In­sights into how the mind and body work to­gether will change the way you train, eat and think.

The Sunday Times - - Feature - Story Mark Naglazas Pho­tog­ra­phy Richard Hatherly

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.”


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.

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