science of us

So Many Wellness Fads Seem Ridiculous Unless You’re the One Trying Them

Photo: Denisov/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Most (if not all) fad diets and exercise programs are sold on the strength of a lofty promise: if you just stick to these rules, and this program, you will look and feel better for the rest of your life. One does not build a brand or make millions selling books that tell you to eat more fruits and veggies and whole grains, or to aim for 30 minutes of cardiovascular activity a day, three to five times a week, for the rest of your life. These are practices which result in slow, measured, and sometimes invisible results — which makes them decidedly unsexy. Anyone who isn’t inherently drawn to leafy greens and jogging (so, me and you and almost everyone we know) can see the appeal in dramatic, shorter-term diets and fitness programs. The wellness industry, in turn, makes the most of it.

In her new book Wellmania: Extreme Misadventures in the Search for Wellness, author Brigid Delaney participates in a nearly never-ending series of wellness trends and health retreats, almost all of which provide a range of results from nonexistent to extremely temporary. Delaney separates the book into three sections — Clean, Lean, and Serene — but they’re connected by an earnest, if lightly skeptical, desire for a cure-all to the average adult woman’s ills: lack of confidence, lack of purpose, lack of community, lack of sleep. Also, and perhaps most importantly: the desire to be thinner.

Delaney, like so many of us, is better able to recognize the futility of others’ wellness experiments than she is her own. Of a controversial 101-day fast she writes: “For the majority of the clinic’s fasters, it really is all about the weight, when all is said and done. The program says it’s about organ function, but weight — shedding it, dropping it, burning it, losing it — is the endgame.” Of course it is. The program’s creator, Dr. Shuquan Liu, promises that those who successfully complete the program will retain their post-detox, “ideal” body shape for the rest of their lives. It is obvious that for Delaney, and most of her peers at the clinic, this is main draw.

And yet, the glossy, generalized “wellness” rhetoric superimposed on what is essentially a three-month, self-imposed starvation is irresistible, even to Delaney. Describing her imagined post-fast self, she writes, “I would smile with gleaming teeth, my hands folded over my flat stomach, and take a teeny-tiny sip of wine. It isn’t that I want to be thin. If I turn this fantasy over in my hands, what I really want is self-control, and to be admired for that self-control.” But it is about wanting to be thin; it’s right there in the hands folded over the flat stomach.

Of course, it isn’t wrong to want to be thin — but it is astounding just how many ways there are to talk around the exploitation of that desire. Fasting is called a “mental detox.” Clean eating is about “purity.” Yoga is about grounding oneself in one’s body. And, up to a point, these bromides create their intended effects. There is a brief period in every experiment Delaney undertakes in which she feels truly changed: better, stronger, healthier, more alive. How exactly each practice makes her feel (both physically and mentally) varies, but what unites them all is their unsustainability: the high passes, and things go back to normal.

There is a several-day period during her 101-day fast in which Delaney — significantly thinner, with glowing skin and glowing eyes — feels capable of anything, “giddy as a gelding.” But she is also, during her fast, unemployed, spending most of her time at home, asleep in bed. When she finishes the fast, she gets a job. In order to do her job, she needs to eat, and drink coffee. Soon she is back where she started, wearing her “fat” clothes, eating what she likes.

That Delaney is earnestly hopeful that the practices she adopts might dramatically alter her life doesn’t make her stupid, or less credible as a narrator — it makes her human, and empathetic. That the United States wellness industry is, per Delaney, worth $3.4 trillion annually is thanks to many, many people who seek the same sort of change, and those who profit from it. Reading about all these impossible, expensive, scientifically unsupported self-improvement projects piled end on end, I wanted to shake Delaney, as I might shake myself, were I brave enough to tally all the money I’ve spent on green juice and witchy crap.

It is so obvious, from the reader’s safe distance, that what works for Delaney is what she is able to stick with: limiting her alcohol intake; the semi-regular yoga practice which brings her stress-relief and strength; the daily meditation practice that quiets her mind: “I’m doing Vedic meditation most days, which helps,” she writes. “When I get into a routine with it, I feel like it is giving me that peace the world cannot provide.” Perhaps true wellness doesn’t lie in perfecting the inherently imperfect human body, but rather in enjoying it.

Wellness Fads Seem Silly Until You’re the One Trying Them