Is There a Difference Between Health and Wellness? The Answer Might Surprise You

What is the difference between health and wellness? Is there anything that separates these two terms we hear so often? As it turns out, there’s a big difference in wellness vs health. Let’s take a closer look.

The Difference Between Wellness and Health

We often see health and wellness lumped into the same category. In fact, the two terms are often used interchangeably. While they seem synonymous on their faces, there is an important distinction between wellness and health.

In general, health is an outcome. It’s a general barometer of our overall physical condition. If we ask someone how their health is, we often hear about physical ailments or the lack thereof. People usually say that they’ve been feeling OK, or that they’re doing great, or that they’ve had a cold lately. If they’re sick, they tend to say so, and then they might proceed to outline some of their symptoms and thank us for asking after them.

Contrasted with health wellness is a choice or perhaps a series of choices that we make to improve our state of well-being. It’s easy to see that the two terms are closely related and it’s also very easy to understand why so many people tend to express a bit of confusion when they discover that “wellnesshealth” isn’t really a thing!

How is Health Defined?

Back in the 1940s, the Worth Health Organization (WHO) defined health as “a state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Not surprisingly, this definition of health is often challenged. The use of the word “complete” can make health seem difficult to achieve, and the inclusion of physical, mental, and social markers add to the sense of unattainability that comes with this definition.

Whether you subscribe to the WHO’s broad definition of health or not, the terminology used helps us understand why many agree that health is something that can be improved, maintained, or decreased. This definition also helps us understand that external factors contribute mightily to a person’s state of health. Here are a few things to consider when looking at health overall.


Is the person’s environment healthy in terms of air, water, nutrition, and exposure to natural sunlight? Is the person excessively exposed to the elements, or are they routinely exposed to carcinogens or other toxins? Do they have everything necessary for good health?

Other People

Does the person have a supportive family and a group of good friends? Do they have others to talk with, or do they lack social interaction?

Mental Stimulation

Does the person have access to education, entertainment, and other things that make the environment interesting? Are they encouraged to exercise creativity and develop or use critical thinking skills? Do they have what they need to build a well-rounded life and live up to their innate potential? Do they enjoy recreation on a regular basis?

Access to Resources

Does the person have access to money or a means of support? Do they have access to basic healthcare, dental care, and vision care? Is mental health care available? Can the person exercise, either at home or outdoors or at a gym? Can they purchase supplements and other products that might improve health?

Negative Impacts

Are there negative influences on the person such as excessive alcohol use, exposure to street drugs, or an addiction of any kind? Addictions to food and even overuse of social media can have a negative impact on health so be sure to keep these in mind when considering your state of health or that of someone else.

How is Wellness Defined?

There are many definitions of wellness. The National Wellness Institute provides a concise definition that does a good job of clearing up the wellness health conundrum, stating that wellness is “an active process through which people become aware of and make choices toward a more successful existence.” This definition of wellness is based on some very simple tenets.

Wellness is a conscious, intentional process. It is usually self-directed, and it requires the direct participation of the individual being impacted.  

Wellness can evolve. A person can make an effort to improve wellness, and by doing so, they can move toward achieving their full potential.

Wellness is always positive. Actions toward wellness are always affirmative.

Wellness is holistic. It encompasses all factors that go into a person’s way of living in the world, including their environment, their lifestyle, their spiritual practices, their food, and their choices. It includes their mental states and steps taken toward improving mental state as well.

Are There Similarities Shared by Health and Wellness?

The main health and wellness difference is that health is an actual state of being while wellness is a culminative process of all the things that add up toward health. Even though the two are different, they do share a few similarities, in that some of the same things that affect health can also affect wellness.

Environment is a major factor that can impact both health and wellness.  If your environment is cramped, with poor ventilation and an uncomfortable temperature for example, it might be harder to maintain health. At the same time, these undesirable environmental factors can make it harder to work toward wellness, i.e. it won’t be easy to get cardiovascular exercise in this environment, and mental state might suffer as well.

Stress is another factor that can have a negative impact on health and wellness alike. When we’re stressed, our bodies respond by releasing stress hormones that can impact weight, make it hard to focus, and often decreasing our desire to eat well, exercise, and take our supplements.

Despite the similarities, it’s possible to look a little bit deeper. If our environment is unpleasant or we’re exposed to excess stress, it is often possible to make changes. Can we go outside or get to the gym? Most of the time, the answer is yes. Can we notice that we’re stressed and work on gratitude for a moment or take a few minutes out to meditate or go for a short walk to clear our heads? Usually, this gets an affirmative answer as well.

The Takeaway: Lifestyle Choices Lead to Wellness, Which in Turn Can Improve Health

Now that you know the difference between health vs wellness, it may be easy to see that health actually depends on wellness and on our ability to access things that contribute to our overall wellbeing. Most of us have the means and ability to make choices toward enhanced wellness, even if that means choosing rice and beans over fast food or taking ten minutes out to walk around the block. By making an effort and noticing how our wellness choices affect our health, we often have the ability to change our own lives for the better.