Why everything I used to think about health has changed, with Jonny Wilkinson
Jonny Wilkinson is celebrated for his place in the World Rugby Hall of Fame. There are successes and challenges behind his legacy - all of them once a “now” in his life.
Today a motivational speaker, Jonny finds purpose in the “now”. With our host, Dr. Gemma Newman, he asks: How do we step aside from self-perception? How can we stay curious after success?
Jonny explains the importance of revering the mind and body - including all the life within us! That’s why he created his living drinks, No. 1 Living, formulated to improve gut health.
In this episode, we’ll also learn about Jonny’s distinction between health and fitness and how our healthy actions can benefit those around us.
One thing that’s changed for Jonny on his journey is how he views the human body – it’s no longer about the ‘big macho side’ of things. ‘When I was playing rugby, my body was just a vehicle for getting me from A to B,’ he recalls. ‘I got angry with it when it got injured, and I would feel inferior if it didn’t look better or the same as other sporting people’s.’
Nowadays, he says, he appreciates ‘the body is a magnificent thing’, and his overall understanding of health has transformed. ‘In the past I was around a lot of people who were very fit, but not necessarily healthy – I was a classic example.
‘There was no nuance in the way I understood my body. It was a case of taking in carbs, fat, protein, or after you train, “you better drink this”. Stuff with value on a macro level, but I was missing a key part. I didn’t realise how powerful nutrition is.’
In particular, Jonny started to understand how much we literally are what we eat (a large proportion of the cells in our body are replaced every 7-10 years). ‘People think we’re living in nature,’ he says. ‘But we are nature. Our cells are regenerating and rebuilding just out of what we eat and take in, and that’s come from the soil and the foods we eat. The way your eyes work, the way you move, your joints, your recovery, everything.’
Through research and reading, it also dawned on Jonny just how much of our bodies consists of ‘stuff that’s not us’ – in other words, bacteria, fungi and viruses. ‘We have this story that they are nasty and wage war on them. But they are part of an intelligence that’s working for us. They need to be nourished and fed and revered.’
That includes the ‘inner workings of the gut’ – today, a growing of body of research shows a balanced microbiome [which consists of trillions of bacteria] is connected to overall better wellbeing, including a healthier mind.
At home, he and his wife [who was training to be a nutritionist] began making their own nutritional fermented foods, brimming with healthy bacteria. ‘We brewed kombucha [a fizzy, fermented tea], made kefir [a fermented milk drink], and sourdough bread [which contains live bacteria].’
In 2018, he founded the No.1 Living range, available at H&B, including kombucha, kefir and health shots, his aim to make them more accessible for everyone (they’re also vegan and dairy-free).
The products are all designed to promote a better balance of ‘good’ gut bacteria. ‘It’s almost like rewilding yourself when you feed yourself,’ says Jonny. ‘‘I feel this is what excites me, it’s my passion. Nothing is more important than health.’
Jonny’s podcast, I Am, is on all major podcasting platforms.
The No.1 Living range is available at Holland & Barrett
Over the years, Jonny has become a champion for living a healthier, more holistic life – physically and nutritionally, but also mentally. Here are the rules he lives by.
‘Quiet on its own is so powerful: allow yourself to have that time for reflection,’ he says.
But don’t feel you have to always overthink everything. ‘When a thought comes up, recognise it but don’t analyse it.’
A simple stroll, ideally outside in greenery, creates an energy that shifts how we see things. ‘Lead with your chest and your heart. Relax the heck out of your arms and legs, and walk so slowly people are staring. Feel the floor under your feet, and go where the walk takes you – for 2 minutes 10 minutes, an hour – as long as it’s in a safe space.’
Walking with someone else, he says, also encourages a more meaningful connection. ‘Listen to the conversation that comes up. If you stay with it long enough, it leads to deeper exchanges.’
We obsess over what’s already happened or what lies ahead, says Jonny. ‘But it’s madness to think our now is irrelevant. What I’ve found out about myself was that I’m always perfectly equipped for my now.
‘In the changing room two minutes before a game, you are trying to live in the future and you are petrified, insecure and so fragile. Yet when the whistle goes, you connect to your now and let go of the past or future. You realise whatever happens is right for me, win or lose.’
‘Nobody ever gets to their potential through being controlling,’ says Jonny. ‘It comes from allowing and accepting, letting go and exploring.’
Crucially, with challenges come opportunities for growth. ‘I see this a lot where there’s no kind of challenge and there is a plateauing in life experience, and a monotony.’
It’s about getting out of your comfort zone, while still being kind to yourself. ‘Allowing yourself to feel vulnerable, and have a pointer towards somewhere new to investigate.’
For Jonny, for a certain amount of time it was rugby, before he found new things that enthused him. ‘People often say I don’t know what my passion or purpose is. But it’s already there in small parts that can unravel and unfold into bigger things. It doesn’t have to be mind-bogglingly huge,’ he says.
But don’t be defined by what the world around you expects. ‘Think “What is it I’m for, not what I’m against?”, and the answer will come to you.’
And remain open to the unknown: ‘Being in a state of curiosity and awe.’
In the past, Jonny says, he lived for owning a ‘sense of importance’ or sought external validation: something nearly all of us are taught growing up.
‘I spent a huge amount of time invested in my identity and achievements, what did people think of me? Now I’m not interested in those limitations. It gets in the way of having something really meaningful.
‘My definition of who I am now, comes out of, what am I feeling now? I feel like I’m still wandering through life with goals and ambitions but in a much more beautiful way.’
A doctor for over 17 years, Gemma Newman has worked in many specialities as a doctor including elderly care, endocrinology, paediatrics, obstetrics and gynaecology, psychiatry, general surgery, urology, vascular surgery, rehabilitation medicine and General Practice.
Dr Newman's specialist interests are in holistic health and plant-based nutrition as well as lifestyle medicine. In her practice she has come to understand that body, mind and soul are not separate, and that it is only in addressing the root causes of stress and disconnection that we can truly heal, from the inside out.