Here is the full text and summary of Lizzie Braicks-Rinker’s talk titled “Your Body is Talking to You, Are You Listening?” at TEDxUofW conference.
Listen to the audio version here:
Today I’m excited to talk to you about wellness culture and what it actually means to be healthy. When you hear the term healthy, what comes to mind? What do you think of as health?
So for whatever reason, I have always been the kind of person who is drawn like a moth to a flame to putting my body through intense physical discomfort. I am the friend who if you tell me that you went to a workout class that made you feel like you were going to throw up, I have to try it. I have to know what it was like.
When I was in college, I was a rower and it was my entire life. Everything that I did revolved around being healthy and being an athlete. I was arguably at my physical peak. I was obviously working out all the time, but I also was a really hardcore vegan. I had this elaborate regimen of vitamins and supplements that I took every day. I carried my emotional support water bottle with me wherever I went, and I was a cliché of a healthy person.
However, the reason that I started really thinking about what it means to be well is that despite being super healthy on paper, being an athlete, I felt terrible, my friends. I was having panic attacks almost every week. I had this really weird chronic pain that no one could quite figure out, and I wasn’t getting my periods. I just felt off, but I was really healthy, right?
I kept saying, something doesn’t feel right, and I couldn’t really articulate what it was. So this is a picture of me from the middle of college. My brother, Steve, had just turned 15 and was about to start high school. And this is what I looked like in college all the time. This was my personal uniform with athletic clothes from head to toe. And that’s only in part because I was an athlete.
The other reason was, when you are an athlete, you can get away with wearing the same clothes every single day, and nobody notices that you’re not taking care of yourself, because I was incredibly depressed. I was incredibly sad. I wasn’t bathing. I wasn’t washing my hair. I wasn’t changing my clothes. I wore those shorts a lot.
And the reason is, nine days before my dad took this picture, moving me into my apartment, our mom, Becky, died after a really long and hard-fought battle with cancer. And let me tell you, it kind of sucked. It is incredibly disorienting to watch somebody that you love be sick and die.
It was incredibly disorienting to be going through that experience as I was a college athlete, because one part of my life was completely revolved around optimizing my body and health and wellness. And I was seeing evidence every single day of that working.
However, on the other side of my life, my mom did everything right. She was healthy, she was active, and she still got sick. And there was nothing that we could do about it.
So because of my mom’s illness, and because of my experience as an athlete, I went on to make an entire career out of really exploring what it means to be healthy. So the last 10 years have been dedicated to health and wellness and what it means. So I’m going to throw some definitions at you.
The first one is health. The World Health Organization defines health as not having disease in your body. So in that instance, I was healthy. Nary a toxin was getting near this. I was obsessed with being clean and doing all the right workouts, but I couldn’t really articulate what was going on.
And what I found in my work is that what I didn’t have while I was healthy is I did not have any wellness. So holistic wellness is a trend that gets thrown around a lot. And it’s rooted in this idea that we are a whole person, not just our bodies. So rather than putting all of the eggs into the physical basket, we start to look at our lives from the health of our environment.
It looks at all of our circumstances, all of our lived experiences, and really takes those things into account to consider what we need. And I’m not saying that we’re not aware that all of this is part of wellness, but I’m saying it looks a little more like this. We know that these things are important, but they’re like little sprinkles on top. They’re not the main course.
I’ve been working in wellness for 10 years, and I have coached hundreds of athletes, and I have seen a couple things to always, always be true. The first from an athletic standpoint is that if an athlete does not have a holistic, balanced life, their performance will fail. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when. It is incredibly hard to keep it together and to care about, I don’t know, going a little faster on the rowing machine if you are waiting to find out if your mom has made it out of surgery.
If you don’t have a safe home life, it’s really hard to perform. Michael Phelps and Simone Biles are two great examples of this. They are incredible athletes at their physical peak, but at some point that didn’t matter. Their personal experiences and the other parts of their wellness made it so that they couldn’t perform.
The other thing that I see when we just focus on physical wellness is an identity crisis. This can happen for a lot of different reasons. It might be because an athlete gets injured, and all of a sudden they can’t do this thing that was like their entire life, and they may not be able to ever do it again. Or maybe they don’t know what they are valued for outside of their body.