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Separating wellness facts from fiction

Strong Process forum organizer Rachele Pojednic
Strong Process forum organizer Rachele Pojednic

Rachele Pojednic wants to promote science, not fiction.

The business of wellness has exploded into a multi-billion-dollar industry in recent years, with health and fitness devotees willing to drop $150 on a pair of Lululemon leggings and a kale juice. But that fixation on reaching peak performance can lead to dangerous practices, says Pojednic, assistant professor of nutrition at Simmons College.

Pojednic defines wellness as “day-to-day sustainable, healthy rituals that you can rely on to sustain you both physically and mentally.” What it isn’t, she says, is constant obsession and experimentation in which we seek to find some extreme level of health and nirvana.

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“Because that doesn’t exist,” says Pojednic, who also teaches indoor cycling at the Back Bay studio Flywheel. “When we are constantly thinking about the chase for perfection with wellness — that’s not what it is.”

Exhausted with the spread of unverified information from unqualified people preaching radical health, Pojednic organized Strong Process, a one-day forum focused on the facts behind wellness. Taking place Sunday, the conference is divided into three segments: Eat, Move, and Rest, each highlighting specialists in that area.

Speakers include Brandon Yates, senior clinical research coordinator for the Football Players Health Study at Harvard Medical School, and Christine Spadola, PhD, research fellow at Harvard Medical School/Brigham & Women’s Hospital conducting research aimed at adapting yoga and behavioral sleep interventions for use in low-income communities.

“People are literally paying so much money to get crazy information, that’s again, completely not true, and only designed to sell you stuff,” says Pojednic. “People should have an option to go to something that is based on a little bit of truth and has [actual] experts.”

The wellness conference trend has taken off here and in other cities filled with educated young professionals eager to reach the Holy Grail of health — and sometimes willing to drop real money in the process. Gwyneth Paltrow, whose company, Goop, has made headlines for promoting $135 coffee enemas and jade eggs that (allegedly) improve women’s urinary health, recently hosted the first “In Goop Health” conference in New York. Tickets cost $600 to $2,000. Another is scheduled for Los Angeles this spring.

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But like Pojednic, some conference organizers want to hold events that may be more down to earth.

The popular W.E.L.L. Summit — which stands for “Wellness. Empowerment. Learning. Luxury.” — will take place in Boston on April 28. The $179 to $249 tickets invite guests to join the WELL Summit Tribe “whether you are trying to eat healthier, get fit, sleep better, gain focus and clarity, detoxify your home or beauty routine or all of the above,” the website reads.

Gianne Doherty, founder of W.E.L.L. Summit, originally became interested in wellness after breaking out in hives and questioning the ingredients in her beauty and personal care products. She ditched a six-figure career in business development to start her own company selling organic bath products.

“Some people think that’s crazy, but I had to live my best life for me,” says Doherty.

Pojednic and Doherty eagerly distance their conferences from more privileged, over-the-top offerings.

Herself of mixed Irish-American and Afro-Caribbean heritage, Doherty points out that wellness is often represented by a lily-white population.

“Wellness can seem very white, very Caucasian, very upper class and very privileged,” she says, adding that the W.E.L.L. Summit offers scholarship programs for those who may not be able to afford tickets. “I’m trying to do my part to make sure that’s not the case.”

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The role of social media within wellness has become a sub-industry of its own, with attractive “influencers” keeping their hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers updated with every bite of organic food that goes into their mouth. They stand in front of the mirror taking selfies while dressed in expensive athleisurewear they’re being compensated to feature on their feed. It’s a movement nutrition pros like Pojednic deal with constantly.

“I just want to stand up in front of the room and say enough. Taking pics of yourself in a mirror, going on this cuckoo diet, where your affirmation is your pic of yourself in a mirror — I’m not OK with that,” she says. “By doing these extreme things, and posting all those pictures, is the end goal for you to be healthy and . . . in a good mental state, or is [it] to compare yourself to somebody else on Instagram?”

Pojednic says the issue has become so severe that at Simmons, where she teaches, they’re creating a track focusing specifically on eating disorders because there is such a need.

“It’s manifesting into clinical diagnoses, and that’s problematic,” says Pojednic, who hopes Strong Process attendees will learn to navigate the wellness world and separate gimmicks from facts, while enjoying themselves.


Megan Johnson can be reached at megansarahjohnson@gmail.com