a fish out of water would be an understatement. The stuffy studio was packed with nylon and spandex-clad regulars, intense faces, who, unlike me, looked like they knew exactly what they were doing. Despite the unforgiving beat, the flurry of instructions did not stop. Dishing them out were a tiny, peppy female instructor and her lanky male comrade with his mop of gravity-defying curls who circled around like vultures, descending upon us every so often, either to correct our form or to chide us for laughing instead of doing more reps.

The F45—the notoriously intense workout, arguably one of Australia’s most famous exports after good brunch and proper coffee—was kicking my butt after about a decade of being sedentary. Despite being in a world of pain the following day, my first foray into fitness did get me thinking about a lot of things—specifically about how ubiquitous the word “wellness” has become, and the far-reaching impact it has had on all of us—for better or for worse. For one, my best friend signed us up because she had thought that partaking in this latest exercise fad, that promised to burn fat, build muscle and boost metabolism, would be a fun way for us not just to get healthy together, but to spend quality time as a group, burning rather than ingesting calories.

On this occasion, working out together also meant that we could indulge afterwards—though some had more reason for guilt than others. A few tucked into hearty, carb-heavy dishes that featured a predominantly beige colour palette, while some had vibrantly-hued, Instagram-worthy smoothie bowls and pressed juices, and the rest fell somewhere in between. Beyond being a simple reflection of the spectrum of tastes and preferences that naturally exist among friends, however, the contrasts in our post-workout meal choices were like a visual representation of the wide-ranging sentiments and mind-sets that underpin decisions about what we eat; ways of thinking that inhere not just within our clique, but in society in general.

There are those who believe that the wellness movement has empowered us to take back control of our lives, with people becoming increasingly conscious of the power we each possess to transform ourselves into happier, healthier beings. The quest for wellness has also contributed towards unprecedented levels of awareness about what we eat and how this affects our physical and mental well-being. And while gym memberships and yoga classes can be expensive, it’s still considered a price worth paying as exercise helps to boost happiness by reducing stress and making one feel healthier. Above all, wellness is also lauded for fostering positivity—encouraging us to focus on “good vibes only”.

Then there are others who wholly chastise the wellness industry, alleging that it has brainwashed us with its pseudoscientific claims led by brands and wellness gurus that capitalise on “warmth, aesthetic and aspirations” to compensate for any credibility they may lack in terms of qualifications and science. In addition to promulgating some very unhealthy lifestyles and mind-sets, wellness is thought to be the domain of bourgeois yuppies, breeding exclusivity and elitism—despite being, in theory, “a democratising movement”.

Despite how polarising wellness can be, one cannot ignore how pervasive this movement is in today’s day and age, even if you consciously choose to exclude yourself from it. By wanting to spend time with my friends, I’d unwittingly yielded to a F45 class that fateful morning. Although I have no plans to return, perhaps it is good to be aware of some of the more insidious dangers wellness can pose to us.

When wellness causes harm to your self

Wellness isn’t just about eating clean, flirting with intermittent fasting, Whole30, keto and plant-based diets or launching into full-on veganism. It’s also about embracing a caffeine-free lifestyle, replacing coffee with turmeric, chicory, dandelion and beetroot lattes, or—if you are going to have caffeine—boosting each caffeine injection with a dose of superfood in the form of matcha or mushroom lattes. In a world where most of us can barely get enough sleep, “clean sleeping”, first popularised by Gwyneth Paltrow has ironically become a thing, sparking reactions from both naysayers and new converts. And it’s not enough to be teetotal; now we have to be sufficiently hydrated, with apps like Daily Water that help us keep track of how much water we’re drinking. Being physically fit and in shape is no longer sufficient; we have to also practise mindfulness.

These myriads of lifestyle changes often start out as innocent ways to improve our lives, but in reality, they can have the counter-effect of increasing one’s stress as you struggle to keep up with an ever-expanding list of things to do and excel at—which can ultimately take a toll on your self-esteem each time you fall off the bandwagon.

When wellness causes harm to your existing relationships

Eating habits, particularly when taken to the extreme, can also cause divides in our relationships with the people around us. This fixation upon and scrutiny of what we eat, that has been triggered and exacerbated by the wellness movement, has led to yet another way for us to judge one another. We’ve all seen or heard it before—girls making jibes at one particular friend who’s been posting too frequently on social media about her ‘clean eating’. They call her ‘disciplined’ to her face but make snide remarks like, ‘Let’s see how long she lasts, once her back is turned.

Rather than being genuinely supportive of other women’s wins and triumphs and the steps they are taking to lead healthier lifestyles, we secretly wish that they would share the calories, so that we will not be the only gluttonous person in the room who gives into temptation (once again). Misery loves company, after all. Or better yet, simply exclude them altogether from a group outing to Shake Shack.

A lot of such behaviour is often really rooted in our own insecurities and envy, when how well one person is doing underscores our own lack of discipline or ambition.

Then there are the times when your friends become so taken with a new barre that they unconsciously forget to invite you. Or what if that is the only activity they want to do lately on your scheduled Netflix and chill night? Bearing in mind the expensive subscription fee.

When wellness causes harm by breeding divisiveness

Beyond our personal relationships, the quest for wellness can also cause harm by breeding further divisiveness in our already fractious society. This is especially the case when wellness becomes entangled with other beliefs and values, like animal rights, whereupon things inadvertently get even more complicated. For instance, many vegan and plant-based YouTubers have extolled the virtues of the diets they champion that have helped to improve their physical and mental well-being. However, more often than not, these influencers take wellness to a whole new level by claiming that those who choose not to follow a similar diet is somehow unenlightened and unfeeling—even if, a few years on, they themselves may decide to give up veganism.

Food has now become intrinsically linked to our morals, values and overall identity. As Jonathan Safran Foer elegantly puts it in Eating Animals, “One of the greatest opportunities to live our values—or betray them—lies in the food we put on our plates.” Instead of uniting and bringing people together, our food choices and eating in general are isolating us more than ever. When Australian YouTuber Bonny Rebecca announced that she was no longer vegan, it sparked a huge reaction from the vegan community and beyond, ranging from outright backlash to more balanced discourse, with even Moby, a self-proclaimed ‘vegan for life’, chiming in on the upward trend of vegan influencers abandoning the movement. Outside the social media sphere, farmers in the UK have in the past even received death threats from more militant vegan animal welfare activists.

At the end of the day, it’s difficult to deny that the wellness industry does cash in on our insecurities and the insatiable need we feel to try and be better versions of ourselves. And it’s booming as a result, with companies like Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop now valued at over $250 million—in no small part thanks to the tripling in revenue from wellness products and events that they’ve enjoyed over the past two years. As consumers, then, we owe it to ourselves to be more discerning, and mindful not to take things to the extreme or fall prey to the marketing gimmicks. Sometimes in an attempt to lead a healthier life, there are hidden costs involved.