Eating disorders are on the rise and are the 12th leading cause of hospitalisation in Australia’s health care system. Almost half of young Australian girls feel unhappy with their bodies or appearance by the time they are eight years old, according to VicHealth.
Physiotherapist Megan Dickinson and Sarah Roughead, who has a background in food science and nutrition, are on a mission to change this story.
The duo launched The Live Life Whole Project to teach young women how to nourish and nurture their overall health and wellbeing.
Alarmed by the rates of hospital admissions for preventable health conditions, they created a program to bridge the gap between the education and healthcare systems by providing women and girls, their families, and their broader communities with tools and referral points for all areas of their health and wellbeing.
Dickinson shares her journey to creating the Live Life Whole Project and how she hopes to use her platform to create lasting change for future generations of young women.
Addressing gaps in education and healthcare systems
Dickinson had been working as a physiotherapist for ten years prior to creating the Live Life Whole Project. Throughout this period, she witnessed too many clients suffering from preventable injuries and illnesses and was determined to make a difference.
Dickinson noticed the glaring gap in access to the knowledge, tools, and resources for women and girls to be empowered in managing their own wellbeing.
With much of our national healthcare spent on treating acute health issues, she saw a dire need for a more proactive preventative approach.
“This would not only assist the quality of life of so many girls and women but reduce the unnecessary burden on our health care system,” she said.
Dickinson and Roughead bonded over their shared experience of navigating the complex healthcare system, rampant misinformation, and barriers to equitable access.
Roughead faced two pregnancies, made challenging by the confusing and siloed medical industry that often ignores women’s health issues.
“We wanted to create a program that doesn’t just target one area of health, but a community where we could learn and thrive together,” she said.
Turning a passion into a thriving business
As Dickinson and Roughead settled on their vision, the next step was to source a team of experts to bring their business to life. They were fortunate to have the support of fantastic health professionals from diverse life and professional experiences, but they also faced their share of challenges.
Most of the team was contributing to the project as side hustles in addition to full-time jobs, parenting responsibilities and other commitments, making a lack of time and resources the first hurdle to overcome.
Determined to see her idea through, Dickinson courageously stepped back from her full-time role as a physiotherapist to give the project the time and dedication it needed to thrive.
Dickinson’s partner took on the project manager role, while Roughead juggled her parenthood responsibilities to help make their dream a reality.
“This has really been an idea that has come to life with years of experience and work, all applied by people who are passionate about health and education despite their lack of time,” said Dickinson.
The team anticipated a need for many iterations of the program, continuously improving and adapting to ensure it meets the needs of as many women and girls as possible.
They also knew that the only way to do so was to start somewhere and keep redeveloping it as they learned.
Can education bridge inequities?
While health education can do wonders at an individual level, Dickinson acknowledges that there is more work to be done in bridging inequalities in access to health programs like the Live Life Whole Project.
“We know that, often, the people who need the help and support the most are the last to receive it,” she said.
“Unfortunately, certain communities, by no fault of their own, will have less access to healthcare, and more difficulty navigating the system. Our hope is that by providing education to as many young girls as we can, they are armed with more tools to navigate whatever situation they are in.”
The team has started collaborating with foundations supporting marginalised communities and intends to adapt their program for specialist education settings. This is vital, given that socioeconomic factors and the presence of disability pose severe barriers to accessing healthcare and are associated with poorer outcomes than the general population.
“We are passionate and will continue to strive to ensure that every young girl has the opportunity to live their life as happily and healthily as they can,” she said.
What barriers is the Live Life Whole Project striving to improve?
The Live Life Whole Project targets some of the most pressing health issues facing girls and women.
The program has a strong focus on supporting the prevention, early detection, and timely intervention of eating disorders, gut health conditions, malnutrition, sleep deprivation, chronic fatigue, relative energy deficiency in sports (RED-S), breast health, menstrual and fertility health, mental health and healthy relationships.
The program is delivered in schools, sporting clubs, community centres, or from home using their online delivery model.
“Our approach is unique in that it marries the patient and practitioner experience while looking at young girls’ overall wellbeing,” said Dickinson.
“We teach them how to use the resources available and ask for what they need as well as provide education which they can implement themselves.”
Life Live Whole aims to support, empower, and destigmatise women’s health issues, not only for those who take part, but their friends, family members, teachers, and the broader community.
Dickinson encourages speaking up and asking questions about emerging health issues, free from the burden of shame or embarrassment that too often surrounds women’s health.
She believes an important starting point is spending the time to find a supportive, knowledgeable, and compatible general practitioner.
“A trusted GP is the gateway to the healthcare system,” she explained.
“They look after your overall health and refer you to any health specialist needed.”
She likens finding the right health practitioner to shoe shopping; squeezing into something that isn’t the right fit may feel easier in the short term, but in the long run, will only cause you more pain and suffering.
“Health and the healthcare system is a journey, so do not be disheartened if the first person you see isn’t for you. When it comes to women’s health, the menstrual cycle, breast health, and all things female, you can assist doctors by getting to know your body.”
Strategies include tracking your menstrual cycle to get an understanding of your unique ‘normal’ and noting when things change. You could also monitor your response to certain types of exercise, food groups, and your relationships, as long as this doesn’t feel overly onerous or lead to obsessively tracking every moment of your day.
As well-intentioned and educated as most health professionals are, you are the only one who knows what it’s like to live in your body. Programs like Live Life Whole exist to support women and girls to feel confident in their own expertise of their health needs and remind them of how important, worthwhile, and deserving they are to live a life that feels rewarding, healthy, and vibrant.
Advocating for your own health needs is an act of bravery and power in a world that so often encourages women to be quiet and accept whatever they’re given.
Speaking up will not only change your own life, but it will also have a flow-on effect and inspire others around you and future generations to take charge of their wellbeing and their lives.