Wellness Feels Like It Is Everywhere Now—But Do You Know the “Founding Fathers” That Started This Movement?

Posted on Friday, July 25th, 2014, by Beth McGroarty | Leave a Comment


Jack Travis, MD, and Don Ardell, PhD, are widely credited with shaping the way we talk and think about wellness today—pioneering the concept back in the ’70s

Wellness is now a staggering $2 trillion global industry (SRI International). The term and movement is spreading worldwide, and sometimes it feels like the “W” word is now everywhere. Sure, we can roll our collective eyes when it’s cheaply applied to a “lite” TV dinner, but most of us will agree that the world remains in dire need of alternatives to traditional medicine’s reactive, illness-centered model, and that new health concepts based on more self-responsibility—where the goal is a dramatically more comprehensive “total wellness” of body and mind—can be life- and world-changing.

Circa 2014, “wellness” has definitely arrived. But very few people know a handful of thinkers from the U.S., including John Travis, MD, and Don Ardell, PhD,[1] were responsible for founding the wellness movement as we now know it, back in the 1970s.

Because when Travis opened the first wellness center in Mill Valley, California, in 1975—and Ardell published High Level Wellness: An Alternative to Doctors, Drugs, and Disease in 1977—not only did the word “wellness” start percolating, more importantly, this let’s-start-thinking-beyond-pills-and-procedures health concept did, too.

If you watch Dan Rather’s 1979 segment on the influential U.S. news program 60 Minutes, profiling Travis’ first-ever wellness center in California, you will probably laugh. Rather proclaims gravely: “Wellness…there’s a word you don’t hear every day.” Certainly true before Travis and Ardell devoted nearly four decades of their lives to writing and educating on the topic. If you feel like you hear the word wellness every day now, they’re key forces that have made that a reality.

As Ardell puts it, “I’m sure Jack and I have been told a million times, ‘If you had a dollar every time someone said ‘wellness,’ you would be wildly rich men.’ But if that were true, far fewer people would understand it, embrace it, and the concept of ‘real wellness,’ which still remains largely unrealized, wouldn’t get realized.”

To honor their profound, if too-little-known impact, the Global Spa & Wellness Summit (GSWS) just announced these seminal founding fathers of wellness will speak at the upcoming 2014 conference in Morocco, enlightening delegates on the evolution of the modern wellness concept—and where they think it needs to go in the future.

Let’s briefly meet these pioneers of the wellness revolution

You can read even more about their unique stories in the press release: 


Jack Travis:

John W. “Jack” Travis, MD, MPH, began in the medical world: he earned his medical degree at Tufts University and then did a residency in preventive medicine at Johns Hopkins, where he received a masters in public health.

And he explains that a swirl of forces led him to think—and take action—in a whole new direction. Jack was profoundly influenced (like Ardell) by Dr. Halbert L. Dunn and his 1961 book High-Level Wellness; Dunn wasthe first thinker to use the comprehensive, proactive concept of wellness in its modern sense. And it opened up Travis’ mind to what a smarter, more powerful, broader idea of true health could be. He was also influenced by mid-20th-century American psychologist Abraham Maslow, one of the first to focus on happy individuals and their psychological trajectory. Maslow also noted the importance of paying attention to the positive qualities in people, as opposed to treating them as a “bag of symptoms.” Maslow is known for his “hierarchy of needs” concept, or the idea that the urge for self-actualization and creative expression is deeply entrenched in the human psyche, but only surfaces once basic needs (like food, security, self-esteem) are fulfilled. As well, another “Road to Damascus” moment for Jack includes seeing the Bob Dylan lyric, “He not busy being born is busy dying,” on a poster in 1972.

So, instead of entering traditional medicine, Jack instead opened the world’s first wellness center, The Wellness Resource Center, in Mill Valley, California, in 1975. The center’s mission: to complement the medical/illness focus by helping people realize that they can “self-direct” their own wellness, by emphasizing every aspect of an individual’s wellbeing: from fitness and food to stress management and much more.

Jack recounts upon opening the center his tentativeness about the word “wellness,” and really thought it would never catch on. In fact, he had two signs made: one that said “Wellness Resource Center” facing one way, and another with his name and “MD” facing the other. But when Dan Rather did the 60 Minutes piece featuring center’s work, it brought the word and concept of wellness right home to mainstream America—and eventually the world.

One of the key concepts Jack developed (starting in1972) is the illness-wellness continuum, which is a response to the traditional medical paradigm assuming that a person is “well” if no symptoms of illness are present. In that model, injuries and symptoms are treated to bring people to a “neutral point” where no illness is visible. His illness-wellness continuum instead proposes there are degrees of wellness, just as there are degrees of sickness, and that the true goal of the wellness model is to move individuals further along the continuum towards optimal physical, emotional and mental states. (I.e., true wellbeing is dynamic, not static).

Jack has too many accomplishments in his 35-plus years as a wellness thinker/advocate to recount, but here are just a few examples: He created one of the first computerized health risk assessments; he developed a 12-dimension wellness assessment tool, the Wellness Inventory, to identify underlying motivational issues of high-risk behaviors, that ultimately went online and is widely used by corporations, hospitals, universities and fitness and spa professionals; and he serves as a professor at both Australia’s Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and at the California Institute of Integral Studies.

What he’s thinking now: Since the ’70s, Jack has significantly expanded his thinking about wellness, incorporating infant, adult, societal and planetary issues. His concept now is “full-spectrum wellness,” and an intense focus is on interconnections (from conception to death, from inside our skin to the whole earth), that are vital given the web of connections that humans require for optimal health have been severely, relentlessly compromised by modern life. As he puts it: “After decades of thinking about wellness, I would summarize my work in six words: ‘The currency of wellness is connection.’”

We look forward to sharing more of his important thinking on how modern society works in extremely harmful ways to “disconnect” us, and the extraordinary cost to our physical and mental health, from the Summit.

Don Ardell:

Don’s career as a wellness author/activist also meant taking a fork in the road. After earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology from George Washington University (where he led the basketball team to the NCAA tournament), Don received his masters in city planning from the University of North Carolina. While he began his career in urban planning, he soon moved into the health arena, serving as director of two of the 300-plus metropolitan planning councils (Minneapolis/St. Paul and San Francisco/Bay Area) that had just been funded by U.S. Congress in 1966.

But he soon realized these agencies were myopically focused on medical system issues, such as preventing excessive hospital expansion, so he led a movement to redirect the focus toward wellness education. And by the time his work as editor of the American Journal of Health Planning was completed two years later, a full one-third of the regional agencies had instituted plans for the promotion of healthier lifestyles and populations. Those were brand-new ideas.

Like Jack Travis, a confluence of forces led Don further down the “wellness” path. For his leadership in Minnesota, he was awarded a Bush Foundation grant, funding a sabbatical at Stanford University’s Business School, and, following that, the Union Institute and University, where he received a doctorate in health and public policy (1977). He also cites the powerful influence of Dr. Dunn’s thinking in High Level Wellness. And with both Don and Travis living in Mill Valley in the ’70s, he made a serendipitous discovery of the latter’s Wellness Resource Center, which led to fruitful collaborations, including Don writing crucial articles about Travis in Prevention Magazine, and Travis serving as adviser during Don’s post-grad studies. Don also credits female friends he knew in the ’70s for seriously transforming his thoughts about what it means to be and stay well—noting these women were WAY out in front of academics and institutions in their thinking about exercise and diet.

In 1977 Don wrote High Level Wellness: An Alternative to Doctors, Drugs, and Disease (the title is an explicit homage to Dr. Dunn’s book)—and it proved to be a real watershed event for the wellness movement.

Like Travis, Don has achieved too much in his long career to capture here, but among the examples: He’s written more than a dozen books; produced 74 print and nearly 700 electronic editions of his weekly newsletter, the Ardell Wellness Report; and served as a professor at the University of Central Florida. He certainly takes his ideas about wellness-driven living seriously: He is the current U.S. champion for his age division in both triathlon and duathlon, plus, is a six-time world champion.

What he’s thinking now: Don reports his ideas about what kind of “wellness” the world needs now have been refined since his first book. While he is happy to see the hospital/traditional/medical worlds seize on forms of wellness since the ’80s, he’s also frustrated that wellness suddenly became reduced to testing, and limited to preaching about fitness and diet—important things to be sure, he notes, but a very narrow focus, given what’s possible for multi-dimensional personal health. With two-thirds of the U.S. overweight (and obesity spreading worldwide), along with rampant violence and drug and alcohol abuse, he feels we’re not addressing people’s sense of meaninglessness. No one finds the same meaning or purpose in life, and wellness concepts that can transform the world need to work on understanding how to give people’s individual lives meaning and generate and sustain happiness.

He calls his new model REAL wellness, an acronym for reason, exuberance, athleticism and liberty—dimensions largely ignored in overall wellness and employee wellness programming. These pillars of wellness, he argues, entail skills vitally needed in the modern era, i.e., critical thinking and effective decision making, joy, love, tolerance, meaning, purpose, relationship dynamics, social support and the safeguarding of personal freedoms and liberties. We look forward to reporting more on Don’s concept of REAL wellness from the Summit.

Don noted that the core idea he argued for in High Level Wellness remains:

Modern medicine is a wonderful thing, but there are two problems: People expect too much of it, and too little of themselves.”

A simple, profound thought that two “founding fathers” of wellness still agree on…

[1] Another key pioneer was Bill Hettler, MD, who founded the National Wellness Institute at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, in the mid-70s.

Question of the week:

When was the first time you heard the word wellness? Please share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.


2 thoughts on “Wellness Feels Like It Is Everywhere Now—But Do You Know the “Founding Fathers” That Started This Movement?”.

  1. len

    I first heard the term Wellness from Don Ardell who I met by chance one morning on vacation when I was out for a run. We started talking (he talked I listened while trying to keep up with a 72 year old race horse!)
    Initially it meant something different to me as a 46 year old. However in hearing Don’s logic and thinking and definitions I have come to understand it on a deeper level. I now see it as a call to action.

  2. Philippe Therene

    I first heard the word “Wellness” when I picked up Paul Pilzer’s best seller “The Wellness Revolution” about 10 years ago. It was al about the new consciousness that will transform how people think about being and staying well, as well as the business potential behind that movement.


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