The blueprint for wellness includes four major components: Exercise, Hygiene, Nutrition, and a Spirit of Love. They are essential pillars in any wellness program, whether academic, corporate, public, or personal. How would you rank them in importance? (Please take a minute to write them down in their order of importance to your health. There’s no academically right or wrong answer to this request. They’re all important. Rank them as to how you personally view them. I’ll give you my ranking after discussing them in alphabetic order.)
Regular exercise is important for fitness and health. Obviously, its value to the musculoskeletal system and the cardio-respiratory system is great. Its value to the gastrointestinal, genitourinary, neurologic and immune systems is also well documented. Careful research shows that regular exercise is beneficial to one’s emotional quality of life, and it may be as effective as medication in treating depression. Finally, research also shows that exercise is helpful in preventing some kinds of cancer. In short, physical exercise is a major key to wellness. Many people rank it number one in importance.
Hygiene tends to fly under the radar, but it’s more important than most people realize. Many hygienic challenges that have a great impact on our lives today occur at corporate and environmental levels that most of us don’t see directly. Yet extensive pollution of land, water and air affects all of us today. Think about massive food recalls, endangered water supplies, or extensive air pollution that increases the risk of asthma and lung disease.
Personal hygiene issues also remain crucial. Cigarette smoke (first and second-hand) kills or cripples millions of people every year. Dental disease causes widespread pain and suffering, threatening the health of billions. A host of communicable diseases, from the common cold to the deadly Ebola virus, are spread by way of poor hygienic practices. Hygiene is, without doubt, a major component of wellness.
Everyone knows that healthy food is essential for good health. Yet unwise food choices are major contributing factors in many diseases that cause widespread disability and death today. Obesity, type 2 diabetes, atherosclerotic cardiovascular diseases, high blood pressure, and strokes are a few of the diseases related to unwise food consumption that have become major epidemics in our era. On the other side of the scale, inadequate food remains a major cause of debility and death for millions of people. Nutrition is clearly a major key to wellness.
The Spirit of Love
The spirit of love is important in life, but many people don’t think of it as an essential ingredient for health. Indeed, many good physicians overlook its value when they prescribe healing treatments for their patients. When Dr. Dean Ornish included carefully supervised exercise, healthy nutrition and meditation in his regimen to reverse coronary heart disease, he included support groups as part of his program. He did this mainly to help patients stick to the rest of the program – diet, exercise and meditation. Later, in analyzing the data from what proved to be a hugely successful program, he was surprised to find that the support groups were statistically more important than anything else.
When he reviewed the role of support groups in the medical literature, he found them to be a key factor in improving health in many major diseases. He concluded that support groups had such a powerful impact because, in them, patients were involved in a caring environment. When he realized its therapeutic importance, Ornish wrote his landmark book, Love & Survival, in 1998. He summarized that if love could be packaged as a pill, it would be the most widely prescribed medicine in the world.
The effects of love on the brain and the body can be measured in many ways today, and it’s clear that its harmonizing effects are beneficial in every way. Love is not only good for health, but it’s an essential ingredient in harmonizing relationships between people and in fostering care about our environment. Wes Jackson, President of the Land Institute, puts it this way: “When people, land and community are as one, all three members prosper; when they relate not as members but as competing interests, all three are exploited.”
Love is sometimes thought of as being soft or “wimpy.” While love can be thought of as being comforting, it is far from wimpy. True love is strong. It does not exploit self, others, or the community. In the context of health and wellness, love empowers one to walk the wellness path with oneself and others, and to care for the environment. Love enables one to handle stress beautifully, regardless of how stressful outer circumstances seem to be.
In The Teachings of Don Juan, Carlos Castaneda asked: “Does this path have a heart? If the answer is no, you will know it, and then you must choose another path… A path without a heart is never enjoyable. You have to work hard even to take it. On the other hand, a path with heart is easy.”
All four of the wellness pillars are essential. When considered individually, a good case can be made for the primacy of each one of them. At times, I’ve leaned toward the overriding importance of one and then another. Yet all of them must be considered together. It’s a crucial error to leave any of them out. Weakness in any pillar weakens the entire support system for wellness. Exercise, nutrition, hygiene, and the spirit of love all work together to maximize one’s wellness potential.
Love has a quality that gives it top wellness ranking. It connects us to Source, the creative principle of love that infuses and harmonizes everything in the universe. If we are open to the spirit of love, all things are possible.
Ed Dodge, MD, MPH
This post was published first in Dr. Ed Dodge’s Wellness Newsletter, Volume VII, No. 8 • August 14, 2015.