Wellness is a New Religion: How Commercialized Gurus are Changing the Wellness Space

Believe it or not, health is now an ideology.

This wasn’t always the case though. In the past, our ideas regarding everything from health to religion were more or less set in stone, defined by a few empowered individuals with platforms to guide the public.

Back then, this power to dictate beliefs was hard to come by, requiring a lucky birth, hard-won social clout, or intensive study. However, with the help of technology, most of us now have a virtual soapbox in our pockets. As more of us begin proselytizing, the marketplace of ideas is moving from a state of scarcity to saturation.

With so many new points of view available, our interpretations of reality seem to be a bit more subjective than we once thought. While journalists used to strictly cover facts, we can now cry “fake news” at anything we don’t agree with, from politicians to fad diets.

In the health and wellness community, this shift is leading us to exchange scientific, medical consensus for the popularity and charisma of health gurus. Although exploring alternatives is certainly a good thing, we definitely need to take their advice with a grain of salt to ensure that we don’t get duped into making the wrong health choices due to somebody’s cult of personality.

Although health and wellness gurus have always existed — we’ve all heard of the snake oil salesman — in more distant history, information on health was a lot more scarce; the public largely relied on gatekeepers to dictate their health and wellness modalities. In the 19th century, wellness secrets were primarily passed down in a family through the generations. Back then, your grandmother’s time-tested natural remedies would have been your go-to: honey for a sore throat, ginger for an upset stomach, or a neti pot for congestion.

As we moved into the 20th century, primary care physicians became our authorities on health, giving us pharmaceutical drugs to cure our ailments. However, it soon became clear that these cures didn’t address the root cause of many health problems. More recently, people have taken the power to be healthy into their own hands and away from traditional gatekeepers, allowing for greater access to information regarding wellness.

Over the past 70 years, books, magazines, and television programs gave self-styled health gurus a greater platform to throw their health regimens into the ring alongside doctors’ recommendations. In the 50s, the Godfather of Fitness, Jack LaLanne, became widely recognized as a preacher of diet and exercise on his fitness television program, The Jack LaLanne Show. His work and legacy have since inspired millions across America, including Arnold Schwarzenegger, to live healthier lives by hitting the gym and eating right.

Capitalizing on the groundwork laid by LaLanne, in the early 60s nutritionist and health researcher Nathan Pritikin brought our attention to heart health and the dangers of meat, sodium, and fats. The Pritikin Diet quickly caught on, promoting vegetables, legumes, and whole grains, guiding thousands to lead healthier, happier lives.

Soon, others followed suit, gaining popularity for promoting their points of view on wellness. Contrasting Pitikin’s stance, in the 70s Dr. Robert Atkins encouraged the consumption of meat and fats with his Atkins’ Diet. After that, it didn’t take long for philanthropist and businessman, Daniel Abraham, to enter the space promoting his Slim Fast products: bars, shakes, and packaged meals which incorporated the controversial weight loss supplement, Dexatrim.

By the 80s celebrities such as Jane Fonda, Tony Little Denise Austin, and Richard Simmons had the public Sweatin’ To The Oldies in their living rooms via VHS tapes. Up into the 2000s, despite their disparate backgrounds in business, medicine, and acting, people like Jenny Craig, Barry Sears, and Suzanne Summers continued coming up with innovative diets to cut weight and promote longevity.

Once the importance of diet and exercise had been cemented in the public’s psyche, following the turn of the century, popular reality TV shows such as The Biggest Loser and The Big Fat Truth allowed the people to not only workout themselves, but be entertained and motivated by others doing the same.

With the rise of the internet, gaining status as a health guru doesn’t require any medical credentials or previously accumulated fame. With a good Instagram handle, lots of followers, and some solid PR, anyone can build themselves into an expert. Individuals such as JP Sears, Wim Hof, and Massy Arias are excellent examples of this new generation of self-made health authorities. Others are even taking on the role of guru in a more traditional sense, blending new age spirituality with yoga or shamanic techniques to guide the public to not only healthier bodies, but minds and spirits as well.

The health and wellness advice promoted by such charismatic influencers is typically easy to access and simple to follow. However, that’s not to say that their advice always reliable.

On one hand, with the growing distrust of traditional medical institutions in the United States, many are questioning if credentials really mean anything, and an increasing number of Americans believe that holistic treatments are more worthwhile than those promoted by mainstream institutions. In fact, there really is something to be said for corruption in the healthcare industry, and it’s always good to explore alternatives. However, we don’t have to throw the baby out with the bathwater; science is still important.

Despite the seemingly good intentions of many health gurus, their lack of medical or scientific credentials can be a problem. It’s not uncommon to hear about cases such as Gwyneth Paltrow’s recent fine for $145,000 for promoting claims for a wellness modality that weren’t substantiated by scientific evidence. In fact, one famous person who fell victim to unsubstantiated treatments was Steve Jobs, who tried and failed to cure his cancer through alternative practices.

Nowadays, anyone can use Google, but whether or not they’re finding truly helpful information is another story entirely. For nearly any condition you search for, there is a now a guru associated with it, and articles promoting solutions are a dime a dozen. Just as journalistic standards are eroding in the news media, so too are they in the wellness world. For that reason, it’s necessary for consumers to do enough research to weed through fake experts to find treatments that truly work.

Among this seeming free-for-all of advice giving by modern wellness experts, health is becoming like a religion for many. Some swear by veganism, while others are die-hard paleo followers; many maintain high-intensity training is bad for your joints, and others claim that it’s the key to good health; some believe that coffee will promote their longevity, while others think it causes heart disease; the list goes on.

Some of us even follow wellness gurus with the same fervor that Catholics follow the Pope or Buddhists the Dalai Lama. We count our steps on our Fitbits with the same devotion that someone might count their prayers on a rosary. If that weren’t enough, our gyms are replacing places of worship as our go-to locations for community gatherings.

Much like in the case of religion, it’s becoming increasingly clear that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for wellness. Whether or not each new trend is actually helpful, it’s important that we each explore our options and find regimens that make us feel good. Once you find your personal sweet spot for health, do your best to keep a level head and avoid becoming a fanatic and keep an open mind to other points of view. In doing so, we’ll all be able to cut through the fluff and lead more happy and healthy lives.

Wellness is a New Religion: How Commercialized Gurus are Changing the Wellness Space

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