Mind

Wellness expert Rachel Grunwell on how to be brave and change your life, one step at a time

If I can do it you can do it, says the news journalist-turned wellness expert.

By Karyn Henger
Spend an hour with Rachel Grunwell and you'll learn she's all about "the power of transformation".
The wellness coach/yoga teacher/marathon runner has just published her first book, Balance, about how to be healthier and happier. It's filled with advice from wellness experts all over the world, including happiness expert Shawn Achor and New Zealand's own Theresa Gattung and Nadia Lim, and she hopes it will inspire readers - both men and women - to make small, positive changes in their own lives.
It was two years in the making, yet as I chat with Rachel about it in the sunny kitchen of her central Auckland home, which she shares with her husband of 15 years, Damien Buckley, and three sons, I learn that it's really a culmination of an entire career's efforts - as well as a reflection of the transformation she's undergone in her own life.
Rachel, 42, was once a news journalist, chasing stories about crime and social justice for some of New Zealand's biggest publications. In her early years she was a finalist for a junior journalist of the year award, and during her stint on one of New Zealand's leading Sunday papers she won the coveted title of Journalist of the Year in the field of social issues.
She loved the grittiness and pace of the job, as well as the challenge of beating other journalists to a story. (I know, I once worked with her.)
But when she and Damien decided to start a family she knew that "something would have to give". Between "having son one and son two", her editor asked her to be a "guinea pig" and write a weekly newspaper column about trying out a different fitness or health activity each week. She jumped at the opportunity to move into the slower pace of "lifestyle writing" and get fit at the same time.
That proved to be the beginning of her metamorphosis "from writing geek to wellness geek".
In the process of trying out everything from acrobatic yoga to the flying trapeze, BMXing with Sarah Walker and even ballroom dancing, Rachel discovered a love of running - and has just completed her 23rd marathon.
In tandem with running, she discovered yoga, and over the last 10 years has completely retrained to become a personal trainer (to level five which means she can advise on food, fitness and lifestyle) and yoga teacher.
Rachel, who grew up in Rotorua, runs her own business, Inspired Health, coaching clients in the areas of fitness, nutrition and lifestyle/wellness. She runs yoga and meditation/mindfulness workshops and retreats, speaks at corporate events and also volunteers as a guide for runners with disabilities for Achilles New Zealand, a charitable trust for which she is an ambassador.
Warming up in The Redwoods - Whakarewarewa Forest, in her home town of Rotorua
The wellness industry has opened up a whole new world to Rachel, who had sought to make a difference to people's lives through journalism but found a more direct way in the area of wellness.
"The wellness industry opened up a real heart connection for me," Rachel explains. "It's full of people who really genuinely want to help others, and I found that incredibly inspiring.
"As a journalist I was fearless in taking on politicians and questioning them about their policies or telling them 'you're not doing good enough in this area' - so you could create change as a journalist, which was wonderful.
"But as someone who now works in the wellness industry you get to walk along beside people and hold their hand and get to really change their lives and that is phenomenal."
In her work Rachel often finds herself mentoring the highly stressed.
"Everyone is struggling with stress and trying to juggle everything in life. We're becoming more and more and more but we're becoming less and less and less, if that makes sense. That's what I get asked the most - how do you find any balance?
"I tell them to walk away with one or two things that resonate with them, and just make small, simple changes. Sometimes [at events] you see women crying as they listen. It's amazing to reach people and connect with them in this way."
Rachel has aided clients in their weight loss journeys as well as eased them into healthier, more active lifestyles. She has enjoyed seeing the ripple effect of her work, where her clients' families have got on board with eating more healthily and exercising regularly too.
Rachel with her son, Lachie, at Auckland's annual Round The Bays fun run.
I ask if she has seen that same ripple effect in her own family and she tells me that all three of her sons are active and follow a healthy lifestyle. Her oldest, Zac, 14, is a keen mountain biker who disappears into Woodhill Forest, north of Auckland, every Sunday to take on the trails with his dad. He recently ran his first 10km race and beat his mum, much to her horror.
Her middle son, Lachie, 11, is into squash and her youngest son, Finn, 7, is learning ball skills and how to swim and be safe in the water.
"He's seven, you know, he's playing and having fun."
She says that while she doesn't expect any of her boys to follow in her footsteps and run marathons she has told them they need to "find a way to move that resonates with them".
"They all have to choose a sport and take time for movement because that will help keep them well. You need that element of play to find flow in your life."
Rachel's latest fitness addiction - on top of the yoga and running - is CrossFit, which she says has given her abs for the first time in her life. (Although, a quick scroll through her social media pages will tell you she probably had them before.)
"I love it because it makes me feel strong," she says. "And you want to care about lifting weights and being strong because from the age of 30, women's bone density starts to slide quickly."
Rachel with her two younger sons, Lachie, left, and Finn.
Surprisingly, Rachel did no sport at school and didn't shine at the annual school cross country either.
She says, "I wish I'd connected with sport much earlier on, but back then it was either netball or football, that was about it."
Rachel took up saxophone lessons and joined the Rotorua brass band.
She says a lot of her clients tell her their only experience of running, growing up, was the school cross country "and it put them off for life".
She likes to encourage them to give running another go, calling it "moving meditation".
"Just start, it's more about the mind work than the body work."
What's next for Rachel, she's not sure. At this point she's simply revelling in the fact she's finally written her first book. It was a career goal she'd always aspired to, but put off due to niggling self-doubt.
"You can become stuck [in life] and it's not so much from others not allowing you to become who you want to be, but from us holding ourselves back.
"We tell our kids to be brave and try new things, yet we don't do it ourselves. We have to be brave, too."

Rachel's top wellness tips for living a happier and healthier life

Don't be confused by food
Eating shouldn't be complicated. Eat real, nourishing food - avoid the packaged stuff. Think back to how your grandmother ate and try to emulate that.
Prioritise self care
It's not being selfish, it's key to your wellness. Find a ritual that you enjoy - even if it's just five minutes of beautiful stretching to an app - and be staunch about taking that time for yourself each day.
Be brave
We tell our kids to be brave and try new things and give fitness a go but we're not doing it ourselves. The biggest influence we can have is by showing our kids, not telling them. So take that dance class you've always meant to get along to, sign up for that first triathlon.
Find fitness activities that are fun
When I started writing my weekly wellness column (where I tried a new fitness or health activity every week) I thought the column would only last a few months - but I kept finding new stuff and it ended up going for years. That's one of the secrets [of wellness] actually. If you're doing something that doesn't light your fire get out there and try something else because there is so much out there, it's exciting.
Be prepared to suck at something for a while before you get good at it
When I started running I couldn't even get round the block without turning red as a fire engine and struggling for breath.
Just show up
That's all you have to focus on when you start a new fitness or health activity. The rest will follow.
Find a way to 'give back' that resonates with you
Giving back to your community is a key to happiness and feeling like you've got a purpose in life. For me it's being an ambassador for Achilles NZ and guiding visually impaired runners. I love that with this organisation, no matter what barrier you have in life, you are welcome and you're encouraged. I'm a really experienced guide now and it makes me feel good keeping them safe and helping them to experience the race through my eyes.