According to the Global Wellness Institute, the wellness industry is valued at $4.5 trillion — and it's been steadily growing now for quite some time. Each year, we see certain wellness trends take off: wellness tourism, sleep health, even "well fashion." But the COVID-19 pandemic has completely changed the face of the wellness industry in less than a year.
Changed, but not diminished. "[Wellness] is one of the bright spots of the economy right now," Beth McGroarty, Vice President of Research at the Global Wellness Institute, tells Refinery29. While there are plenty of wellness trends we're itching to leave behind in 2020 (detoxes, fad diets, and anti-masking, to name a few), there are some that have cropped up that we're more than happy to keep around. Here, McGroarty gives us insight into the top wellness trends you can expect to see gaining steam in 2021.
Surprise! Online, at-home wellness is going to continue to be a major trend in 2021, which you probably already saw coming. "It's almost a cliché, but anything that was digitally delivered has just taken off," McGroarty says. "Whether it's telemedicine, virtual therapy, meditation apps, digital fitness platforms — even reiki classes are moving online. As soon as the pandemic hit, we saw an immediate, exponential explosion of people doing some kind of class online." Fitness equipment sales have also gone up 170% during COVID-19, as those of us with the space and the means turned our homes into makeshift gyms.
Though the move to virtual platforms that allowed us to bring wellness practices into our homes was driven by necessity, it had a very positive trick-down effect: Virtual wellness makes services much more accessible to everyone, including those who may live in areas where certain classes or practices aren't offered. "We’ll see a return to classes someday, but most people predict that there will be a very strong digital component or mixed digital, in-person component," McGroarty says. For almost a year, people have become very comfortable taking fitness, yoga, meditation – you name it – classes at home; this is permanent behavioral and cultural change.
Traditional Western medicine has typically had a solutions-oriented approach to wellbeing. Meaning: It focuses on treating health problems after they crop up. But recently, consumers have been pushing back, demanding a more preventive approach. We want to know how to stay healthy to prevent problems in the first place. And the pandemic accelerated that shift. "It immediately strengthened the case for what I would call responsible, preventative wellness," McGroarty told Refinery29. By that she means an emphasis on exercise, healthy food, sleep, and stress reduction, which she refers to as "the pillars of wellness, which have this huge evidence-based impact on preventing underlying conditions." So, less powders and potions that vaguely claim to "boost immunity" and more science-backed strategies that support your body's individual needs.
As McGroarty says, "I think the healthcare industry needs to wake up to the fact that we need a heck of a lot more preventative wellness if we want to survive things like this pandemic."
This is another trend born out of necessity. After a year filled with trauma, our mental health has been threatened. "There’s a lot more anxiety [because of the pandemic]," Mary K. Alvord, PhD, a psychologist and the director of Alvord, Baker & Associates in Maryland, previously told Refinery29. "There was a wave of sadness — and I’m worried it’s turning into depression for a lot of people — as they are in their homes and can’t really go anywhere. And then there are family dynamics that create difficulty and added stress. On top of that, there’s economic stress." Getting ourselves back on track will be top of mind as we head into 2021.
As a result, you'll be hearing the term "radical self-care" a lot this year. The University of Indiana defines it as "the assertion that you have the responsibility to take care of yourself first before attempting to take care of others." This goes beyond bubble baths. We're talking about really, truly doing what you need to do to protect yourself and your mental health before exerting energy on others.
Radical self-care will look different for different people — not everyone is able to take a mental health day from work or visit a therapist, for instance. You may notice a renewed interest in spiritual practices this year, everything from meditation to manifestation to traditional religious activities. One study found that Google searches for "prayer" has spiked amid the pandemic.
In 2020, Oregon legalized and Washington D.C. decriminalized psilocybin, the active ingredient in magic mushrooms. Experts are expecting that these moves will further legitimize the burgeoning field of drug-based therapies: Ketamine is already gaining ground on a possible option for treatment-resistant depression, for instance.
This is a trend that may not impact your life directly right away. You won't be buying shrooms over the counter anytime soon, for example. But decriminalizing or legalizing ingredients like psilocybin helps open the door for more research into the compound, which will help us figure out all the potential uses. Be on the lookout!
This trend has quietly been gaining steam for a while. Back in 2019, the Global Wellness Institute launched what they called a "Dying Well" Initiative, which was intended to open up more conversations about death, and the pandemic has brought the topic back to the surface, due to the overwhelming amount of loss we've experienced this year.
Talking openly about death with loved ways may feel uncomfortable at first, but it can ultimately reduce stress. Joel Rowe, MD, an emergency medicine physician at Mount Sinai in New York City, wrote a piece for The Atlantic this past summer about the way we talk about dying, and thought back on his own mother's death due to liver disease six years ago. He had already had conversations with her about how she wished to end her time on Earth — comfortably, and not on life support. "For the rest of my life, I’ll live in gratitude for her last, invaluable gift —readying us both for her death before it happened," he wrote.
More of us may be having conversations about death in the coming year, and we may start to see tools that are designed to help us do so. "There's a lot of innovation going on in how people are trying to help people navigate death and their fear of death," McGroarty says. "These new advanced-care planning companies, often started by women, are seeing so much more activity." Death doulas seem to be becoming more common too.
Although early in the pandemic there was a lot of attention being paid to surface cleanliness — so much so that hand sanitizer and disinfecting wipes were in short supply — the revelation that COVID-19 is airborne turned our attention to air purification measures. "A lot of people have been buying very sophisticated air purification technology, or air monitoring systems, whether it's HVAC purification, HEPA filters throughout your house, UV air treatment within homes," McGroarty says. "I mean, this is the most pressing health and wellness issue, period."
Air cleanliness will likely become more important as people start to make their way back to work. Another reason respiratory wellness in general may be a hot topic this year: COVID-19 can cause lung complications, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine. Cough and shortness of breath are among the most common symptoms for the virus, and may stick around for weeks or even months after recovery. It's no wonder people are more concerned than ever with air quality.
No one could have predicted all the ways COVID-19 would change wellness in 2020. Many of the innovations have the potential to be good — high-tech air purifiers, a return to the foundational pillars of wellness, products that help make wellness more accessible at home, a focus on radical self-care. But if we take one thing from 2020, it's the importance of keeping an open mind. Anything can happen.