For the majority of his career, James Hill, PhD, chair of the nutrition sciences department at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, has devoted his time and attention to health and wellness issues. And in holding positions such as chair of the World Health Organization's (WHO) Consultation on Obesity, that meant honing in on the more physical aspects of a healthy lifestyle. He even helped to create national guidelines for treating and preventing obesity. But Hill is leading the charge in rethinking what we believe to be a healthy lifestyle, suggesting that taking a holistic approach to wellness is of the highest importance—even more so than simply losing weight.
"Wellness is still a rather vague concept with no clear definition and no definitive method of measurement," Hill said in a statement ahead of the keynote address he gave on Sept. 28 at the 2020 Virtual Annual Meeting of The North American Menopause Society (NAMS). He urged people to "consider the advantages and disadvantages of a focus on wellness, as well as issues of definition, measurement, and method of change."
The problem, as Hill sees it, is the separation of the different aspects of wellness and the trend of people focusing their efforts on one thing—diet and exercise, for example—as the answer to their problems. Hill says this singular approach simply isn't working. Considering the fact that the adult obesity rate in the United States is 42.4 percent—the highest rate ever recorded, according to the Trust for America's Health 2020 report—it's clear something is amiss.
"As a country, we're just not well. We're suffering from so many of what I call lifestyle-related chronic diseases," Hill recently told Healthline. "I think we definitely need a concept like wellness that can unite obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and so on."
Hill even admits that he was guilty of not seeing the bigger picture early in his career. "I started out way more focused on physical health: fitness level, risk of diabetes, and so on," he said. "In recent years, what's become clear to me is that one of the key parts of this is the whole mental or psychological component."
Once he had this revelation, Hill began to think about a healthy lifestyle not centered around a number on a scale or the fear of heart disease, but one where an individual's sense of self, their life's purpose, their physical well-being, and their idea of happiness weren't each a singular idea or pursuit, but intertwined with one another into one concept: wellness.
So, what would Hill say to someone today if they asked him how they should go about getting healthy?
"Think about why you want to change and dive deep into thinking about how you want to align how you're living your life with those things that are most important in your life," he said. "The behavior change can happen. It's the sustainability of it that's difficult, and it's aligning that lifestyle with what we call purpose in life that's necessary to sustain it." And for more on how to work wellness into your daily life, check out The Single Best Thing You Can Do for Your Health Right Now.