Best Health Advice For Your Brain, Body and Soul
From a traumatic brain injury to a thriving health and nutrition coach, Laura Bocianscki knows intimately what it means to heal and what’s really important in the world of health and nutrition.
Listen in as she takes us on her wild journey through a dramatic recovery that taught her how mental and emotional fitness are as important as physical fitness and that what you eat is even more important than how you move.
In this poignant interview, Laura shares the confusion of life with a traumatic injury plus the incredible lessons she learned about healthy living and loving your body.
She openly shares her hard-learned advice for living free, happy and healthy, so listen closely!
Sara: Good morning everyone, this is Sara Grove with Raw Food Magazine and today we have here with us, Laura Bocianski who is so many things in the fitness and health world but she first got her Bachelors of Science in Applied Health Science, went on to get a Masters of Teaching and now as an A-Certified Personal Trainer and Health Coach. She is the founder of Be Free Health Coaching at www.befreehc.com where she helps give personal training, workouts and health guidelines for people, to help them reach their health and fitness goals. I am so excited to get to talk to Laura today and she is going to tell us some of what she knows (her expertise) and share a little bit about it and then also after being such a fitness guru (if you will) after playing sports her whole life and in college, the underside of “maybe she wasn’t as healthy as everyone else thought” and how a traumatic brain injury changed all that and forced her to look at life and look at how to relate differently. I think we have a lot to learn from Laura today.
Welcome, Laura and thanks for being here.
Laura: Oh thanks for having me. I am so excited.
Sara: To start off, it seems like when I look at everything you have done and your education, it’s physical fitness and health. Has this been something that has been really important to you your whole life?
Laura: Oh yes, from the age of four…I think my first word was the word “ball”. I’ve just always loved sports and it has always been a part of my life and a part of who I am. So, yes, definitely it’s a lifelong passion.
Sara: That’s really neat. I know you played sports all through high school and college; when did you think you wanted to make personal training and health coaching your career?
Laura: Well, it’s so funny; I think I have always been a pretty high-achieving, intense person. In high school I was thinking like “Oh PE teaching might be kind of cool,” because of course, PE class was my favourite. When I got to college (I went to Wheaton College) and there were a lot of people there who just had huge aspirations for their lives and so in my freshman year I said “maybe I could do pre-med…maybe I could be a nurse,” so I was thinking about doing health along the typical professional health route. But of course, then my brain injury happened and my GPA dropped significantly because of that and so all dreams of that shifted.
Sara: Before you move on, if you don’t mind getting more specific, what did happen?
Laura: It was really a freak accident. It is pretty funny, but I was working in the Athletic Training Department of my college. I was an assistant for the athletic trainers there. I was there early helping out with the football – pre-season (it was before the semester had even started), and this storm came. It was really bad and all the trainers hopped on their golf carts to go back to the training room. It started raining really hard, there was lightning, which hit a tree that we were riding underneath. A huge tree branch broke off and hit me in the head, knocked me off the cart and then I hit my head again on the sidewalk.
Laura: Yes, it was (like) a freak accident. Not to get gory, but my head basically split open and I almost died. I lost a huge amount of blood and I was in the hospital for a while just trying to recover. It was pretty crazy.
Sara: Yes…so it is exactly like you said – a total freak accident.
Laura: It’s a shame because I don’t remember that at all and I wish I remembered that, I mean, who gets to do that? But, it’s okay, I’m so grateful I’m alive and functioning.
Sara: You said you started mentioning some of the ways that that impacted you afterwards from an academic level of having to change your goals.
Laura: Yes. It’s so funny because I was always doing sports, used to getting injured and recovering and I was so used to being “a bounce back”. I prided myself on being really tough and I had always been like a kind of “dare devil”. I had never had a head injury before and I didn’t know how significant it was going to be. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen `50 First Dates’ but you know there is `10-second Tom’?
Laura: Well, I was like that for a while. My friends were like: “oh gosh, is Laura going to be okay?” because I would just be like: “What happened? Why am I like this? What happened?” And the thing about head injury is that you don’t remember what you’ve forgotten, so I just had no idea how bad it was. I probably shouldn’t have returned to classes but I did and I was a mess for a while.
Sara: Were you feeling okay physically?
Laura: Yes, again, I just wasn’t able to process because my brain was so thick. I wasn’t even able to process how bad I was doing physically, so I was in a wheel chair for a couple weeks, I had a really hard time keeping my balance and I would walk and fall over. I think because of where I was in my brain I would just (kind of) laugh it off…like “oh, I am just crazy.” I would just forget like what time it was and my friends would have to remind me: “Laura, it’s time to eat lunch”. Thankfully, it was so cool, my roommate happened to be at the same major and we happened to have all the same classes that semester so I really have to credit her, she took care of me. I just followed her around for the whole semester.
Sara: Like “it’s time for class!”
Laura: Exactly, but it was really significant. I had to go to what I call “brain therapy” at this rehab centre where other people who had TBIs or stroke victims went and basically, there was this team of professionals, it was: an Occupational Therapist, a Speech Therapist, a Physical Therapist, a Neurologist and a Psychologist. I had all of these people who I had to meet with and I had to go three times a week. I feel so bad because now I remember just being so irritated with them, just like “I’m fine…I’m fine…I’m fine”.
Sara: Yes, like “leave me alone”.
Laura: Yes, exactly, I think just the tough athlete coming out. But I remember taking these tests and I was in the 5th percentile for short term memory, so basically, I couldn’t retain anything.
Laura: And then they put me in this harness for physical therapy; I felt so dumb. It was pretty much like six months of that and then I got really depressed being around…I was constantly trying to figure out a ride to brain therapy and it was so stressful trying to figure that out. I was also surrounded by all these people who had had significant brain injuries and I don’t know…it was my pride I guess, I was like “I’m not like these people” and I didn’t like to be around them so I really quit my treatment early and I really shouldn’t have and I’m really lucky I’m okay.
Because of my short term memory loss, I would go to class and it was almost like it was a waste of my time because everything went in one ear and out the other and when I sat down to take tests I would lose my place constantly and I just couldn’t remember…like “oh, did I answer that question? – Oh yeah, I did.” So, it was such a pain and I was crazy.
Sara: That is so wild, and such an understandable response though especially coming from your athletic background and being like “no, I’m fine, just leave me alone, let me do my thing;” and not being able to really conceptualize the healing that needed to take place and the obstacles that were really placed in front of you.
When did you make that decision and realize that “okay, I need to do something differently…like, this is not working?”
Laura: Well, I wish I could say it happened quickly but it didn’t. That happened in my sophomore year of college and I went all the way through graduating and I got married right after I graduated. It was probably not until my first year of marriage and my husband was like “something is wrong here, I think we really need to look at what’s going on with your brain;” because I had trouble trying to get jobs and it was really hard for me. I did some administrative work; and if you know anything about brain injury, that’s the worst job that you could have with a brain injury because it’s all about organization and details that my brain just couldn’t do. So, I started looking at my diet and changing things and it wasn’t until I went to school and started my Masters for Mental Health Counselling I was like “oh, I really need to look at this,” but it was really very helpful. I forgot your question, I’m sorry.
Sara: No, that’s okay. I guess you kept going through school. That was my question. Did the recovery process in dealing with these symptoms cause you to make any changes in school or life? But it sounds like it wasn’t until your husband pointed it out…”something’s different.”
Laura: I think that when people initially go through trauma, it’s just about getting through to the next day and so I think that for three years that is what I did; like “get through the next thing…get through the next thing.” But it wasn’t until my brain had healed a little bit before I was able to look at the long term and really look at the big picture.
Sara: Right. It’s just like, “okay, we did today…here we go…we have tomorrow.”
Laura: Exactly. It’s just living like, “let’s get through this task” in trying to get through school and all of that. I think though that probably even more recently is when I really gave my diet and my lifestyle a bigger focus and when I started teaching fulltime, it was like a survival – I had to give my brain the food that it needed to just be able to cope with all the stress and all that is required for teaching. So, that’s when I started really looking at things like, “this is what my body needs, so this is what I really need to give it.”
Sara: What changes did you notice (the most significant difference)? Or, what impacted your energy feelings the most?
Laura: Well, one of the first things was sleep, not anything to do with my diet even though they are so related. I have always been someone who just pushes through things and sleep was always something secondary but when you have any kind of brain injury, sleep is so important because when you sleep everything recovers and repairs. My doctor has always been telling me, “you’ve got to sleep more…you’ve got to sleep.” I started doing that and then of course, I noticed that certain things I ate affected whether I would sleep well or not. Diabetes runs in my family and I had always struggled with peaks and valleys of my blood sugar, hypoglycaemia, feeling really sick and so that was the big focus: “how can I get this under control?” It was affecting my energy levels and affecting my sleep. That’s probably the biggest life changing thing in terms of diet – looking at my insulin and blood sugar levels.
Sara: That is so interesting. Did you take sugar out of your diet?
Laura: Yes, I did. Before brain injury and even probably after, I viewed food as whatever tasted good I would eat, and I have such a fast metabolism I could eat whatever I wanted and so I had a horrible diet. Looking back I’m just like “oh my gosh.” I had tons of sugar, tons of cookies, baked goods and all of that – I loved that stuff. Now, I pretty much never have sugar because it really affects my brain so much. I eat lots of vegetables, get a good amount of protein and a lot of healthy fats; so my diet is really simple but makes my brain function so much better and I would never be able to run a business if I didn’t eat this way.
Sara: It sounds like you can tell pretty readily when you eat something, what the effects are.
Laura: Oh yeah! I think even emotionally because one of the effects of the brain injury was that I couldn’t figure out my emotions and my feelings and rational thoughts, it was just all very confusing and (kind of) cloudy thinking. When I started changing my diet I was less emotional because I think a lot of my emotion was tied to my blood sugar and all that was doing in my brain. It’s really changed the way I view food and how I can function – it’s been amazing.
Sara: Isn’t that interesting? I can relate. When you grow up as an athlete there are so many beautiful lessons and things that you learn from participating in sports and being competitive but you don’t look at food, you’re just like: “oh, I need energy” and you eat whatever and since you are using it all anyway, you don’t worry about it. It’s only until later looking back you are like: “oh, those are the things that I was putting down there?”
Laura: Exactly. I think too, as women, because body image is such a huge concern to us we see food not always in a healthy light, we see it like a barrier to getting a certain body image…the body composition that we want, rather than something that we actually need to nourish our bodies to help us feel our best.
Sara: Right, there it is – we have this love/hate thing with food sometimes.
Sara: It’s like “what are you going to do to me…no I’ve got to stay away.”
I love you sharing that because I think going back to the cognitive parts, the emotions and feelings, I think we can get a lot of guilt wrapped up when we have emotions that are out of control or emotions we don’t understand, or when we are not in tune with our emotions and a lot of that can be food-related or diet-related, and can have to do with hormone levels, chemicals in your body and someone like you because of the effects of your brain injury. It is really neat that you were able to put that together. I was like “oh, these foods don’t just affect my physical appearance on a level that I can see or feel my energy levels, but there is also that emotional component to it.
Laura: Yes, absolutely. I am a huge fan of intuitive eating and even intuitive exercise which is listening to your body. For example if I’m feeling hungry which probably means that I need more protein, or I’ve been practising to exercise although I may be feeling really tired and I’m thinking I probably need to rest even though I’m scheduled for a workout.
Sara: Right. I love that. I finally gave up; I used to keep to a workout schedule like “I’m doing this workout today” and have it all worked out because that’s what I always read that you are supposed to do. When I finally gave that up and just did the movements that my body felt like doing every day, it’s so much nicer.
Now you have opened your own health coaching and personal training business, first of all, how was it getting that started? It is a huge undertaking.
Laura: Yes, it was pretty crazy. It was totally a step of faith and I just knew I had to try it. Going back to my brain injury I had always been such a high-achieving person and when I went through that it really challenged where I found my worth. I spent a lot of time after the brain injury just trying to play catch up, trying to keep up with my peers and trying to keep up with what I thought was expected of me. So, a huge reason why I did teaching was because it is a stable job, it’s respectable and then I was in the middle of teaching and I just really felt like I wasn’t living out my passion. I think a lot of times people realize that their passion is borne out of their biggest struggles and just having my experiences such as my up and down relationship with food, my own health, my brain and my body, I realized that I love helping people learn how to treat their body with respect and gratitude; how they eat and how they exercise and all of that. So, I started this company and I have been so overwhelmed because there is a huge need for it and people I think people really want to know how their body works and how to treat it but there is so much information out there that can be really conflicting, so it’s been really awesome to do it.
Sara: That is so neat. I just love that you’re doing that. Were you teaching full time still when you were getting started? What was that transition like for you?
Laura: Yes, and this is so funny…I was teaching and I was actually in two car accidents, one of which, because of my head injury, I got a pretty huge amount of money (because the accident wasn’t my fault) and I was just thinking through “okay, how am I going to use this surprising amount of money?” In passing, with a friend, I was like “you know, I just wish that I could teach people how to live a healthy lifestyle.” She was like, “okay, sign me up, I will be your first client.” So, I started doing it with my friends while I was teaching and it went so well. I just got so fired up about it that I just decided to use that amount of money I had received from the settlement to get my certification and get the business started. It’s been pretty crazy because I felt like as soon as I started the business people just really wanted to support me, they were (kind of) like my cheerleaders and so it’s been going really well and it’s been inspiring to see people change their lifestyles.
Sara: That’s so beautiful! I love that you just went for it. That is so neat. Let’s pretend that I am a client; you’ve learnt so much through life and your own struggles about how things affect your body and what the healing process really looks like, not to mention on top of all the formal education, certifications and programmes that you’ve gone through. So, where do you like to start? Is it very different, or do you start with exercise, or start with the food? Where do you typically start if someone comes to you and wants to learn to be healthier?
Laura: Well, it depends on if someone comes for health coaching or for personal training. The conversation usually is a little different but whether it’s a personal training or health coaching client, I always say that if you are trying to lose weight, exercising your butt off is not going to be the answer. It really does start with your diet. So that’s always my answer because a lot of people come to me because they want to lose weight. I always say to people “life is short, what do you want out of your life” and “what is going on with your body that you are not okay with?” It’s like a dreaming session where we just talk like: “where do you want your life to go?” And I think that’s something that came from my brain injury. When you have a life and death experience you realize that “you know what – life is really short and you have to go after what you really want because time is limited.” That is always really fun because I think everyone is different about what they want out of life. A lot of times that has to do with what their individual gifts and talents are, so it’s fun to dream with them and go down to the basics of health. For example, how can your nutrition and your physical activity support those dreams?
Sara: I love that. You are putting it into perspective…you are finding out what the real goal is and what’s driving us because that’s what we all want. A lot of people turn to raw food because they want to heal from a disease, they want to lose weight, or they want more energy. It’s always like what is that next step? Why do you want more energy? What would your life look like if you had more energy? What is this actually going to mean?
Laura: Yes, I think the “why” is so important. If the “why” isn’t there then we are not going to be motivated to do those hard changes because change is really hard. For my older clients who have been living the same way and eating the same way for over 40 years, it’s really hard to make a huge diet change. I go over five different areas with my health coaching clients. I usually start with nutrition, then physical activity, then sleep, stress management and social support because all of those are really important for having a balanced, wholistic and healthy life.
Sara: Absolutely. That is so neat. What have been some of your favourite moments from health coaching?
Laura: Because of my own family’s background with diabetes and my own struggles with that, although I never had it (but my struggles with my blood sugar), I love working with people to reverse their pre-diabetes because it’s so amazing what they are doing for their body and for their life and their family members. Once you get type II diabetes it’s really hard on your whole family and everyone around you. It affects your work life and everything. So, I think that’s been the most amazing thing – to see that happen for a lot of my clients. Then, as a teacher, I love seeing that whole moment with people when I explain “okay, when you eat this, this is what happens hormonally and chemically in your body” and just seeing them understand: “oh, okay so this is really what’s happening.” It’s bringing the science into their health goals.
Sara: That is really neat because it is the education that most of us never really got.
Laura: Yes, so I love seeing that happen.
Sara: That is really wonderful. Let’s bring it down to the really practical for people who might be listening. What one or two things, maybe even three things, would you suggest to make tiny changes that would have an impact on people’s health and their stress levels even in the next couple of weeks? Is there anything you could recommend that someone could do today or do this week?
Laura: First of all, get in touch with your body and with what’s going on. Do a review, for example, “how are my energy levels…how are my emotional levels?” Then, rather than thinking about getting some coffee or looking for things to treat the symptom, look at: what are your sleep levels – ”do I need to sleep more…do I need to eat more vegetables and less sugar?” And then also look at your protein levels – “do I need to eat more protein?” So, I think it’s just taking an intuitive approach to your health if that makes sense.
Sara: Totally, because I’m all for intuitive eating. I think a lot of times we need to clean up first. One of the things that really drew me to raw foods to begin with is that I feel like when people do a cleansing period and go back to the basis of the fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and you clear out the caffeine, the sugar and the processed grains and all that, then you can go back and now you have a real present, aware idea of how things affect you if and when you want to reintroduce them. Then it really becomes about listening to what your body wants – it tells you when you are hungry, it tells you when you want to pee…chances are, it’s telling you a lot of other things too but we just don’t usually listen for that kind of detail.
Laura: Yes, I think you just start accepting just feeling sick all the time which is really unfortunate. A lot of people don’t realize that there is a better way of living and you can feel so much better if you just make those changes.
Sara: Yes, it’s like you don’t know how good it feels to feel good.
Reflecting on your own life and your health do you feel better, healthier, clearer, happier now than pre-brain injury?
Laura: Yes! Oh, absolutely! When you learn how your body works it takes away any guilt or anxiety that can be related to how you are eating, how you are exercising. I used to be very much like: “okay, I’ve got to get my exercise in…these calories…and I always get excited if I’m eating unhealthy but now that I have a better understanding of what’s going on, how certain foods affect me, how great raw fruits and vegetables are for me, I don’t have that guilt and anxiety anymore. I just feel like my life is a lot calmer, I’m a lot healthier and I’m a lot clearer in thinking; and I love that.
Sara: I just want to reiterate and emphasise that because it’s super-interesting that you brought that up. I’ve interviewed one other personal trainer (and she’s wonderful) and she said a similar thing which is really fascinating: once you know the science behind how your body works then you lose some of the emotional impact of eating certain things or exercising because you don’t have that emotional attachment for example “oh no I feel tired,” or “oh no I ate something I shouldn’t have.” You understand why those feelings are happening and how your body is being affected; which I remembered after that and then hearing you saying it again I was like “wow, there is so much freedom in education and educating yourself on your body, on health.” Working with someone like you and seeking out health coaching or personal training is such an amazing way to have support and speed up the process instead of sometimes when I’m trying to learn something new and I don’t seek out a guide, for anything: business, relationship, fitness – it’s like having a mentor, a guide and a teacher is so helpful.
Laura: I think we’ve all been there. Every expert that I know has had a mentor in their life to get to becoming an expert and so I like sharing that with people because I’ve had trainers and even when I had my brain injury I was dealing with all kinds of professionals and that helped me really understand how my body works. When people come to me sometimes they are a little anxious and I feel (kind of) humbled having to reach out but everyone has to do it.
Sara: What would you say is the right time or what is a good way of knowing that you might be ready to seek out a professional to help in the health and fitness arena?
Laura: I think now…like…what are you waiting for? Time keeps going and if you know what you want, you know that you have health goals, go for it. I’m always talking to people who have more knowledge than me and I just think it’s always a good time to reach out to someone.
Sara: What can people do? There is something I used to do in that if I knew something would be good for me but I still wasn’t doing it for whatever reason…it could be pride or fear (like you’re saying what, I can’t handle my own health or my own eating and I need someone to help with it?), I remember I would choose something I really wanted, like a massage or the first one back in the days was my long board and when I finally made the call or sign up, I get to go have my massage. It’s so funny because it’s a double win as you are doing two wonderful things for yourself but sometimes it takes that second one.
Laura: You can’t underestimate social support. One of the cool things about having a company and being a health coach and personal trainer is that that’s accountability in itself, if I’m not walking the talk I shouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. Use the people that you have in your life as social support to keep you accountable and to check in on you to see if you are going after those things that you really want.
Sara: There is something that I hear a lot about, especially in the nutrition world because when people are trying to make significant changes to their diet, especially food seems to have so much emotional barriers with it but also exercise and fitness too. Do you have any advice for people whose family, roommates, their living situation, social support, their spouses don’t necessarily support the changes?
Laura: Yes. It’s so funny…that’s probably the number one problem that a lot of my clients have because they are the ones who are reaching out and wanting to make changes and at home it’s not really supported. I always tell them to look for support outside, whether it be me or another friend who is also trying to be healthy or find a support group with other people who are doing it. You have to remember also that in a relationship you are always being an example to the people around you and so if that’s a motivator you can’t change those persons, you can only control yourself but if you can be that positive light to that person in your life about health and food then go for it. When people are trying to make those huge changes I always say “start small.” I think it’s worse to decide “I’m going to do all or nothing.” A lot of my clients start with just one meal whether it be breakfast, lunch or dinner – just pick one thing and for that week that’s the only thing you’re really focussing on changing.
Sara: I love that slow, sustainable change. It’s going to have the most impact over time, for sure.
Sara: That’s really interesting. So, Laura, you are based in Nashville (and Befree Health Coaching) but I understand that you also can coach clients all around the world.
Laura: Yes, actually I’m so excited because I do have local clients but I’m starting to change my business to be more online because I am doing more and more of that and I really enjoy it. I think a lot of people travel for their jobs and a lot of people like that easy access for online and so it’s been really fun to do that. In the next few months I’m changing my website and changing all of my offerings to be for people online. So, that’s pretty exciting.
Sara: That is so exciting! Tell everyone who is listening where they might go to learn more about you and about some of those offerings.
Laura: You can check out my website at www.befreehc.com that stands for Be Free Health Coaching and you can also follow me on Instagram at befreehc. We are rolling out the new website and changes on April 23rd so at the end of April be on the lookout. If you want to keep up with Be Free and all that we’re offering you can subscribe to our newsletter starting in May. We will be rolling out a monthly newsletter that will have fitness tips, different recipes, lifestyle and more specific health routine tips that I offer my clients but it’s only going to subscribers, so make sure you head on over to the website and check that out.
Sara: Thank you. Yes, go on over to www.befreehc.com, get on board Laura’s newsletter. She’s full of fabulous knowledge, tips, workouts and all those goodies.
Laura, thank you so much for sharing your pretty crazy story with us.
Laura: Thanks for listening. It’s been so fun to share it and I hope that some people out there can relate.
Sara: Yes, and even if we can’t, I mean I’ve not had a traumatic brain injury, I at least can relate to the idea of taking the hard things and turning them into something beautiful.
Laura: Yes, you can make lemonade.
Sara: Yes, make lemonade and then drink it – no sugar. Thank you so much Laura, it’s great having you.
Laura: Thank you, Sara.
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-your rfm team