In this interview, I talk with Gail Turner-Cooper, the founder of Align Health Coaching, about taking control of your personal health by making small, sustainable changes to your diet and lifestyle. Please watch the video or read the transcript below it. There are also some links to recommended books and apps.
Me: Hello, my name is Elizabeth Dalrymple and I’m a physical therapist at Activcore Physical Therapy and Performance. Here with me today is Gail Turner-Cooper, the founder of Align Health coaching. She is such a wonderful person, a light in this world, and one of my friends. I’m really excited that she is here with me today. So Gail, thank you for being here.
Gail: Thank you so much for inviting me. I’m so excited.
Me: Great! I’d love to jump right in. So, why don’t you start by telling me about your path to becoming a health coach and how you ended up founding Align Health Coaching.
Gail: Wow, that is such a fun story. So in my previous life I did something completely different and it was time for a change. It was time to mix it up and follow my soul's passion: my love and passion to serve people. And so, I was like, “Okay, what am I going to do?” I had a lot of people ask me for health advice. They knew I led a very healthy life, plus I started taking a deep dive into special needs nutrition for my daughter, who is high functioning Aspergers. I also took a deep dive into GI Health. I suffered from GI conditions that I wanted to figure out. Surely there’s a better way than just popping a pill and going to the doctor every six months to try and figure out what’s going on. Surely there’s a better way.
I started educating myself and taking courses. And then I realized THIS is my true passion. So I went to IIN (Institute for Integrative Nutrition), which is one type of certification. But then the real deep dive was at The School of Applied Functional Medicine where I learned so much. That’s how I became a functional medical trained health coach.
Me: Wonderful. I think I’ve heard pieces of that story, but not the whole thing. So it’s fun to hear how that unraveled over time. And in my world, I think of all of the different providers who are complementary to one another, but also have their differences. What would you say is different with your approach as a health coach compared to someone who is a dietitian or nutritionist? How would someone really know YOU are the person for them?
Gail: That’s such a good question. I really take a more global look at an individual. I want to understand their routines to set their day up for success. I want to understand how they eat, of course, but also stress management techniques. Stress is such a chronic issue, especially in the US, but I do feel like it stretches worldwide. I feel like the badge of honor is to stay at work super late and just drive yourself so hard, living in that sympathetic state nervous system. So I want to understand them as a whole. I also want to understand what their daily lifestyle looks like, so we can look at making sustainable changes to again help them holistically. Whereas a dietitian or a nutritionist (who are extremely valuable people) really tend to focus on just that nutrition piece. So, again, taking a more global look is my style of health coaching. That’s what I’m going to focus on.
Me: Definitely! And I think you just touched on this. So many of my clients are seeing me for musculoskeletal issues, but they have a lot of else going on: other stresses in their life that are creating an environment that’s hard for them to heal in, because they are in that sympathetic state. At times I realize OK, I can work on pieces of this puzzle; but who else do I need to bring in that can help me address the full picture. And I’m sure the same goes for you. Are there times where you’ve heard from clients how what you do has positively impacted their time with a personal trainer or physical therapist, other areas in their life in a more physical sense?
Gail: Oh, so much so. I’m so glad you brought that up because it is not just one person that makes the biggest difference, right? I know my clients who I have recommended to come see someone, such as yourself, have seen great results. It’s a wonderful marriage to be able to have those beautiful referral partners within your wheelhouse to say, “Okay this is not in my scope of practice, however I would really believe you would be best served by adding something like PT or going to see a psychologist or therapist, to understand and get to the WHY." Being in the functional medical background, I want to get to the root cause of what’s creating someone’s disease, not just put on a band-aid, but really understand and resolve that issue. Someone, such as yourself, does the very same thing. It’s not just a rotator cuff, but WHY is that rotator cuff hurting? It's getting to that root cause and being able to stabilize them. So I definitely think it’s a great marriage.
Me: Yes, I always talk about the victims vs. the culprits. It’s really easy to find the victim, it’s yelling really loudly. But it’s really hard sometimes to peel back the layers and find the culprit as to WHY that’s happening. I think that applies across all pieces of the health field.
Gail: Very much so. I think the most common victim/culprit that I see is: the victim is the gallbladder, and the culprit is the liver. So many people come to me that don’t have a gall bladder because it has been removed. So I try to educate that client, saying that the gall bladder was actually the victim of the situation. Now we need to address what the culprit is doing. What is the liver doing? Why are we not detoxifying properly?
Me: Yes, that’s interesting to think about and I just put personalities in my head: the gallbladder, the liver. How are they playing their roles in that person’s body? That’s fascinating. What are some strategies that you use in trying to help people through these things? I remember one time we were talking about going to the grocery store with someone. That you’re willing to go with them, help them read labels and understand. I love how hands on and practical that is. What other strategies do you use to help people work through their victims and culprits?
Gail: Well, you definitely hit upon my favorite one. I love going to the grocery store and helping somebody realize that, for the ingredients on the back of the label that you cannot pronounce, you may want to think twice about ingesting them. So that’s hands down my favorite. Other ones that I’ll use are: I often ask for blood work and I’ll map that out using functional medicine lab work ranges, instead of Allopathic (western) medicine ranges. I try to understand a person on a cellular level. I also use neuro-linguistic techniques, helping that client get to their WHY and helping them come to their own sense of ownership within a particular strategy that they’re working with.
Another one is that I teach people how to fall in love with their symptoms. Symptoms are the secret language of everyone’s unique body. So if you have a headache, why do you have a headache? Your body is trying to send you a signal and say, “Hey by the way, something isn’t working or maybe we’re deficient in something; so here’s a symptom for you.” Going back to that not wanting to just put a band-aid on it, I do teach people how to fall in love with their symptoms and say, “Thank you, body, for giving me the headache so now I can stop and reflect on what it is that I need to be changing, so the headache goes away or doesn’t continue to come back.” And that’s just one example. It’s about truly understanding everyone for their uniqueness. No one program that I cover is ever the same, but I do like involving some similar pieces to help people on their wellness journey.
Me: I love that. I think a lot of us have guilt or negative built up associations with our pain or symptoms. And some of them are really long standing symptoms. So to change your mindset and acknowledgement of those is huge. I’m sure you see how that positivity can then impact them, creating a positive cycle toward healing, rather than going in the other direction.
Gail: Very much so. You speak magical words. That HPAGT (hypothalamic, pituitary, adrenal, gonadal, and thyroid) healing access starts with the hypothalamus, which are the thoughts. So it’s important to make sure that you develop a good mindset around you and appreciate you for your uniqueness; moving beyond some of the obstacles that are maybe in your way, but in a positive way. So an example of that is not to say to yourself, “I can’t have chips and salsa anymore.” Instead, you say, “I get to make a better decision, so it helps me feel really good and I can be my best me.” Big mindset shifts there. It really begins that healing cascade, I guess you could say.
Me: Cascade, I like that word. Your positivity shines through in every conversation I’ve had with you. So I can only imagine how strong that tool is when you’re working with your clients.
Gail: Thanks so much! I feel the very same about you.
Me: Well, thank you! And speaking of another way you have inspired me. We all know I am not the best cook, and I’m still very much learning. In terms of the actual act of cooking, do you have any favorite cookbooks or any recommendations for people like me who are novices or beginners?
Gail: You know, I had a hunch you would ask me this question. So I brought some. I really love the Anti-Inflammatory Diet and Action Plans. I think inflammation is definitely a killer and we need to make sure to keep it under control. I also really like the How Not to Die Cookbook. I love this title, it’s hilarious; and it’s got really great recipes in it, really beautiful pictures, it’s lovely. If you are up for a little more of a challenge, or a few more steps involved (both of those are relatively easy) you could try Fit by Bobby Flay. It’s a great cookbook. If it’s on your shelf, and you want to pull out one of his deeper dishes (that will take you maybe 20 minutes extra) the flavor complexity that he builds is delicious! And the last one I’ll recommend is ISA DOES IT. Her cover is a little bit different; and this is a vegan cookbook, but full of flavor, really really easy, and makes wonderful leftovers.
Me: I like that, I always like when my effort can last a couple of days.
Me: I’m taking notes on all of those and planning to buy them as soon as we’re done with this interview. I also think it’s nice to know if one is simple and more straight forward, or if you’re enjoying the night to cook and try something new that might take a bit longer. You can go down the road of whichever you are in the mood for.
Me: I know, kind of on another note, that you specialize in meditation. Especially in the year of 2020, where a lot of us were dealing with levels of unprecedented stress and new challenges that we couldn’t have predicted, we all are having a better appreciation of those self-care measures that are really important. But I know it can also be really hard to get started. And I know, I myself am very critical, thinking “Am I doing it right? Where do I begin?” Do you have any strategies or simple tips that you use with people, or favorite apps, to help people get started to help guide them in that journey?
Gail: Absolutely. This is such a touchstone piece for me. I hold meditation near and dear to my heart, mainly because it changed my life for the better. The weight of those words: it changed my life for the better. And I want to impress upon that so people think, “Wait a minute, this really is something: super food for your brain activity!” You’re not alone in thinking that maybe you’re not doing it right, or I just can’t clear my thoughts. But that's secretly not the point. The point isn’t to have this wonderful Buddhist monk clear brain. The point is to allow the thoughts to come out and go away. My favorite saying is thoughts are going to come to visit; but do not invite them in for tea, don’t ruminate on them. Allow them to bubble up and drift away, so you’re not cramming them back down. It may take a little bit to reap the rewards of this beautiful, truly healing activity. It may be 2 weeks before you start to notice something different. It’s a subtle shift that happens: your fuse gets a lot longer.
You may notice that someone cuts you off in traffic and you may no longer honk the horn. You’re like, “Oh maybe I’m a little impressed at myself, I don’t know why I didn’t freak out.” I’m using a traffic example, but maybe someone is sitting at a green light for just five seconds too long and you don’t lay on the horn. You think, “It’s okay, they’re going to eventually move.” Those are some of the first key pieces I personally noticed. And then the trick is when everyone around you starts to notice all of the beautiful benefits. They may say, “Something’s different about you,” or “You seem really calm today.” A client of mine told me that someone had mentioned to him that he seemed really grounded; and he said he had never had someone in his life tell him he was really grounded before, until he started his meditation practice.
I think it’s important to really impress upon people that it’s not about that perfect crystal clear brain. I want the thoughts to come up and go out. But no ruminating on them, no focusing on them, no getting out of meditation and writing something down on your to-do list. If it’s that important, it will come back. I personally practice Transcendental Meditation, which is a practice I’ve done for years. That’s the one that changed my life. But some people just aren’t ready for such a long duration of meditation, because it really is 23 minutes twice a day. Maybe I’ll start you off with sitting in a chair for five minutes with your feet on the ground, hands in lap, and you’re paying attention to your breath. And then maybe you graduate to 10 minutes, and then maybe it’s 15; and maybe that’s where you stop. And that’s okay too. Or, if you don’t appreciate a silent meditation, maybe you want to go into the Calm app or Headspace or Insight Timer. Or you can do walking meditations and mindfulness practices. Maybe do those by yourself, where you feel the earth beneath your feet; and you recognize each individual leaf and how the leaf looks on the tree; and you bring mindfulness practices into that walking meditation.
Me: Hmm. That's a neat concept: to combine the movement as a piece of the meditation, rather than having them conflict.
Gail: There’s no wrong way.
Me: Which is probably the most important takeaway. As you try to master the practice, know that it’s going to take time. There are ways to start small; and there are ways to get bigger as it becomes a more positive presence in your life. Well, you just gave some very helpful tips for meditation. So thank you. And along with that, thinking of the month of January, where a lot of people try and make these changes and do new things: What would be 3 pieces of advice to help people just stick to those changes? What would you say to people to stick with these commitments they’ve made?
Gail: I would say the first thing is to build a healthy routine. Look into your day. It’s one of the two secret ingredients to the secret sauce of what I say. Routine is number one and then planning (meal planning, some sort of planning) in your life is number two. The second one is to get an accountability partner. If you’re the type of person, like me, for working out; where if I am not held accountable, I may not show up. I need an accountability partner, so I would get one. Very, very helpful.
The third would be to understand and identify what your triggers are for falling off track. Write those down. Bringing awareness to a particular subject matter really helps. Understand what are my triggers and what are my boundaries. How can I stay within myself? Don’t make them too tight, otherwise your inner self may rebel against them. Understand that if my boundaries are here, maybe I’m rebelling. Widen them out a little bit and give yourself some grace. And then if you were going to ask me what would be 3 big things people can do to make a difference in their lives:
1. Cut and reduce sugar with time
2. Get your sleep (7 plus hours)
3. Stay active: keep moving your body, even in the Winter
Me: Yes, I love that. Very tangible, very approachable. And the last one “Motion is Lotion” in particular. Thank you for sharing all of these gems inside your brain. It’s a gift for you to share with us.
Gail: Thank you for the invitation.
Me: What is the best way people can reach out to you?
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are based on the opinion of the author, unless otherwise noted, and should not be taken as personal medical advice. The information provided is intended to help readers make their own informed health and wellness decisions.