Health is an animal

“There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophy.”


The time has come to have a little talk about our talk, especially as it relates to those perplexing words, health and wellness. Clearly, we are having some serious problems on this score. Across the board, from training environments to clinical, academic and organizational settings, people have been struggling to come up with a working definition. Scholars, physicians, trainers and managers brainstorm mightily, discussing and arguing for days, months and even years before finally coming to rest on a definition.

Unfortunately, the end result usually ends up having a “written by committee” feel to it; these definitions may well be “correct” in some sense, but they also sound watered-down, weak, sterile and corporate. And of course, many are circular. (“Health is a state of wellness…” ”Wellness is a state of health…”) Even worse, most of these definitions have no emotional content and ironically, no sense of life. We read them and shrug. Ultimately, we’re forced to wonder what purpose such definitions might possibly serve. We see them posted on websites and referenced in white papers, but what good are they?  Shouldn’t our definitions actually inspire people to do the kinds of things that we’d like to see them do?

So my question is this: What if we were to put some truly authentic life into our definition of health? Instead of arguing about a list of qualities that a committee might be able to agree on, why don’t we simply make our definition as life-like and vibrant as possible? With that in mind, I suggest a new definition. That is, health is an animal.

This definition will take many by surprise, but there are some huge advantages here. In the first place, it requires almost no explanation. Everyone knows what an animal is and it’s easy to suppose that our health might well have similar qualities: Just like an animal, our health moves, grows and lives. Just like an animal, our health has certain fundamental needs. If those needs are met, our vitality increases; if those needs go unmet, we suffer disease and unhappiness.

Even better, this definition takes us directly to the heart of our relationship with our bodies and the world. It puts us in touch with our deep evolutionary history and every other creature in the biosphere. It reminds us that our bodies and our health are literally hundreds of millions of years old. Instead of isolating ourselves as a stand-alone species with its own unique kind of health, we see ourselves as an integral part of creation. Even better, this approach unites human medical practices with veterinary medicine into a “big health” or One Health perspective. If something is good for mammals and primates, it’s probably good for us too.

Health is an animal is a meme that will spark our imagination for a long time to come, but it also generates some immediate questions. What kind of animal would you like to be? Would you rather be wild or domesticated?  Would you rather be a dog or a wolf? And is there a difference between wild health and domesticated health? If so, what might it look and feel like? I propose the following distinction:

Domesticated health includes most what we see in the popular health and fitness press and in corporate wellness programs. Here the focus is on the formalities of health and things that can be measured: blood pressure, body fat levels, assessments and desired outcomes. These programs are thick with information, tips, formulas, recipes and incentives. This kind of practice is conducted primarily indoors, in safe, well-controlled facilities designed for convenience and comfort. Treadmills, stair machines and TV screens are common features. Many of these programs pay lip service to the notion of “spirit,” they do so only in the most superficial sense.

Wild health on the other hand, is raw, independent and vibrantly alive. It’s about exposure, risk and engagement. It’s often practiced outdoors, in full exposure to the forces of nature, in intimate contact with habitat, terrain, plants, animals and weather. Conditions may be harsh, but adversity stimulates the body to adapt and grow stronger. This wild health practice is a truly holistic experience, one that includes not just mind and body, but a deep and ancient sense of spirit that extends across vast spans of human and biological evolution. When we practice wild health, we become far bigger than our individual bodies; we merge with the essence of the biosphere itself.

At this point, many of us are likely to come to the conclusion that wildness is the very essence of health. Forget the details of biochemistry, biomechanics and all the other modern recipes for proper eating and moving; our most important objective is to put ourselves in touch with the wild nature that animates our bodies and spirit. We may even conclude that domesticated health is something of an oxymoron. That is, the more domesticated we become, the less healthy we are. We might eat a perfect diet, do a precisely periodized program on the treadmill and take the perfect combination of supplements, but if we give up our wildness, none of it will matter one bit.

This is precisely why the health is an animal meme makes some people extremely uncomfortable. Our modern corporate value system is built on the desire for safety and control. In this kind of culture, domestication of the workforce is vital and wildness in any form is seen as a threat. In this sense, the last thing that corporations want is a healthy workforce. After all, domesticated dogs are no threat to the status quo, but wild wolves definitely are.

Of course, we will not solve the challenges of wild and domesticated health in the space of a single essay, but we can almost certainly agree that the extremes are problematic. At the far end of wildness, we may well experience profound, exceptional health, but we may also find ourselves unable to conform to a world that demands a certain level of impulse control, obedience and delayed gratification. If we persist in our wildness, we may well find ourselves unemployed or even incarcerated.

At the other end, extreme domestication becomes the very antithesis of health and a formula for psychophysical disease and unhappiness. If we’re too passive and adaptable to civilizing and domesticating forces, we give up the very thing that animates our being; we become willing participants in our own demise. Sedentary living, food products and junk culture eventually wear our spirits down into depression, resignation and despair.

Clearly, our challenge is to find a sense of balance, proportion and a sweet spot on the spectrum of domestication and wildness. We must honor and sustain our wild bodies, wild spirits and wild hearts, but at the same time, we must learn how to inhibit our deep limbic impulses with the brain’s prefrontal cortex. In this respect, we train ourselves to be hybrids: wild, vigorous and vital animals with just enough inhibition to function in this modern world.

Ultimately, some degree of wildness is essential to our health and it's vital that we exercise a form a “wild mindfulness.” This means vigilance and attention to our primal natures, including the need to move our bodies and maintain our vitality. After all, the modern world puts us on a very slippery slope of increasing comfort, insulation and passivity. Domestication may be tolerable in some degree, but it must never become complete, for that would be the beginning of the end.

So, be a good animal and keep an eye on your wildness. It’s far more important than you might think.