Anytime a fitness professional or alternative health practitioner claims that their special techniques are going to bring about improved “Well-being” or “Wellness”, my spider senses start tingling as there’s most likely B.S. near.

Why I’m Very Skeptical of Those Who Claim Their Practices Will Improve Your “Wellness” or “Well Being”

Put simply, claims of improved “Wellness”  and “Well-being” are terms whose definition is so vague that it misses the mark of defining what type of benefit you’ll get from the alternative health practice associated with them  – thus the precise reason these terms are so prevalent in the alternative medicine and holistic health world. In that, the more ambiguous the criterion, the easier it is to detect evidence of success.

Remember: If something means everything, it means nothing!

Now, this is not to say that all those who use these terms are purposefully being dishonest. Although some surely do. It’s simply to display how these ambiguous claims can impede our judgement as to whether or not a given treatment is working.

As Thomas Gilovich, a professor of psychology at Cornell University puts it, “It becomes easy to maintain belief in an ineffective intervention when the outcomes aren’t very clear- cut. Thus it is easier to believe that a given treatment is effective in bringing about vague improvements in symptomatology than in effecting a genuine cure.”

Prof. Gilovich goes on to discuss this 1984 survey published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, as an example:

“Consider the results of a survey of cancer patients recieving unorthodox treatment for thier illness (e.g., metabolic therapy, faith healing, etc.) either in concert with or instead of more conventional treatment like chemotherapy, radiation, or surgery. The patients were generally pleased with their decision to undergo  an unconventional treatment. However, they were more likely to believe that the treatment had some vague positive effect on their “general health” than to believe that it had an actual impact on their cancer.”

The problem is: What the heck is general health? Like the terms Wellness and Well-being, it can mean thousands of different things!

The results of the above survey prove that the more vague and ambiguous the criteria, the easier it is for us to detect “evidence” of success.

Prof. Gilovich also goes on to address another non-negotiable reality that most of us ignore while those who use ambiguous terms like improved wellness capitalize on, “As with all trends characterized by considerale fluctuation in improvement and deterioration, such low points will tend to be followed by periods of improvement even if the treatment is completely ineffective. Statistical regression guarantees it. Thus, without a general appreciation of the phenomenon of regression, or without a general appreciation for fluctuations in the course of most health issues (pain, sickness, etc.), any temporary improvement is likely attributed to the treatment. In fact, when a treatment is introduced immediately after a flare-up in a persons symptomatology, almost any outcome can appear to support its effectiveness.”

In other words, we all have days where we feel better than others, even in the presence of pain or sickness. And, we’ll attribute anything we experience on a “good day” from feeling better (i.e. more energy, more mental focus, etc.) to better sleep to less pain, etc. as specific “evidence” that the intervention “worked” despite the fact that these fluctuations will 1) happen anyway and 2) the intervention was given to us with a only a vague promise of improving our “wellness” or our ‘well-being.”

The Take Away

“I have learned in recent years to loathe most the word ‘holistic,’ a meaningless signifier empowering the muddle of all the useful distinctions human thought has labored at for two thousand years” Roger Lambert, in John Updike’s Roger’s Version

By using ambiguous criteria (like “Improved wellness”, “Well-being”, “Better Centering”, etc.) alternative health practitioners make their claims hard to refute because they studiously avoid pinning themselves down to any verifiable predictions. And, as shown above, by doing this they let us (psychologically) fill in the gaps, due to our “belief” in the treatment, by crediting the intervention for any improvements we experience.

That said, we don’t really want to believe something is working, we want to KNOW something is working because we’re investing our valuable time and hard earned money in it. And, the ONLY way to know something is working is to ask questions and be sure to pin down any (alternative) health practitioner who uses claims like improved “wellness” and “well-being” to some actual verifiable outcomes, in order to prove that their services can doing something more than your body can do by itself. 

If they say,“My treatment will give you a better sense of well-being.”

Ask, “What the heck does that mean? – Please give me some specific examples.”

If they reply, “You’ll feel more “centered” or “grounded”, which are just more ambiguous terms. You ask, “How do you know I’m not centered?” –  ”Is there any scientific evidence showing the validity of this?” – “And, how can we measure (before and after) so I know your treatment worked to make me more “centered?” – “Please give me a specific example of what I can’t do now (because I’m not centered) that I will be able to do when you help me to get centered.”

If they say something like, “You’ll just have a better sense of oneness or well-being” , you know you’re one a hamster wheel of B.S., as they’re unable (or unwilling) to give you any meaningful information by pinning themselves down to any verifiable predictions that they can be held accountable for.

Also, when you start to ask questions, you might get a response like,“Us alternative health practitioners are forced to be ambiguous by using words like wellness and well-being because legally we cannot say we treat anything”, which is a legitimate reply.

To this, simply say, “I understand that. Here’s why I came here; to improve A, B and C. Now, can your special techniques help me find improvement with any of what I just mentioned (A,B & C), as improving my “wellness and well-being” (to me) IS by helping me improve A, B and C.” – “In other words, if your techniques do not help to improve A,B and/or C, as far as I’m concerned my wellness and well-being have not been improved.”

Your line of questioning should continue until you have specific, verifiable outcomes that you can compare before and after the treatment, like: Pain levels in a specific joint or area of your body, or Movement ability (ex: Range of motion in a specific joint or joints), which is not unrealistic because it’s exactly what we all do when we go to a Medical Doctor or a Physical Therapist.

If you are able to get them to pinpoint a specific outcome to expect, investigate if the time frame they gave you for achieving the specific treatment outcome is any faster than the average time of other interventions, or if it’s any faster than simply not doing anything and resting.

For example: As I stated in this article, “Statistics show that most acute Low Back Pain begins to improve after 2 to 5 days and typically resolves itself in less than 1 month with non-steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) and (tolerable) activities.” So, to say that a given intervention gave you  relief from low back pain in 4 weeks time, going 3x per week for treatment, isn’t impressive as that’s likely to happen by simply resting at home.

Now, if you’re a chronic back pain suffer, and your pain usually lasts several months without treatment. Then the alternative health practitioner should be able to drastically shorten your average time in pain, in order to validate the benefit of their services.

The point is: It’s up to YOU to demand specific, verifiable outcomes from those who claim to be able improve “well being”, “wellness” etc. because that’s what delivering good customer service is all about; you give someone your money and they, in return, give you a specific value. By someone saying they’ll give you better “well being” offers no value.

By asking questions that lead to specific outcomes, you’re assured as to what you’re paying for. And, if you don’t get what you paid for after the intervention, then you know that they (the practitioner) did not hold up their end of the deal. And, you also know the intervention they applied didn’t work. This way you don’t continue to invest in something that’s based more on belief than actual evidence.

Finally, if the practitioner (who claims to be able to improve “wellness” and “well being” with their special techniques) refuses to provide you with any specific, verifiable outcomes from their treatment. Then you tell them that you can’t provide them with any specific amount of money or verify the time frame that you’ll pay them.

Remember: If someone expects you to proceed on a leap of faith and ambiguity, then they too should also be willing to do the same.