What it means to be well

Welcome to “Health Yourself,” Michigan Today’s new column on fitness, health and wellness. Each month we will be taking on topics that combine the latest health research with practical, effective advice for building healthy habits into your daily life.

As a professor of movement science in the University of Michigan School of Kinesiology for the past 40 years, I conduct and follow research into health, exercise, and nutrition, and I also teach two courses to undergraduates, Exercise, Nutrition and Weight Control and Health Yourself: Introduction to Health and Fitness that helps students take what we know from our research and actually apply it to their own life. I hope this column can do the same for you. As an introduction to me and the column, I’d like to start by defining what we now know about health—and how you can build not just healthy habits, but true vitality and wellness.

What does health mean to you?

This may seem like a simple question, but it’s not, really.

For many, health simply means absence of disease, not having to take any medications or having to visit the doctor. Or health may mean not having to worry about physical ailments or disabilities, or as living beyond one’s genetic destiny. These definitions tend to be based on a negative: “Health is when nothing’s wrong with me.” By that narrow measure, Americans today are spectacularly healthy compared to a century ago, when they considered themselves lucky just to survive to adulthood. A child born in 1900, for example, could expect to live to only about age 47. Most people died of infectious diseases like pneumonia, tuberculosis, or diarrhea. Deplorable environmental conditions, such as polluted water or poor sanitation, claimed more lives.

Since 1900, however, life expectancy has nearly doubled, due largely to the development of vaccines and antibiotics and public health measures to improve living conditions. A girl born today has a one-in-three chance of living to age 100; a boy has a one-in-four chance to live to age 100, and a 20-year-old today is three times more likely to reach 100 than their grandparents, and twice as likely as their parents.

The new health: Wellness

While we still face plenty ill health, we are also learning to view health by more positive aspects. New evidence from the field of epigenetics, for example, suggests that it is possible to alter one’s genetic destiny by altering non-gene factors that cause a person’s genes to behave (or “express themselves”) differently without changing the underlying DNA sequencing.

In other words, nurture can trump nature!Many of us working in the field of active aging use the term “wellness” to distinguish it from the absence of pathology. Wellness goes far beyond just healthy aging, or simple physical and mental health. It refers to optimal vitality—the capacity to live life to its fullest. With understanding, planning, and action it is possible to obtain optimal wellness.

Positive wellness represents the experiences of joy and contentment, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful and worthwhile. People who are well make things happen, they pursue new understandings, seek new achievements and direct their conscious decisions to control factors that promote vitality, joy and longevity.

Six dimensions of wellness

There are six dimensions of optimal wellness:

  1. Physical
  2. Emotional
  3. Intellectual
  4. Interpersonal
  5. Spiritual
  6. Environmental

These six dimensions are interrelated. For example, consider how physical exercise boosts emotional mood—or how a stressful relationship takes a physical toll on lost sleep, tension and bad eating behaviors. The process of achieving optimal wellness is constant and dynamic, involving change and growth.

In each of these six dimensions, common behaviors characterize those on the road to optimal wellness.

The challenge is to identify and practice those behaviors that promote optimal wellness. For most of us, this means we need to be changers, trying out new behaviors and attitudes.

Wellness behaviors

In subsequent Health Yourself articles I will discuss tips and guidelines for achieving optimal wellness in each of the wellness dimensions. For now let’s take an overview of the key behaviors—the day to day actions—people take when they’re moving toward optimal wellness in each dimension.

Physical Dimension

Behaviors centered in the physical dimension focus on fitness level and the ability to care for yourself. To achieve optimum physical wellness you need to make choices that will help you avoid illnesses and injuries. Some examples:

  • Learning about food, eating behaviors and how to really eat well
  • Learning to be physical active throughout the day
  • Avoiding harmful habits
  • Recognizing symptoms of diseases
  • Getting regular checkups
  • Sleeping

Emotional Dimension

Emotional wellness reflects the ability to understand and deal with feelings. Achieving emotional wellness means being able to find positive solutions to emotional problems such as grief, anger and stress, with professional help if necessary.Qualities and behaviors associated with the emotional dimension of wellness include

  • Optimism
  • Trust
  • Self-esteem
  • Self-acceptance
  • Self-confidence
  • Ability to share feelings
  • Acceptance and understanding of one’s feelings

Intellectual Wellness

Those who achieve intellectual wellness constantly challenge their own minds. An active mind detects problems, finds solutions and is able to adopt new behaviors. Intellectually healthy individuals never stop learning; they continue trying to learn new things; they seek out and bask in new experiences and challenges. They are marked by traits including

  • Openness to new ideas
  • Capacity to question
  • Ability to think critically
  • Motivation to master new skills
  • Sense of humor
  • Creativity
  • Curiosity
  • Lifelong learning

Interpersonal Wellness

Interpersonal (or social) wellness is defined by the ability to develop and maintain satisfying and supportive relationships. Social wellness means participating in and contributing to one’s community, country and world.

  • Communication skills
  • Capacity for intimacy
  • Ability to establish and maintain worthwhile relationships
  • Ability to cultivate support system of friends and family

Spiritual wellness

Spiritual wellness includes having guiding beliefs, principle, or values that give meaning and purpose to life. A spiritual person focuses on positive aspects of life and finds a spiritual path as an antidote for negative feelings such as anger, hatred, pessimism, false-pride, and obsession. Organized religion is not the only source or form of spiritual wellness; often people can find purpose through nature, art, meditation, or good work, or through their loved ones.Qualities and behaviors associated with the spiritual dimension of wellness include

  • Capacity for love
  • Compassion
  • Forgiveness
  • Altruism
  • Joy
  • Fulfillment
  • Caring for others
  • Sense of belonging to something greater than self

Environmental wellness

Environmental wellness is the health and livability of our surroundings as well as our planet. This includes such things as the safety of the food supply and the degree of violence in our communities. To take extreme examples: it’s difficult to remain healthy in a war zone, or in a heavily polluted industrial area.Actions that can lead to environmental wellness include:

  • Ensuring abundant, clean natural resources
  • Maintaining sustainable development of our communities
  • Reducing pollution and waste
  • Contributing to the common good of our neighbors

Other important dimensions of wellness

Many experts would include occupational wellness—the level of fulfillment gained through work—as well as financial wellness, which is the ability to live within our means and manage our money in a way to get peace of mind

What you can do

In future issues we’ll take up the challenge of making real change, but in the meantime, one cause for optimism is the fact that all these dimensions of wellness are intertwined. Even a small positive action in any one area can ripple outward to make positive changes elsewhere. For now, take a look at the areas above, and see if there might be just one place where you can start to make a change.


  1. Christine Wells - 1959

    Vic, Very nice column. I’ll look forward to it monthy.You are looking well.
    Chris wells


  2. Ethel Larsen - 1972

    Good stuff. I’m looking forward to reading more. Wish I’d had Health Yourself as class option back when.


  3. Barb Andren - 1992

    Love it! I’ll be eagerly awaiting each installment. Thank you!


  4. Rick Beer - 1972

    Victor, Glad that you are writing about the things we can do for ourselves and discussing wellness as a matter of life. Looking forward to you series.


  5. Dawn Wegenek - 1988

    Really love the organization of all these important concepts- thank you Vic for taking the time and effort to write this!


  6. Charlotte Pusey - 1977

    Looking forward to future installments and have selected an area to work on. Thanks!


  7. Jules Van Dyck-Dobos - 1977

    Looking forward to a fascinating series and encompassing approach to our extended “senior years”. Soon you will have to change the number of grandchildren on the site. Congratulations!


  8. John DeLuca - 1978

    Excellent article Victor. Thanks!


  9. Daniel Kraepel - Pursuing BSW undergrad.

    “Six dimensions of wellness
    There are six dimensions of optimal wellness:
    1. Physical
    2. Emotional
    3. Intellectual
    … 4. Interpersonal
    5. Spiritual
    6. Environmental
    These six dimensions are interrelated. For example, consider how physical exercise boosts emotional mood—or how a stressful relationship takes a physical toll on lost sleep, tension and bad eating behaviors. The process of achieving optimal wellness is constant and dynamic, involving change and growth.” ~Vic. K.
    Very true from the experiences I’ve had in a stressful environment and also true after I’ve done some form of exercise, wheather it be running or Bikram yoga. After I do it, the 6 dimensions are easier to facilitate challenges that would other-wise spiral into negative habituations.


  10. Susan Smith - 1970 & 1983

    Wonderful article/life philosophy! Would like to integrate into patient care? Classes where/when? Want to learn more!! 🙂


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