For a long time, I’ve been lazily optimistic about the health and wellness levels of our society. My dad, one of the most enthusiastic smokers I have ever known, is now a vaper. The work friend I used to drink five bottles of wine a week with is now always posting pictures on Insta in which she’s wearing high-vis Lycra and sweating after a 10-mile run. When I have dinner with friends, someone always gets a side order of broccoli – if they haven’t cancelled because they need to catch up on their sleep. We have months dedicated to mental health and sobriety. Mindfulness is being taught at school. Millennials are drinking less. We can be healthy without leaving the house – I order supplements on Amazon and take yoga classes on YouTube. Surely, we’re at a healthy high point?
We’re not. According to medical data analysed by Outcomes Based Healthcare, a fifth of the population “cannot expect good health beyond their 30th birthday”, and by the age of 50 most of us will have a serious long-term health condition – including depression, asthma and diabetes.
Ralph Waldo Emerson is believed to be the originator of the phrase “The first wealth is health”. Our wellbeing has a long history of being commodified and fetishised. The Greeks and Romans were some of the first wellness influencers, making water cures and spas fashionable and perpetuating the idea that if you wanted to be as healthy as possible, you needed connections and cash to spare. But then, if you will permit an enormous leap to 1948, the NHS was brought into being and, with it, the idea that good health and medical treatment was a right that should be extended to all.
No amount of activated almonds will alleviate symptoms or help anyone to manage unbearable pain
The NHS has just celebrated its 70th birthday and we know its resources are stretched to breaking point. We know that while Brexit campaigners promised that leaving the European Union would free up funds that the NHS needs, the reality is that thousands of the brilliant people who work in clinics and hospitals will not be allowed to continue to do so. Staff shortages will get worse and worse. Vulnerable people who need support won’t be able to get the help they need. There are no Pilates classes that cure serious illness. No amount of activated almonds will alleviate symptoms or help anyone to manage unbearable pain. But isn’t it a spooky coincidence that the struggles of the NHS have coincided with the cultish growth of the wellness movement? Bad health is presented to us as a moral failing – just as poverty and obesity have been. If you’re not well enough, you clearly did not make enough of an effort with kale and yoga. We’re made to feel that good health is for people who have the money and self-discipline to neck a £4 charcoal shot. Not for those who have spent tense, tearful hours waiting in A&E with nothing but pain and unanswered questions.
In 2018, health has become a hobby for many of us. In some ways, this has been hugely beneficial. I’m glad that, in theory at least, no one smokes on buses any more. It can’t be a bad thing that most of us know that it’s really important to do some kind of exercise or activity, and to try to better understand the link between our bodies and our brains. But I worry that the wellness fad has distracted us and stopped us from remembering why good health is something we all deserve.
Our country is facing a health crisis, and wellness won’t ward it off. There is no cleanse or powder that will act as a talisman against ill health. We can’t afford to think as individuals, if it means that those who need the most help and support will suffer the greatest neglect. We will not be able to solve this if we keep treating healthiness as an expensive pastime – rather than a right everyone is entitled to. The gap between the rich and the poor should be getting narrower, not wider, but the gulf is greater than ever. Our health is our wealth. Our wealth should not determine our health.