Health is often understood as the absence of disease or sickness. While this definition is valid, it lacks the comprehensiveness of a broader approach. So start assessing your holistic health and wellness on a wider spectrum. This means wellness depends on more factors than simply avoiding the flu each year.
Holistic health and wellness is sustained by eight pillars: physical, nutritional, emotional, social, spiritual, intellectual, financial, and environmental.
The pillars will give you a sense of how to work toward your optimal wellness, but it’s by no means prescriptive. The path to wellness is not one-size-fits-all. The journey is unique and different for each individual.
Your biology, personality, and environment will determine what wellness means to you. That’s why your approach should be personalized. The common thread for everyone is that wellness requires a holistic approach.
So, let’s learn more about each pillar and how you can strengthen each one.
Most people immediately think of exercise when they hear “physical wellness.” Regular physical activity is an important part of the equation that can’t be ignored. But it’s not the only aspect deserving of attention.
Your body needs more than movement alone. Physical wellness also includes appropriate sleep, hygiene, and a healthy diet (more on this in the next section). If you’re evaluating your physical health, ask these questions: Are you getting enough quality sleep? And if not, what barriers keep you from achieving regular and restful sleep?
Researchers published an update to The National Sleep Foundation’s recommendations for adult sleep requirements. Their study reaffirmed the idea that adults should get at least seven to nine hours of sleep each night.
For college students, parents, and workaholics, this can be a tough number to meet. But simple strategies can ensure the sleep you get comes easily and goes on uninterrupted.
- Avoid screens 30 minutes before bedtime.
- Incorporate a relaxing wind-down routine each night. This can include dimming lights in your home, turning on calming music, and even light stretching.
- Block out unnecessary light and noise. This can be done with blackout curtains and a white-noise machine.
Though nutrition is intimately tied to physical health, it’s so important and must be represented by its own pillar. This is especially true because nutrition must be personalized based on age, sex, activity level, and body chemistry.
A balanced diet requires that you consume nutritional foods that feed your body and mind. The USDA recommends that during meals, adults fill half of their plates with fruits and vegetables. The other half should be dedicated to mostly grains, along with a modest portion of protein and a side of dairy.
Diversifying your plate with appropriate amounts of each food group will help you acquire the necessary macronutrients for day-to-day energy, muscle growth and recovery, and other bodily processes.
Unfortunately, in 2013, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that nationally, 76 percent of adults didn’t meet the recommendations for daily fruit intake. Even more—87 percent—of adults didn’t meet daily vegetable requirements. When meeting the suggested five cups a day becomes difficult to do, supplementation can help restore the necessary nutrients in your body to appropriate levels.
Strengthening this pillar requires careful attention to your diet and appropriate supplementation. Life’s stressors and time commitments can make these tasks difficult. But nutritional improvements will help strengthen the other seven pillars of holistic health and wellness.
- Consume a variety of colorful fruits and vegetables. Diversifying this portion of your plate will ensure you get the micronutrients your body needs.
- Pay attention to portion sizes to help with weight maintenance and adherence to MyPlate guidelines.
- Replace refined grains with their whole counterparts to ensure you get enough fiber.
Emotional wellness encompasses the ability to navigate your feelings. This means identifying, assessing, and effectively sharing those feelings with others.
Why is this important? The ups and downs of life can take you on an emotional rollercoaster. But the better you understand, process, and manage those feelings, the smoother the ride will be.
- Create a list of those who support you and how best to contact them. When the going gets tough, it can be hard asking for help. Having this quick reference at hand may make it that much easier to reach out.
- Seek out a therapist or counselor. Often a third party’s insight can help you navigate rough waters.
- Journaling is an easy way to identify and process your feelings, especially if you’re not comfortable sharing them out loud. It’s always a great way to measure your progress or growth. And reminders of your past obstacles and successes will only be a few pages away.
Social wellness is about connecting with others to form positive relationships. And if those falter, it’s about dealing with any conflicts appropriately.
Social relationships create support systems that can carry you through life’s struggles. Harvard’s Study of Adult Development ran for 80 years, collecting data on hundreds of participants. A recent study on a subset of this population—surviving octogenarians—investigated the connections between marital satisfaction, social lives, and happiness. Researchers found that participants who spent more time with others reported greater levels of happiness.
The impact of surrounding yourself with those that care for you can’t be understated. When the demands of life increase and stress mounts, the ability to turn to someone for support and understanding is powerful. Building and maintaining these networks take time and energy, but the work is worth the effort. And it will continue to serve you throughout your life.
- Meet new people through social networks like Meetup.com, community events, or volunteer service.
- Schedule a recurring time weekly to reach out to out-of-state friends and family. Connect with someone new each week to keep those relationships strong.
- Revisit the idea of pen pals and snail mail. Connecting with loved ones through handwritten communication can really strengthen bonds.
The spiritual pillar will look different for everyone because it’s such a personal piece of overall wellness. It will play a stronger role in one person’s life more than another, depending on how each person defines it.
Spirituality is commonly viewed as a sense of purpose, direction, or meaning, without which, values can slip to the wayside, upending life’s balance. Many cultivate their spirituality through meditation, prayer, or other activities that foster a connection to nature or a higher power.
Maintaining your spiritual wellness will look different for everyone. It’s not about a specific religion or belief system. Spiritual health is about personalizing your journey. Some people might practice mindfulness as a way of checking in with their intentions, guiding their actions, and maintaining a values-based approach to life. How you choose to strengthen your spiritual health is up to you.
- Dedicate a small chunk of time each day to yourself. Make this time a priority, free of distractions, interruptions, and major activities. This time can be used to relax, reflect, meditate, or pray.
- Keep a journal. Writing regularly can help clear your mind and keep you accountable to the goals you’ve set.
- Choose your top three values in life and write them down. Reflect on them often. Keeping these values in the front of your mind will help guide everyday decisions—big and small. This practice will make it easier to say “yes” to things that matter, and “no” to things that don’t align with your values.
Intellectual wellness is strengthened by continually engaging the mind. Doing so can help you build new skills and knowledge that inspire and challenge you, and help you grow. You might choose different ways to keep your mind sharp—depending on your mood. For some, that’s brain games and puzzles, or scholastic endeavors. Even simply engaging in intellectually stimulating conversations and debates can strengthen this pillar.
Some experience intellectual boons through self-discovery and personal advancement. Academic efforts, involvement in community activities, or other avenues of personal growth are just a few you can try.
- Look for continuing education classes through a local community college or university.
- Join a book club or visit your local library and sign up for a card.
- Take up journaling or another self-reflective activity.
To be financially well is to live within your means and plan for the future appropriately. It can be tough to accomplish, but small steps can pay off big-time in the long-run.
Financial wellness might sound the least exciting. But pursuing betterment in this area will surely strengthen the other pillars of holistic health and wellness. After all, financial troubles are one of the top stressors that Americans report. Taking small steps to control spending and save money can really lighten the burden on your everyday life.
- Make paying off debt a priority.
- Create a budget with the help of an online system like Mint or a personal financial planner.
- Set aside a fixed amount of money every month for non-essentials, like entertaining, dining out, and recreation.
Environmental wellness is concerned with your immediate personal surroundings and the larger community where you live and work. Specifically, environmental wellness is determined by the reciprocal relationship between an individual and their environment. How do you support your environment? And in return, how does your environment support your health, well-being, and safety?
The effects of strengthening your environmental wellness can be felt personally, and by your larger local and global communities. The more you care for and respect your natural and built environments, the better they can support and sustain your daily life.
- Individual: Keep your workspace clear. A clutter-free workspace inspires creativity and productivity.
- Neighborhood: Join local clean-up efforts. This could include: producing less waste, recycling, and picking up litter in your neighborhood.
- Larger community: Cut back on car trips. Whether it’s combining errands or replacing motorized transport when possible, each small effort can add up to a large impact.
Build Up Your Pillars of Holistic Health and Wellness
Wellness means different things to each individual. And being well gives each person the ability to reach their personal goals. After all, when your body, mind, and soul are cared for holistically, you’re able to pursue and meet your goals with less resistance.
To determine your personalized approach to wellness, reflect on the eight pillars of holistic health and wellness. Figure out which ones most require your attention. And remember, strengthening each one will provide a great foundation for living your best, healthiest life.
About the Author
Jenna Templeton is a health educator and freelance science writer living in Salt Lake City, Utah. After receiving a bachelor of science degree in chemistry from Virginia Tech, Jenna spent five years as a research scientist in the nutritional industry. This work fueled her interest in personal wellness, leading her to pursue a graduate degree in Health Promotion & Education from the University of Utah. Outside of work, Jenna enjoys live music, gardening, all things food, and playing in the Wasatch mountains.
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Moore LV and Thompson FE. “Adult Fruit and Vegetable Intake Recommendations – United States, 2013”. Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report.
Waldinger RJ, Schulz MS. “What’s love got to do with it? Social functioning, perceived health, and daily happiness in married octogenarians”. Psychology and Aging (2010). 25(2): 422-431.