It’s the Big 3-0 for the Berkeley Wellness Letter — and counting

In 1984, when the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter first landed in mailboxes, the word “wellness” was rarely used.

Now, the culture has caught up with the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. A Google search of “wellness” turns up 464 million hits. And the Wellness Letter is celebrating its 30th anniversary, in good health.

Keeping up with the times, the newsletter has cloned itself into a website, BerkeleyWellness.com, that also shares the best and latest thinking about preventing disease and promoting health from the school’s experts and advisers. And, far from basking in the glory of 30 years, the University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter’s editorial board devoted the days around its anniversary celebration to mapping out an ambitious trajectory into the increasingly digital future.

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When it comes to the Wellness Letter, even the cake-cutting is a collaboration: editorial assistant Gladys Fleitas, managing editor Dale Ogar and writers Shirley Tomkiewicz and Michael Goldman. (UC Berkeley photo by Peg Skorpinski)

“Over its 30 years, the UC Berkeley Wellness Letter has brought evidence-based and science-based information to millions of readers in the U.S. and Canada,” says John Swartzberg, professor emeritus of the School of Public Health and chair of the publication’s editorial board. “We have tried to accomplish this with a voice that has been both fun and clear.

“We’re planning on another 30-plus years,” he adds. “Our future will continue with our print edition but also in our rapidly growing website.”

Students in the school’s masters, MD and Ph.D. programs have benefited as well.The vast majority of royalties from the letter have gone to their financial support — about $15 million since 1984.

Early days

As well regarded as the Wellness Letter is now, its beginnings were tough. Co-founders Joyce Lashof, who was then public health dean and is currently associate chair of the newsletter’s board, and Sheldon Margen, the late public health professor who did seminal work in nutrition, championed the idea of taking the wealth of Berkeley’s health knowledge to the broader public. From the very beginning, Dale Ogar has run the show in Berkeley as managing editor, along with writer and editor Michael Goldman, from the New York office.

During last week’s editorial meeting, Lashof described recalled going around the campus with Margen, convincing administrator after administrator that the Wellness Letter was a good idea. Harvard already had a newsletter, but it focused on medical problems. Berkeley’s proposal was to work to keep people from getting sick by promoting healthy practices and disease prevention.

The mission wasn’t the problem, Lashof says. The sticking point was that putting out the newsletter would need to involve a collaboration with a commercial New York publishing company, and the concept of public-private partnerships had yet to sweep academia. Nowadays, Lashof adds, no one would blink twice.

And then there was the issue of its name. Ogar told a local newspaper in 1998, “The word ‘wellness’ was fringy and holistic; it had a sketchy connotation to me, though the publisher. Rodney Friedman thought he made it up. Now, of course, everyone is using the word — it’s totally mainstream.”

Finally, approval was won. The Wellness Letter was launched in 1984, and by 1991 it had the most subscribers of any newsletter in the country, according to a news report at the time. Now, it is rolling into its fourth decade. Corks were popped Thursday night (Oct. 16) at a celebration in the University Club at Memorial Stadium.

Today’s model

The website, published in a partnership with New York-based Remedy Health Media, puts the information published in the monthly print Wellness Letter, in a highly visual and interactive online form. Its content is evolving more and more toward daily postings and up-to-date articles, with topic areas expanding to meet reader needs, according to the editors. All content is vetted and approved by the Wellness Letter editorial board.

Two Chinese-language editions also circulate to readers in the United States and Taiwan..

The Wellness Letter also publishes regular reports, both online and in print, on issues such as controlling cholesterol, eating for optimal health and lowering blood pressure, for example. Over the years, it has gathered its wisdom into a series of books, such as The Wellness Supermarket Buying Guide, currently available online.

“The world has changed,” says Lashof. The Wellness Letter has changed with it.

But Swartzberg adds, in an anniversary post on BerkeleyWellness.com , “Some things haven’t changed much since our first issues, when we covered such topics as the benefits of aerobic exercise, the cholesterol-lowering effect of polyunsaturated fats, the link between sodium and hypertension, the fraud of hair analysis, the perils of fast food, and how computers (yes, even back then) can cause eyestrain and neck pain.

“And our core beliefs remain intact: That the key to good health is to pay attention to what you eat (with an emphasis on plant foods), exercise regularly, not smoke, and take steps to manage stress.”

Subscriptions to the print Wellness Letter and links to its reports are available on BerkeleyWellness.com