REBOOT YOUR LIFE
Insights into how the mind and body work together will change the way you train, eat and think.
Few areas of modern life are blown about as violently by the shifting winds of fashion as health and wellbeing.
It seems every couple of months we’re hit by new ideas about how we should exercise, what we should eat and the best way to maintain our minds. But our thinking about what’s good for our bodies and souls is being sharpened by science. Now experts who give us advice can reach for a user manual that is giving us a clearer, albeit more complex picture of how our body works, right down to a cellular level.
Recent breakthroughs in medical research provide a startlingly different picture of the human body, according to professor of health sciences at the University of South Australia Tim Olds.
“We now know the human cells in our bodies are outnumbered by a factor of 10 to one by trillions of micro-organisms. We also know that that these organisms, which are basically bacteria, play a major role in determining our wellbeing,” Professor Olds says.
“There’s strong evidence associating the flora that occupies the gut with obesity. Scientists now believe that it’s not the calories you ingest but the calories you digest that determines how much weight you put on. Two people could eat exactly the same food yet absorb different numbers of calories.”
Our understanding of what’s going on in our stomachs and how it impacts on our wellbeing is matched by an increased awareness of the interlocking nature of the rest of our body.
“We used to think of exercise as just involving the heart and the muscular-skeletal system. That expanded to the endocrine system (the hormones) and now we have brought in the gut and the brain, with a lot of solid evidence suggesting that diet and exercise will mitigate the effects of dementia,” Professor Olds says.
Our grasp of the connection between body and mind has invigorated the industry, with exercise, diet and wellness specialists drawing on the latest research to advise their clients in a more organic manner. They’re treating the whole, not individual parts.
The most startling example of this new approach is the new generation of “gyms” (they don’t even like using that description) popping up across Perth. The aim of these studios is to help clients move well, break habits formed over a lifetime of sitting, slouching and slumping and, in some cases, repair damage done by years of training in conventional gyms. Yes, the new kids on the block — some inspired by movement instructor and YouTube sensation Ido Portal — think traditional gyms can be bad for you.
“It makes no sense to develop a particular muscle when that muscle never moves in isolation,” says Mark Bernacchi, one of three Ido devotees
who run Modus Movement Studio in Myaree.
“In every movement there is so much more going on that needs to be accounted for and improved to repair injuries and become great movers. There’s a belief you go to a gym to smash yourself, which is why some people quit after a few weeks.
“You need to learn how your body functions and what kind of practice works for you. Which is why we refer to the people we train as students. They come to learn and to incorporate good habits in every aspect of their lives.”
Awareness of what you’re doing instead of simply following long-standing behaviour is also the cornerstone of the practice of mindfulness, a psychological process now being applied across the health and wellbeing spectrum.
“Mindfulness is about connecting with the moment and taking it as it comes, unpleasant or pleasant, not judging it but observing it,” says Nicola Burton of Griffith University’s school of applied psychology.
“When you don’t respond automatically — or mindlessly — then you can make informed actions and responses.”
While mindfulness is now used by psychologists as a therapeutic tool, there’s considerable evidence that here-and-now awareness is a healthy approach to everyday behaviour, such as exercising and eating.
“Mindful eating has been evaluated and promoted as a strategy for healthy eating practices,” Dr Burton says. “We have research that suggests we eat more while we’re watching television because we are not paying attention.
“We’re not engaging with the behaviour of eating but watching TV and eating coincidentally. You need to be engaged and present in order to take the next step towards a healthy life.”
STM talks to three health and wellbeing professionals whose personal journeys have led them to alter their practices and reboot their lives. We explore what inspired their transformations and how their experiences can help you.
MOVER AND SHAKER Emma Robson, movement coach
Emma Robson was only a few years into her career in fitness before she had her first full-blown professional crisis.
As she guided yet another client through arm curls and crunches and showed them how to program the treadmill, Robson had a sinking feeling that she was a big, fat fraud (truth be told, she had a belly like a cheese-grater).
“I wasn’t giving clients what I’d promised them,” Robson says. “I could get them feeling fitter and help them lose a bit of weight, but overall their bodies didn’t change much. They still moved the same and had the same aches and pains.”
Robson’s most distressing failure was her mother, Sandy, who had spent her entire adult life on painkillers after a car accident in her teens left her with a serious knee injury. “I tried to intervene many times using conventional training, but it failed miserably,” says Robson.
Around this time Robson had a light-bulb moment — or, more accurately, met a man who glowed with vigour and fitness and philosophical clarity — about the untapped potential of our bodies and minds.
The Israeli-born Ido Portal had electrified the fitness community with a series of videos showing him twisting, turning and holding up his body with gravity-defying ease. Robson attended Portal’s workshop in Perth in 2014 when he introduced locals to his mesmerising mix of capoeira, gymnastics, calisthenics, yoga and other forms of own-bodyweight training, weaving his eye-popping practice with an hypnotic rap that makes you want to join the cult.
“I went into Ido’s workshop feeling fit and strong,” Robson says. “I thought, ‘I could beat anyone at my own gym, so this should be a piece of cake’. Then Ido asked us to do certain things I couldn’t do. I was humbled by the experience. What Ido was asking us to do was very simple. He wanted us to squat and be on the floor and to hang — the sort of thing we would do as kids. I struggled. Something was out of whack.”
Robson set about remaking her practice, moving away from traditional fitness regimes rooted in body building — static, isolated planes of movement — towards a practice based on moving your body well. “Working with Ido changed my perspective on what exercise should be. I shifted my focus from exercising for the sake of looking good to exploring what the body can do,” says Robson, in between sessions at her Mount Hawthorn studio Aspen Coaching.
Robson’s mum, who is now 57, became her guinea pig. There was also the added urgency of Sandy’s doctor recommending a knee replacement. Robson asked Sandy to give her six weeks, during which she put her through a series of Ido-inspired routines that woke parts of her body that had been lying dormant since childhood. The results were astonishing. By the end of the allotted time, Sandy had regained movement she never thought possible and was so confident she was on the right path that she cancelled the operation.
“She can now run and squat and hop and do chin-ups and handstands,” beams Robson.
Sandy says: “It was not an overnight fix and it meant doing the work every single day. But after years of spending money and being on medications I was willing to do anything. I’m now medication free and in control of how I feel.”
Robson’s work space now has none of the equipment in conventional gyms. It’s more like a dance studio where clients work with their own bodies instead of attaching themselves to a machine. “We’re not about making you sweat for an hour three times a week,” she says. “We want to help you incorporate movement practices in your everyday life. It’s not about showing off your muscles, but living well without injury and pain.”
I SHIFTED MY FOCUS FROM EXERCISING FOR THE SAKE OF LOOKING GOOD TO EXPLORING WHAT THE BODY CAN DO. EMMA ROBSON
THE GUT ENGINEER Natalie Woodman, holistic nutritionist and naturopath
When Natalie Woodman arrived back in Perth after 15 years in Japan she was a highly accomplished modern woman — a fit, healthy mother-of-three who helped her husband build a language school catering to more than 600 students.
Five years after her return, Woodman found herself flat on her back on the bathroom floor, blood pouring from her head from a fall, many kilos overweight and with enough health problems to occupy an hour on talkback radio (chronic back pain, eczema, hay fever and so on). After getting out of hospital, some friends told her not to worry. She was 45 years old, what did she expect? To this pocket dynamo who’d started a business in a foreign land while raising a brood of kids, the line was like a red rag to a bull.
“The only thing that changed in my life was my diet,” Woodman recalls. “In Japan our kitchen was so small we couldn’t store anything, so we bought fresh food every day. When we came home we slipped back into stacking the shelves with food with preservatives.”
So she set about removing processed food from her diet and within eight months was back to normal. But she didn’t stop there. She enrolled in nutrition at university, and when that proved unsatisfactory (“They do not react quickly enough to the latest research,” she complains) she moved on to holistic medicine.
Woodman is now guiding others towards gut health, encouraging her clients to empty their pantries of foods laced with preservatives and teaching them to cook the kinds of meals their parents and grandparents made for them. “We live busy lives, so we want our food to be quick. But foods that are quick and tasty are full of sugar, fat and artificial additives that affect our overall wellbeing and our capacity to fight disease,” Woodman says from her South Perth home/office.
While teaching traditional ways to prepare healthy food is at the heart of Woodman’s booming practice, it’s backed by research that reveals the importance the gut plays in determining our wellbeing. We now know 90 per cent of our body is made up of bacteria (“We are just 10 per cent human,” declared British science writer Alanna Collen in a recent bestseller) and that most of the microbial community (the gut microbiome) resides in the colon.
The main source of fuel for the gut microbiome is fibre, explains Woodman. The good bacteria in your large intestine produce the short-chain fatty acids that regulate our immune systems, our neuro-transmitters, our appetite and our sleep (it’s why the gut microbiome has been called the second brain). The bad bacteria, on the other hand, feed off sugars and fats and eat the mucus that lines the gastro-intestinal tracts. The bacteria we ingest daily get into those cracks, into our blood stream and set off the immune reactions that are affecting so many people.
“Researchers have shown that people who live traditional lives in places like Africa are getting around 100g of fibre a day. Consequently they have very few of the ailments that are rampant in the western world, such as obesity, high blood pressure and diabetes. We are lucky if we get 10 grams a day,” she says.
Woodman believes a return to whole food is key to nurturing the microbiome (“your inner garden”) and fighting a rapidly expanding roster of diseases, but she doesn’t expect you to live like a monk to be healthy.
“You don’t need to deprive yourself. It’s about eating as close to nature as possible. I drink wine but I have organic wine. I have coffee but I don’t have milk. If your gut is healthy, it will be able to handle occasional lapses. Love your garden and it will love you back.”
THE INNER ADVENTURER Claire Guild, yoga teacher and mindfulness coach
Claire Guild radiates such a glowing sense of health and wellbeing she might have leapt off a poster in a doctor’s waiting room. She’s in her early 40s but looks a decade younger as she bounces between a job in mental health and her own practice as a yoga teacher.
So it was a surprise to learn that in her 20s, Guild was so debilitated by vasculitis brought on by an anti-acne drug she wondered if she’d ever be able to lead a normal life.
“I’d been incredibly active and driven, so the illness hit me hard. I was desperate to get back to work and to exercise, but I was tired all the time. I feared that this would be my reality forever,” Guild says.
After much reading and thinking — “with this illness you have a lot of spare time,” she laughs — Guild decided to reframe the narrative, accept the situation and find meaning in it. “I used the illness to change my life,” she says. “Instead of letting it crush me I saw it as an opportunity to follow my dreams.”
The emboldened Guild left her home town in Scotland and moved to Australia, took on a new profession (after completing a master’s degree in mental health at the University of Queensland), became a yoga teacher and then, a mindfulness coach.
Popularised by American professor emeritus of medicine and bestselling author Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness is the belief that an array of modern maladies — anxiety, depression, diabetes and heart disease — can be aided by focusing on the present.
Guild says it teaches you to regard thoughts in the same way a scientist would a new discovery — looking upon them with fascination and without judgment.
“We don’t have to do anything with those thoughts and feelings. We just need to recognise them — to look with curiosity, to sit with it, to just allow it to be there,” she says. “I’m not saying it’s easy. But it is far better than the other option, which is to resist, suppress and push away. Denial can lead to distress and mental anguish and ultimately causes physical damage.
I think it’s amazing that people can go to the gym for an hour but can’t take 15 minutes to train their mind.”
Movement coach Emma Robson with her mum Sandy Blockey.
Naturopath Natalie Woodman.
Yoga teacher Claire Guild.