Who Started the Wellness Movement?

The wellness movement got its start in the late 1950s, when Dr. Halbert L. Dunn defined the concept of “high-level wellness,” a term that is still used today to describe a holistic approach to health and wellbeing.

Dunn’s work, along with that of Jack Travis and Don Ardell, inspired a new generation of wellness writers and activists. They created models and assessments to help people develop their own self-directed wellness practices.

Halbert L. Dunn

Our modern use of the word “wellness” dates to the 1950s and a seminal – but little known – work by physician Halbert L. Dunn, entitled High-Level Wellness (published 1961).

In a series of thirteen lectures in 1959, Dunn proposed a unified approach to health, drawing on biological and physiologic models. He redefined wellness as a condition of change and movement, climbing toward a higher potential of functioning.

This approach was an important precursor to integrating individual, community and global health. It emphasized the interconnectedness of the human environment and lifestyle, and recognized that planetary health was predicated on restoration and preservation of natural systems at all scales – from infant to civilization.

John Travis

The word wellness has become a familiar one, heard in workplaces across the country. The idea that a healthy lifestyle can help prevent diseases and save money is now considered a smart business strategy.

The origins of the concept of wellness are ancient. It reflects a broad range of intellectual, religious and medical movements that have emerged over the last few centuries.

In the 1970s, physician John Travis began to use the word “wellness” in his writing and lectures. He established the world’s first wellness center in Mill Valley, California.

Several years later, he published The Wellness Inventory and The Wellness Workbook, both of which are still in use today.

A renowned speaker and author, Jack continues to inspire people to pursue self-discovery, healing and transformation. He is also dedicated to addressing the broader, more complex issues related to health and human development from conception to death. He is a founder and director of the Global Wellness Institute, a nonprofit organization committed to advancing the science, practice and education of holistic health.

Don Ardell

Once associated with utopian New Age subcultures, wellness is now a mainstream movement that’s flourishing in the workplace, at schools and hospitals and throughout our society. From juice bars and detox diets to meditation retreats and mindfulness apps, it’s a business that’s all about the promise of a more self-disciplined, healthier you.

The movement began in the 1950s and 60s with a seminal work by Halbert L. Dunn, called High Level Wellness, and expanded in the 1970s by a network of individuals like Don Ardell, John Travis and Bill Hettler.

Today, the philosophies behind these movements are seen as precursors to many of the wellness practices that are now flourishing across our society. These philosophies are based on the belief that a healthy body is a product of a healthy mind and spirit.

Bill Hettler

Wellness is an umbrella term often thrown around to refer to a state of optimal health. Diet, fitness and stress reduction are all under this umbrella.

However, defining wellness is much more complex and nuanced than just having a healthy diet and exercise. It is a dynamic, conscious process that involves self-responsibility and a focus on treating the body in a holistic and multidimensional way.

A key tenet of the wellness movement is that balance is the most important factor in reaching a high level of wellness and a life of value and meaning. In 1976, Bill Hettler created the Six Dimensions of Wellness Model (also known as the Hexagonal Model) to describe this idea.

This model is now taught to students in health/fitness programs and used by many wellness organizations as a guideline for generating resources and services. It is a powerful tool for helping people define wellness and then live it! To learn more about the National Wellness Institute’s Multicultural Competency Committee and our newly developed Wellness Wheel, click here.