Wellness hate is on the rise; one journalist declared it time for 'Fat Bear winter'. As the days get colder and darker, Hatty Willmoth wonders whether we should also retreat into cosy hibernation this season.

Have you heard of ‘Fat Bear winter’? Last month, journalist Alexandra Jones proclaimed in the Evening Standard that she was “going full Fat Bear” this autumn in defiance of the wellness industry.

“Something of a wellness backlash is in the air,” she wrote, arguing that people were fed up with the smug, perfectionist, joyless push to be as ‘well’ as possible.

Jones had quit her fitness classes, binned her “tyrant” fitness tracker, and was now preparing to embrace her new ‘Fat Bear’ philosophy.

The Fat Bear can feel that winter is coming. With days getting shorter and evenings darker, it must prepare for hibernation: eating as much food as it likes (the messier the better), moving slowly and intentionally, and preparing for a long, long sleep.

Putting on the pounds is inevitable – desirable, even, as if autumn offers us the chance to embody a warm, cuddly, expanding lump.

Jones’s article might have been inspired by Alaska’s annual Fat Bear competition; just 10 days earlier, the ursine winner was announced as 128 Grazer, who claimed victory for putting on the most weight during ‘Fat Bear Week’.

The National Park Service was quoted in the Guardian praising Grazer’s “skill and toughness” which made her “formidable, successful, and adaptable”, and therefore “well prepared for winter”.

Surely, we would find more joy in chocolate, hot water bottles and fluffy slippers than whatever ‘wellness’ could offer us anyway?

Giving up on wellness

After a bit of digging, it seems that the whole ‘Fat Bear’ thing is not much of a wider trend – but Jones’s rejection of ‘wellness’ is.

In her own article, she mentioned actors Gillian Anderson and Sarah Jessica Parker publicly rejecting ‘wellness’ and cited plummeting fitness class attendance numbers – among other evidence.

Meanwhile, the Guardian US recently began publishing a series of anti-wellness articles called ‘Well, Actually’, driven by the idea that readers are fed up with the modern wellness movement and confused with the many claims bandied about by so-called experts.

In its first article, Estelle Tang wrote that she disliked the concept of ‘wellness’ altogether because it assumed “a goal of perfection that’s impossible to achieve”, especially as she was herself “unwell”.

And, while some are deliberately eschewing ‘wellness’ on principle, elsewhere a recent survey suggested that a large number of British people say they don’t live as healthily as they’d like because of a lack of motivation (38%) and tiredness (35%).

Add to that the very real seasonal instinct to retreat into the warm, sack off exercising in the 5pm darkness, and eat hearty meals – and there’s little enthusiasm left for Fitbits and calorie trackers.

And why should there be? The pull of the Fat Bear, with its cake and blankets, is a valid one. What is the harm in putting away our running shoes and choosing comfort this winter?

Surely, we would find more joy in chocolate, hot water bottles and fluffy slippers than whatever ‘wellness’ could offer us anyway?

It's normal to behave differently in winter

To some extent, the call of the Fat Bear is a natural one; it’s normal to become a bit less active in winter.

After all, a summertime post-work jog can be enjoyed under blue skies and a warm sun, whereas at this time of year, it’s likely to be cold, dark, and possibly raining.

Giulietta Durante says that feeling “comfy and cosy and warm” in winter is “a real human need”.

As a menstrual health nutritionist and registered nutritional therapist, Durante encourages her clients to try to live according to natural cycles and seasons.

She says that we don’t have to ignore the call of the Fat Bear entirely: “I do think there’s value in the philosophy of learning from animals that slow down at this time, from animals that hibernate.

“All these animals know – they have this primal need to go and rest, and be in the warm, and not move as much.”

Just like those animals, she says, it’s perfectly reasonable to adapt our habits to the season.

“How can we not behave differently [in winter] to how we might in summer when there’s a 20- or 30-degree temperature difference?

“How can we want to behave the same when the amount of light we’re exposed to every day, the amount of time we spend indoors – all of these things [are different]?

“I mean, who wants to get up at 5am and go to the gym at this time of year, you know?”

The more embedded physical activity can be as part of someone’s routine, the better...

How important is it to exercise in winter?

That said, Durante doesn’t advocate for “throwing in the towel” completely. After all, just sitting inside until March is not going to make us any happier – and it’s not rocket science why.

We’re already predisposed to feeling a bit sadder when it’s cold and dark outside; the NHS estimates that two million people in the UK already suffer with seasonal affective disorder (SAD), otherwise known as winter depression.

It’s common knowledge that movement helps support good mental health, so replacing a summer exercise schedule with hours in front of the TV may not be the self-care win that it initially feels.

Chloe Ryder, a lecturer in psychology of physical activity and health promotion at the University of Portsmouth, warns that fully embracing a Fat Bear philosophy could be “potentially quite destructive”.

She explains that sedentary behaviour can come with “psychological and physical health implications, such as loneliness, anxiety, increased depression levels, as well as reduced cardiovascular fitness and an increase in joint and muscle pain”.

Physical activity, on the other hand, does the opposite, and can reduce our risk of long-term health conditions such as cancers or type 2 diabetes, she adds.

It’s also important to stay physically active – at least a bit – throughout winter, because, Ryder says: “The more embedded physical activity can be as part of someone’s routine, the better, as it encourages people to keep motivated and engage in physical activity.”

If movement is part of your routine, she explains, it becomes something you just subconsciously do, and if you abandon that completely, it might be more difficult to become more active in the spring.

What's the matter with wellness?

Healthy habits make us feel good – so much, so clear. But is this really what Jones, Tang, Anderson, Parker, and all the other wellness haters have been protesting against?

They are surely not angry with those who buy vegetables or enjoy going on walks, but perceive modern ‘wellness’ as something altogether distinct from simply ‘people trying to be healthy’.

The wellness industry is huge: estimated to be worth £1.2 trillion. Within it, there are multitudes of factions and subcultures that splay off in different directions.

It tends to be the quirks and extremities of this amorphous tangle which leave an impression in the minds of the public, not the run-of-the-mill moderate bit.

When someone says the word ‘wellness’, most people don’t think of someone like Tim Spector: scientist, professor, researcher, and co-founder of ZOE (a personalised nutrition programme and huge nutrition-science study); or Chris van Tulleken: celebrity doctor and researcher famous for trying to expose the dangers of ultra-processed food through podcasts, articles, documentaries, and his book, Ultra-Processed People.

For most, ‘wellness’ does not immediately bring to mind registered nutritional therapy practitioners working in clinic to help support clients with personalised lifestyle medicine.

No – they think of Gwyneth Paltrow and perfectly put-together Instagram gurus drinking green smoothies in their perfectly put-together homes.

Obsession, orthorexia and unhealthy perfection

Some of the criticisms levelled against ‘wellness’ have some basis. For instance, the drive to be perfectly healthy can become counterproductive.

On social media, for example, Ryder says: “The use of ‘fitspiration’ accounts can contribute to perfectionism, [which can make wellness culture] more tiring.

“Individuals can strive to follow these accounts… to complete certain workout routines, follow strict meal plans and look a particular way – correlating perfectionism with body image concerns. From this perspective, the wellness haters may have a point.”

This quest for perfect wellness can sour into obsession. Orthorexia is an eating disorder where those affected become obsessed with ‘clean eating’, often anxiously restricting more and more foods that they perceive as unhealthy or ‘unclean’.

Orthorexia has been gaining more attention recently, particularly after the high-profile death of a wellness influencer who displayed signs of disordered eating.

Wellness fads and quackery

‘Wellness’ is also commonly perceived as faddish, intensely promoting all manner of conflicting things that don’t necessarily work.

It’s true that there are some products and therapies marketed under the ‘wellness’ umbrella which don’t have good scientific backing.

Particularly egregious are the mysterious oils, weight-loss teas and anti-bloating powders sold by people trapped in multilevel marketing schemes.

But beyond that, there is so much disagreement – of both opinion and scientific evidence – in the health and wellness space that it can be difficult to know what to give attention.

It’s not as simple as ‘right’ and ‘wrong’; much of the disagreement stems from complicated or conflicting evidence, and some wellness interventions may work for some people but not others.

But pushy marketing and passionate personal testimonies can give the impression that specific therapies are ‘the’ answer.

Learn about hygge: how to stay cosy through the winter gloom

Change is coming to the wellness industry

Durante believes that the health and wellness industry is about to undergo “a massive rehaul and rethink”.

She says: “I’ve been talking about this with a lot of my friends and colleagues who work in this space, and there is this sense of fatigue.

“I think there’s too much conflicting information, and the messaging is too: ‘this is the thing that will work for you’.

“There isn’t enough talk in the wellness industry about your autonomy when it comes to deciding what’s going to work well for you and trusting yourself.

“No wonder we don’t have motivation; we’re too confused. And no wonder we’re tired; there’s too much to choose from. It’s fatigue caused by overwhelm.”

Are you rich enough for wellness?

For those who do want to feel healthier, many are alienated by an industry that seems to mainly cater towards those with plenty of time and money to spend.

Most of us can’t afford to attend niche fitness classes, weekly sauna trips or intensive skincare treatments, no matter their purported benefits.

And the proliferation of these expensive treatments – for some, a lifestyle called ‘biohacking’ – implies that perfect health is an aspirational privilege only attainable for the ultra-wealthy.

But, while rich influencers document their wellness lifestyles on Instagram, many of their followers struggle to put any food on the table at all.

During the current cost of living crisis, and as we lurch towards a season when many will have to choose between eating and heating, it is perhaps no wonder that this version of ‘wellness’ does not spark joy.

Stepping away from the noise

But ‘wellness’ doesn’t have to mean Paltrow, Peloton and paltry diets; it can just mean ‘feeling well’ – and that’s something we all deserve.

While we may be put off by some elements of the modern wellness industry, to surrender to the call of Fat Bear winter would be sacrificing our own health and happiness.

Instead, it might be more productive to hunker down and focus in on ourselves this winter.

Registered nutritional therapy practitioner Nicola Moore says: “It’s about balance rather than perfection, and often the kindest things to do is step away from the noise (which includes trends and fads) and consider overall dietary and lifestyle patterns over the course of months – or better still a year.”

She encourages her clients to find “one or two small and simple things that can be added into a daily routine that feels achievable”, saying: “In many cases, the smaller more consistent changes are the ones that lead to greater accumulative benefits over time.”

...a much slower and gentler approach to our health and our wellness

Winter wellness: a different approach

Durante agrees. She says: “It’s about identifying these little things that can really make a difference and not getting into this state of overwhelm.”

For her, she “always talks about” getting outside in the sunlight for a few minutes each morning as a small change that can have a big impact, and she likes brisk walking and slower yoga in winter.

“I think this time of year especially really calls for a much slower and gentler approach to our health and our wellness,” she says.

“That doesn't mean that you give up on life and curl up and ignore everything, but it means that your self-care, your wellness, your movement – all of that changes at this time of year, and that’s okay.

“I think [I would recommend] listening a little bit more, trusting what our bodies are telling us. We don’t have to be like, oh no, if I don’t want to go to the gym, that means I’m lazy. Getting curious and asking, well, what do I want to do?”

Feeling cosy throughout the winter

Moore knows it can be tricky to adapt to colder months. She says: “I’ve had to work really hard on my emotional response to winter over the years, having previously dreaded it!”

But now she chooses to “embrace the dark days”, making her home cosy “with nice low-level lighting and blankets”, adding it’s something to “really look forward to”.

Moore also recommends taking the opportunity to enjoy comforting winter foods, such as porridge, soups, stews, curries, chillis, roasted vegetables, roast chicken, and risottos.

“All of these foods bring such a layer of happiness to my day,” she says.

Making choices from a place of nourishment

Perhaps big changes are coming to the wellness industry – perhaps not. Either way, we can still make personal choices to nourish ourselves this winter.

It shouldn’t have to cost the earth, it shouldn’t require a cult-like dedication to any random fad, and it shouldn’t demand total life overhaul. Nor should we have to ignore the desire to hibernate completely.

In the words of Durante: “If getting out there and moving on one day is helpful and another day just the thought of being curled up all cosy just fills you with joy, then, I think the important thing is all these decisions come from a place of wanting to nourish yourself and not from punishment.

“It goes back to trusting what you need in that day, in that moment, listening to our bodies rather than what some crazy personal trainer on Instagram is telling you – which might work for you!” She laughs. “If it brings you joy, it brings you joy!”

In other words, it is important to try to stay healthy in winter – but happiness and joy should be part of that.

And if you spend the odd day inside, wrapped up in a blanket cocoon, wearing fluffy socks, watching telly, feeling like the warmest, fattest, snuggliest bear of them all – well, that sounds lovely too.

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