Lifestyle Changes and Population Health: The Words of John Wesley

As a health care organization affiliated with Methodism, I think it’s important to celebrate the wisdom, pragmatism, and vision of “Primitive Physick or, an Easy and Natural Method of Curing Most Diseases,” written by John Wesley. First published in 1747, this book of practical medical advice touched on population health before we even defined the term “population health.” Wesley attempted to divulge the best treatments physicians provided to wealthy clients and make them available to everyday people who couldn’t afford that care.

Compared to many of the ineffective or even harmful treatments of that time period, some of Wesley’s advice in “Primitive Physick” is strangely sensible, such as the prescription for “extreme fat”:  

Use a total vegetable diet. I know one who was entirely cured of this, by living a year thus: she breakfasted and supped on milk and water (with bread) and dined on turnips, carrots, or other roots, drinking water.

Beyond its insight into 18th-century medicine, I have two significant takeaways from “Primitive Physick”:

1.  Wesley repeatedly emphasizes the importance of lifestyle changes, which are just as essential now as they were in his time. In the preface, he specifically highlights the role of diet, exercise, sleep and faith: 

Observe all the time the greatest exactness in your regimen or manner of living. Abstain from all mixed, all high seasoned food. Use plain diet, easy of digestion; and this as sparingly as you can, consistent with ease and strength. Drink only water, if it agrees with our stomach; if not, good, clear small beer. Use as much exercise daily in the open air, as you can without weariness. Sup at six or seven on the lightest food; go to bed early, and rise betimes. To persevere with steadiness in this course, is often more than half the cure. Above all, add to the rest, (for it is not labour lost) that old unfashionable medicine, prayer. And have faith in God who "killeth and maketh alive, who bringeth down to the grace, and bringeth up.

As we work to positively impact the health of people and communities across South Texas, tackling chronic diseases like obesity and diabetes, we can remember that our holistic approach to health – mind, body, and spirit – is part of a long Methodist tradition.

2.  Beyond individual health, Wesley cared deeply about population health. “Primitive Physick” is Wesley’s attempt to democratize safe, affordable, and easy medical care by making it available to poor and working-class people.

Moreover, Wesley seems just as eager to prevent sickness as he is to treat it. He declares that a regimen of exercise and healthy diet is “one grand preventative of pain and sickness of various kinds,” noting that “the power of exercise, both to preserve and restore health, is greater than can well be conceived.” He also offers directives about sanitation, bathing, abstinence from strong liquors, and emotional health.

Population health forces us to look carefully at outcomes, especially for disadvantaged communities, and recognize the impact of social, physical, and economic factors on those outcomes. By publishing “Primitive Physick,” Wesley attempted to improve health outcomes for low-income people throughout England and North America. Clearly, Wesley recognized the significance of factors beyond proficient medical care in maintaining good health.

Increasingly, I see Methodist Healthcare Ministries embracing a population health approach to our work. This is critical because it will fundamentally improve our ability to fulfill our mission to improve the physical, mental, and spiritual health of those least served in the Rio Texas Conference area of The United Methodist Church. By moving upstream to prevent chronic disease, by disaggregating data to examine health outcomes for specific groups, by collaboratively addressing factors beyond clinical care, our funding and resources will be even more effective in affecting the health of communities throughout the 74 counties we serve. Wesley would be proud.

In closing, I offer a quote from Wesley about faith and health: 

"the love of God, as it is the sovereign remedy of all miseries … by the unspeakable joy and perfect calm serenity and tranquility it gives the mind … becomes the most powerful of all the means of health and long life."

John Wesley wrote these words at the conclusion of his preface in “Primitive Physick.” May they be just as healing for us today as they were for his readers almost three centuries ago.

For those interested in additional reading on this topic, I recommend two articles beyond the text of “Primitive Physick” itself:


About the author
Tim Barr is the Collective Impact Strategy Manager for Methodist Healthcare Ministries. He supports, develops, and facilitates collaborative efforts in the Coastal Bend region and throughout the 74 counties that Methodist Healthcare Ministries serves.