Creating Wellness on Our Own Terms

Rebecca Gilbert, kaimahi for the Cancer Society in Whangarei, shares the story of her journey to wellbeing.


Rebecca lives with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and atrial fibrillation, an irregular, often rapid heart rate that commonly causes poor blood flow. Respiratory conditions and diabetes affect many of her whānau and reducing her own risk is part of her motivation for change.


Prior to Covid-19 lockdown, Rebecca travelled to Melbourne, where her breathing really struggled with the poor air quality caused by bush fires. This experience was the start of a slow decision to make a change in her lifestyle. The time in lockdown, when Rebecca indulged in unhealthy behaviours was also part of the decision and in August Rebecca went back to the gym and started going regularly.


Struggling to lose weight had been ongoing, however this time Rebecca focused on health and wellbeing rather than weight “I’m never going to be thin” she says, adding “letting go of weight loss goals feels much better, and it’s a mindset – let go of negative thoughts and focus on the positive.”


Rebecca shares how her husband didn’t think that she would keep it up. “Wanting to prove him wrong made me even more determined to stay committed. He’s changed his mind now.”


Losing several whānau members in a short space of time has been a painful reminder of how important it is to keep making small behaviour changes for improved health. One of those who passed is Rebecca’s treasured Aunt. “She was always telling us to make the most of life, and that’s what I’m trying to do now. Even though I’m in my fifties, it’s so worthwhile.”


One of the challenges Rebecca tackled recently was completing the Northland Waste Kerikeri Half Marathon in November. She took this on just three weeks prior to the event when a colleague at the Cancer Society was unable to do it. Rebecca had already been exercising regularly at the gym, so she knew she could do it, and she added more time on the treadmill, strength work for her legs and some road walking to prepare.


“I wasn’t daunted until the night before” she shares, “I just told myself, I’m here and I’m doing this.” Rebecca kept up a steady pace for the 21km course, however she started to cramp up 15 – 16 kilometres into the event. Thanks to sponsorship, Rebecca was able to raise $500 for the Cancer Society and remembering this powered her on to the finish. “When I wanted to stop, I thought of the people who had invested their money, faith and trust in me” she says. Another thing that kept her going were those who thought she wouldn’t make it. “People expecting me to fail made me even more determined to finish” she adds.


“I will probably do this event again, but with more training and my goal will be to improve on my time” says Rebecca, who is also planning to participate in some of the smaller Run/Walk Series events throughout the year.


In her work and life, Rebecca sees many poor health outcomes that could be improved with some small lifestyle changes. She has an attitude of self empowerment saying, “ I can’t tell people what they should do or make them change, but I can try to be part of a systemic change and an example of someone giving it a go.” She adds, “it’s important to me to be able to share key health messages in my work, without being hypocritical.”


Rebecca has some thoughts to share with anyone thinking about making some changes for their health.  “Assess yourself, look inwards and think about how you want your life to be in one year, five years. Think about not being there for your whānau. Really understand your health issues, as this can lead to how you can make changes. I especially encourage Māori to look inside ourselves and create wellness on our own terms. It’s not just about weight loss and fitness, it’s about hinengaro, wairua and whānau too.”


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