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As well as can be expected

People work out at the Fukagawa Sports Center in Tokyo, Wednesday, June 12, 2024.
Hiro Komae
People work out at the Fukagawa Sports Center in Tokyo, Wednesday, June 12, 2024.

A new wellness center has opened in what had been an empty storefront next door to a local restaurant. I asked the restaurant owner what went on in this wellness center, because I have always wondered. People go in and out, he said. Do they look particularly well? I wanted to know, but he hadn’t noticed any real difference between those going in and those coming out, so the mystery remains.

You can scarcely drive around in these suburbs without noticing the proliferation of health-oriented enterprises of this kind. Whenever a commercial property becomes empty — and many do these days –a wellness center appears. or a fitness center, or a holistic health center, or a yoga or tai chi center, or something else suggesting how anxious we are about the state of our health.

If I was a fearless journalist, willing to risk anything to get the facts, I would have simply walked in the door of this new wellness center and discovered what it was all about. But I was wary and, you could almost say, nervous. Is wellness the same as fitness, as in the phrase “fit and well?” I have never been accused of fitness, and I had visions of treadmills, weightlifting machines, and merciless personal trainers. So I stayed outside.

But if fitness implies a kind of self-torture, there is something appealing about the idea of wellness. It sounds somehow comprehensive and comforting. So, I did my research where everyone does it, safely on the internet, where I learned that a wellness center treats the whole person with such treatments as skin care, weight loss, cosmetic services, massage and chiropractic services, nutrition advice, and personal training. I knew fitness would come into it somewhere, I was right to be wary.

In addition to the quest for wellness we have a vast illness industry here in the suburbs. Everywhere you look there are hospitals and medical parks ready to pick up the pieces from the failures and dropouts from the wellness industry. So, we are covered on all sides, although it is worth remembering that the human body does seem to need an extraordinary amount of maintenance these days.

I suppose my question is: on the road to wellness*, how do we know when we have arrived? How well is well, and how is wellness to be measured? Illness, of course, is measured by thousands of tests that can be quantified and compared. Fitness can also be precisely measured by those little electronic machines that active people wear. But there is no machine for testing wellness, or not yet. Shortsighted people have even said to me: You’re looking well for your age. But surely they are just being polite.

But that’s the key question — are you looking well? The wellness center web pages feature beautiful people in splendid physical shape, with glowing smiles (in spite of the exercise), and I noticed the frequent use of the word “rejuvenation,” which comes from the French rajeunir or to make young again. “Looking well” means not looking your age, it’s as simple as that.

We would all like to be made young again, despite the passing of time and the steady rotation of the earth. The elixir of youth is one of humankind’s most ancient dreams. If wellness centers can offer even a shadow of that, they deserve to take over every vacant main street property in the land.

David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.