Spend time in nature. The latest research has shown how spending a minimum of 120 minutes in nature each week is essential to promoting mental well-being. The Japanese have been practicing Shinrin-Yoku for a number of decades. This “forest bathing “encourages you to engage all your senses in a beautiful natural environment and the phytoncides released by cedar and cypress have been shown to strengthen the immune system and induce a sense of calm and wellbeing. In addition, exposure to greenery helps to reduce attention fatigue and increase creativity and problem solving. Having a pot plant on your work desk is a great place to start as well as getting out for a lunchtime walk on a nearby park.
As a part of my series about “5 Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Dramatically Improve One’s Wellbeing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dr Jenny Brockis.
Dr. Jenny Brockis is a board-certified lifestyle medicine physician (non-clinical), keynote speaker, trainer and best-selling author specialising in brain health, mental wellbeing and psychological safety. Born in the UK she has lived and worked in West Australia for over thirty years. Insatiably curious about the world, people and science, she loves spending time in the great outdoors or curled up on the couch with a great book. Her new book Thriving Mind: How to cultivate a good life (Wiley) is available online and at all good bookstores.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the story about how you first got involved in fitness and wellness?
As a child I was known locally as “the vet’s daughter” rather than by my name. My Dad’s surgery was alongside where we lived so I was brought up in a somewhat noisy environment where I saw animals large and small treated by Dad that got me curious about why animals or people got sick. I knew I never wanted to be a vet (too much chance of being bitten!) but was drawn to look after people, starting with a Saturday job while in high school caring for kids with cerebral palsy at a local hospital, before training as a Nightingale Nurse in London and then switching to medicine. Over time, frustrated at seeing too much illness that was entirely preventable I became determined to bring about change by empowering others to nurture their own health and wellbeing.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
As a high-achieving perfectionistic workaholic my whole life revolved around caring for my patients, my staff and my family. I forgot one thing; to include selfcare into the mix. I was always too busy, too tired, too distracted with other things that I had prioritised until one day my super forcefield of denial broke down and I passed out while at an appointment with a therapist I was seeing about my chronic neck and shoulder pain.
Driving home afterwards I decided I probably just needed a quiet weekend to rest. That rest turned into my Gap Year during which I sought help from a wonderful caring and compassionate psychologist who helped me recover from burnout along with the love and support of my husband, family and friends. I lost my business but rediscovered what it takes to lead a full and fulfilling life and turned my attention to sharing with others how to thrive based on the principles of lifestyle medicine. I’m sincerely grateful for that wakeup call that enabled me to reset and start my true life’s work.
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
I was the junior doctor on call over a long weekend and the only doctor on site at what was then called a Geriatric Hospital. I did have telephone access to a Senior Registrar who was busy studying for his exams who had made it very clear he didn’t want to be called except in an extreme emergency.
Being on call meant I was on duty from 8 am on the Friday morning until 5 pm the following Tuesday. An on-call room was provided for the few hours of sleep that could be snatched when possible during that time.
It was a busy weekend and by Monday morning I was already eyeball achingly fatigued. That evening having done my last ward round at about 11pm I snuck off for a couple of hours sleep. I was awoken by my pager going off alerting me to the fact that a patient had died, and my presence was required to certify death.
There was just one problem. In my sleep deprived state, I had forgotten to note which ward had called and there was no way to check back to see where the call had come from. There was only one thing to do — I walked from ward to ward to ask if anyone had passed. Curiously nobody said they had. Still convinced I had missed something I headed off to the morgue to check that no-one had been overlooked.
Nobody had died. My tired befuddled brain had created a false memory of the pager going off which sent me on my wild goose chase that night. The lesson being that getting enough sleep really does matter to function properly, even for doctors and one risk of chronic sleep deprivation is the creation of false memories.
Can you share with our readers a bit about why you are an authority in the fitness and wellness field? In your opinion, what is your unique contribution to the world of wellness?
My whole career has revolved around health and over thirty plus years have gained a lot of experience in getting to understand people and what makes them tick. I have also been the owner and director of a number of businesses, so I get what some of the challenges are that come with running and managing a business, looking after employees as well as clients.
My experience with burnout and several bouts of anxiety, panic and depression means I understand what these feel like, what blinds us to how they develop, and acknowledge that even when you “know” the right things to do, implementing those lifestyle choices can be hard. I have always been very good at telling other people to do, but less adept at following my own good advice!
My message around wellness is that it is a holistic approach to what nurtures your physical, mental and cognitive wellbeing to enable you to live a happy, full and rewarding life.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Having made the decision to transition from clinician to workplace-based health consultant I needed to learn how to stand up and speak on stage, which as an introvert I was terrified of. I was introduced to David, a professional speaker. Until then I didn’t even know that could be a paying job! He took me under his wing and mentored me for several years encouraging me to join Rostrum, which is like Toastmasters, to learn how to get over my fear of public speaking. This led to my winning the Alfred Garvey Prize for Public Speaking. He helped me to understand that the audience didn’t care about me, they cared about my messages that could help alleviate their pain. Suddenly speaking became fun, especially when practiced in a supporting and caring environment. This provided me the confidence to build my speaking and training business. Since that time, I have continued to be mentored by some extraordinary people, each contributing their own wisdom and inspiration to help me on my journey.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. We all know that it’s important to eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, exercise more, and get better sleep etc. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the 3 main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives?
The illusion of time poverty.
We’re all crazy busy with too much on our “to-do” lists, and the thought of the extra effort and time required to create healthier habits feels too much. But by starting with one small change that is easy to achieve, you create a ripple of positive change whereby adding that one extra portion of vegetables to your diet inspires you to take up yoga, which piques your interest in learning mindfulness meditation. By now you’re feeling good in yourself and fitter which motivates you to go even further in implementing healthier ways of living.
Lack of energy.
When you’ve been working all day, running around the kids, and horribly sleep deprived, by the time you get home dog-tired, the very thought of going to the gym probably makes you feel even more exhausted. The paradox being that undertaking even a brief twenty minutes of exercise is energizing. When you’re struggling to finish a piece of work and can’t think, it’s time to step away from the desk and get outside for 15–20 minutes and walk to clear your head and reenergize your body.
We don’t make it a non-negotiable.
We know it’s important to eat healthily, be active and get enough sleep, but if it’s not a priority we relegate our selfcare further down the to-do list, meaning it doesn’t happen. It’s time to place a high value on what you know enables you to be your best and schedule it into your diary. Give yourself permission, tell others of your plan (so they can keep you accountable) print off your intentioned action and put it somewhere you will see it frequently every day.
Can you please share your “5 Non-Intuitive Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Dramatically Improve One’s Wellbeing”? (Please share a story or an example for each, and feel free to share ideas for mental, emotional and physical health.)
- Spend time in nature. The latest research has shown how spending a minimum of 120 minutes in nature each week is essential to promoting mental well-being. The Japanese have been practicing Shinrin-Yoku for a number of decades. This “forest bathing “encourages you to engage all your senses in a beautiful natural environment and the phytoncides released by cedar and cypress have been shown to strengthen the immune system and induce a sense of calm and wellbeing. In addition, exposure to greenery helps to reduce attention fatigue and increase creativity and problem solving. Having a pot plant on your work desk is a great place to start as well as getting out for a lunchtime walk on a nearby park.
- Listen to music; it’s a complete workout for the brain and when it’s music we love it’s calming, can evoke happy memories and improve mental wellbeing. The British Academy for Sound Therapy recommend 78 minutes a day. Listening to music also helps us exercise for longer, maintain a faster tempo and improve concentration and focus at work.
- Laugh and play. The fastest way to relieve tension and cope more effectively in times of adversity is to lighten up, seek to see the funny side of things and engage in a rip-snorting rib-tickling belly laugh. It’s good for the immune system, helps to lower stress and is good for your heart. Dr Michael Miller from the Centre for Preventative Cardiology in Baltimore and the American Heart Association recommend fifteen minutes of laughter each day to reduce levels of inflammation, reduce the formation of cholesterol plaque and boost coronary artery flow.
- Get enough good quality uninterrupted sleep. We spend a great deal of time attending to diet and exercise but frequently overlook our need for sleep. It’s essential to every system in the body and a lack of sleep plays havoc with our ability to learn, encode memory or recall information when it’s needed, interferes with our ability to regulate our emotions and makes us more irritable. Plus, sleep is essential to a nice clean brain for better brain function and is neuroprotective against future cognitive decline. Our modern lifestyle of overwork has contributed to bedtime procrastination, we put off going to bed when we’re tired and get up early to be one step ahead for our day resulting in sleep deprivation and insomnia. There’s nothing worse than going to bed exhausted and your brain then deciding it’s party time keeping you in a fragmented fitful sleep that is non refreshing. Try the 20-minute 21-day challenge of going to bed 20 minutes earlier and see what difference that makes to your mood, your energy levels and your ability to think, learn and remember.
- Nurture your close relationships. The one thing that makes the biggest difference to how well we age and the degree of happiness and success we enjoy in our lives is the quality of our intimate relationships. Human connection is as vital to our survival and wellbeing as air, food and water. Caring for each other with trust, respect, compassion and kindness provides us a sense of belonging and of being loved.
As an expert, this might be obvious to you, but I think it would be instructive to articulate this for the public. Aside from weight loss, what are 3 benefits of daily exercise? Can you explain?
- You feel fitter and healthier and enjoy clearer thinking. Exercise promotes the release of dopamine, serotonin and endorphins that make us feel happier and rewarded, while reducing cortisol one of the major stress hormones. Exercise is a great way to clear your mind when you’re struggling with a problem and is frequently prescribed to help alleviate symptoms of anxiety and depression.
- It primes the brain for learning which is why kids who get to run around the school oval before class are more attentive, show fewer behavioural problems and do better in tests. The same applies to grownups. It stimulates the brain’s natural plasticity and regular exercise has been shown to increase the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain used in learning and memory as well as reduce brain shrinkage caused by ageing.
- It promotes better sleep thought to be through raising your body temperature by a couple of degrees which when this drops later induces drowsiness, while exercising outdoors helps you maintain a good sleep-wake cycle.
For someone who is looking to add exercise to their daily routine, which 3 exercises would you recommend that are absolutely critical?
- It needs to be an activity that they will come to love, do regularly and can do safely, starting from a low base and building gradually. There are no prizes for overenthusiasm or overtraining that leads to injury. The goal may be to run a marathon but let’s ensure you can walk safely to the letter box first. I would encourage any form of activity that gets the heart rate up. Walking is a fabulous place to start — and it’s free.
- Include some form of weight or resistance training twice a week. Research has shown that retaining muscle strength equates to greater cognitive reserve as well as helping with balance and reducing the risk of falls, which is especially important as we age.
- Dance. Because it’s great cross-training for the brain, is highly social especially when it’s a form of dancing undertaken with a partner, and it’s a whole heap of fun.
In my experience, many people begin an exercise regimen but stop because they get too sore afterwards. What ideas would you recommend to someone who plays sports or does heavy exercise to shorten the recovery time, and to prevent short term or long-term injury?
While the vast majority of us would benefit from adding a little more exercise into our lives, overtraining can predispose to injury and working out for more than three hours a day has been associated with poorer mental health. It’s a case for moderation in all things. For those specialising in a particular sport, it’s about training hard and allowing for sufficient down time to rest and recover. Many professional athletes have access to nutritionists, exercise physiologists, physiotherapists and massage therapists to stay at the top of their game. But even the non-professional will benefit from keeping to a healthier diet, getting enough sleep and doing some cross training or weights training to maintain muscle strength and tone.
There are so many different diets today. Can you share what kind of diet you follow? Which diet do you recommend to most of your clients?
My diet today is very different from the one I followed in Medical School which was basically packaged cereal for breakfast, Marmite and cheese sandwiches for lunch and whatever was cooked by the housemate whose turn it was to cook for dinner — often pasta and sauce. Today I try to adhere to a whole food, plant-based diet with lots of leafy greens, vegetables, fruit, legumes, seeds and nuts. I am mostly pescatarian but do also eat eggs, chicken, low-fat dairy and occasionally red meat. My advice to clients is to include the widest variety of fresh foods as possible, and that there is no one “perfect” diet. I advise them to reduce the amount of processed and fast foods they consume and to replace soft drink with water, herbal teas or coffee. I always encourage them to reduce the amount of refined sugar in their diet which is known to have a depressant effect on mood.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?
I was on holiday in Japan and had taken a small book to read called “The Sharp Brains Guide to Brain Fitness” by Alvaro Fernandez and Dr. Elkhonon Goldberg. My lightbulb moment came as I realised that the level of understanding about neuroplasticity had reached a point where it could be used not only maintain brain health and function across the lifespan, but also to help bring about effective and enduring positive behavioural change and reduce the risk of disease. It inspired me to set up my company Brain Fit to educate, inform and inspire others to lead brain-healthy lives.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
It’s time to slow down, get outside into a green space, breathe deeply, smile and share a moment of kindness.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
“Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do. So, throw off the bowlines. Sail away from the safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover.”
H. Jackson Browne
I could have stayed working in family medicine after my recovery from burnout. I chose instead to create a new career that I had no idea would succeed or fail, because I was convinced sharing the messages around creating better brain health, mental wellbeing and strong social networks had the potential to reduce the global burden of disease which was too important to ignore.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I have long admired Michelle Obama and loved her book “Becoming”. She is highly intelligent, articulate, authentic and passionate about empowering all women to be the best they can be. She’s down to earth, dignified, family oriented and not afraid to voice her opinion. I just love her focus on bringing more love, kindness and compassion to the world.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!