Ep. 39: Dr. Julie Foucher-Urcuyo: a lesson in high performance and goal setting - Empowered Health | A Podcast with Emily Kumler
While completing her undergrad at the University of Michigan, Dr. Julie Foucher-Urcuyo craved the community she felt as a high school athlete. She rediscovered that feeling after joining a local Crossfit affiliate. Foucher-Urcuyo went on compete in the Crossfit Games–some of which she was in medical school during– and became an influential member of the Crossfit world. Emily and Foucher-Urcuyo talk goal-setting, overcoming perfectionism and personal fulfillment. They also discuss why she went into family medicine and how she incorporates what she learns in the Crossfit world into her practice.
Image credit: 2011 Crossfit Games Event 3
Emily Kumler: I’m Emily Kumler and this is Empowered Health. This week on Empowered Health, we are talking to an incredible multi-tasker. She was a four times CrossFit Games athlete, top performing. While she was doing some of that, she was in med school. She is now getting her residency as a family medicine doctor. I was really excited to talk to her because she’s somebody who is, you know, sort of a celebrity in the CrossFit world, and is very nice, and sweet to hang out with. The few times that I had met her, I was really impressed by her, but I also feel like on a very personal level, I have been feeling like I’m doing way too much and maybe nothing very well. So over the summer I wrote two books, which I actually really wrote in about a month. And obviously I have two kids that I talk about on the podcast. I also run three women’s wellness centers, the Prime studios, and I write for Boston Magazine. And of course, we have this wonderful weekly podcast. And there are times where I feel like, oh my God, is this making me happy? Is all of this stuff really doing what I’m supposed to be doing with my life? Am I driving an impact? Am I helping people? Am I fulfilling something within myself? On good days, I say the answer to that is a resounding yes and I think there’s a lot of crossover between all of these different projects so that overlap is really a sweet spot for me where I feel like there are things that I learn on the podcast that I can use at Prime and things that I learn at Prime working with our managers or trainers, you know, I can kind of use at home. And so all of those things on a good day seem very symbiotic. But on a bad day it feels like I don’t want to do anything but stay in my bed and like sort of hide under the covers. This guest this week is somebody who is very, very positive and obviously very driven. She and I have a really honest conversation about health and women’s health and how the medical establishment is very different today than it was, which is part of the reason that she wanted to go into family medicine, because she wants to actually spend time with her patients, which I commend. But I also had a really honest conversation with her about a moment of real growth, where she was very, very down and not sure why she was doing so much and why was she pushing herself so hard in her CrossFit pursuits, and in med school, and she was in a relationship. And how she had a phone call with her mom, that really helped her sort of put things in place and develop a plan forward. I’m not going to butcher her plan or what that experience was like. She’ll do a much better job telling you than I will, but I will say, for anybody who’s thinking about New Year’s resolutions as 2019 comes to a close, or thinking about how they don’t want to do a New Year’s resolution because they don’t tend to work out. I think Julie’s philosophy on this stuff is really helpful for all of us to sort of put in place what is bringing you joy and what is driving impact, when it’s sort of okay to be overwhelmed because it’s for a specific purpose or a duration of time, and when maybe it’s just too much.
Julie Foucher-U: Hi, I’m Julie Foucher-Urcuyo. I am currently a medical resident in family medicine and a former CrossFit Games athlete. I’m very passionate about health and promoting health through lifestyle changes, and very excited to be here on the podcast.
Emily Kumler: We are so excited to have you. So I feel like a lot of our audience is not familiar with CrossFit, it’s just sort of a wide swath of women interested in health issues. So I thought a good place to start might be sort of talking about how your life as a doctor, or deciding to go to med school, really intersected with your introduction to CrossFit and sort of how that has impacted things, which is pretty dramatic.
Julie Foucher-U: Yes it is and it’s interesting to see. I think actually maybe other people in my life saw it more clearly than I did at the time. It took me a little while to figure it out. But I had always been athletic. I had always been very active and I did gymnastics growing up. I did track and field in high school. When I got to college, I didn’t play any college sports, and so I felt kind of lost for the first couple of years. I was just going to the gym, doing the elliptical, doing the weight machines, kind of the usual things, reading my textbooks on the elliptical like everyone else in college. It was about halfway through college that I first heard of CrossFit, so this was around 2009, I was living in the dorms, and this is actually when I met my husband. We were both in one of our mutual friend’s dorm room, watching Grey’s Anatomy of all things, and he pulls up crossfit.com on the computer and I started asking all these questions and it just looked really interesting to me because it had a little bit of everything. You are doing something different every day. And then as I later found out, there was a huge community aspect, which is really what I was missing by not being involved in organized sports anymore. So it wasn’t too much longer after we first met at that point that we both joined our local CrossFit affiliate in Ann Arbor, Michigan. And then sort of the rest is history. That year, did some local competitions and ended up actually qualifying for the CrossFit Games in 2010, the following summer. It was shortly after that first CrossFit Games that I did my CrossFit Level 1 seminar. So this is an introductory seminar, which anyone can do. It is the seminar that you have to do if you want to call yourself a CrossFit trainer, and you have to pass a test. But, I really think anyone who’s interested in CrossFit can benefit because you learn so much more about the methodology and the reasons why we do the things we do and the real meaning and purpose behind CrossFit. And as I was sitting in that seminar, there’s a lecture where they define CrossFit, and then they define fitness. And there’s one model that’s used to define fitness, which is called the sickness, wellness, fitness continuum, where basically, you have a variety of different biological and physical fitness markers that you can put along this continuum from sick on one side to fit on the other, and then well somewhere in the middle. And most of what we do in medicine is try to keep people well. So we try to make sure, you know, your blood pressure is okay, your blood sugar is okay, in this sort of acceptable range. But the problem with that is that then when something happens, which it’s going to happen to all of us, we’re going to get sick or something unexpected is going to happen in life that knocks us down, it’s really not a very far distance to fall before we get sick. And so the whole concept behind CrossFit for health is how can we push ourselves as far to the fit side of the continuum? So having markers that are even better than well. Like you go to your doctor and, you know, they check your blood pressure and your heart rate and say, you must be an athlete or you must work out because it’s so good. How can we help people sit more on that side of the continuum so that when they do encounter challenges in life, they have to pass through well before they get sick.
Emily Kumler: One of the things I think is so interesting about that is that I feel like one of the definitions that I’ve always sort of hung on to when it comes to health is how we tend to look at things as like the absence of harm. Right? Rather than like being in tip top shape, you’re thinking like, oh, do I have this chronic illness and if I don’t, then I can check the sort of healthy box. Right? And the continuum is so interesting because it actually shows you like, no, there’s a whole spectrum here, right?
Julie Foucher-U: Right. Most diseases fall somewhere along that spectrum. So it’s not like a switch that flips and all of a sudden you have diabetes just because your A1C is 6.5. You know, that’s been brewing for many, many years and all of a sudden it gets to this point of 6.5 which is what we’ve declared is diabetes, but it’s something that, you know, we can catch far earlier and turn that train around.
Emily Kumler: Right. And that whole idea of like chronic illness is just that, right? It’s like the debilitation of your health over time. And you can stop that at any point. I mean, before it gets too far, I guess.
Julie Foucher-U: Absolutely. And we can put, you know, we talk about in the seminar, you can put other markers on that continuum, too. So it’s not necessarily just blood work or things you get checked at the doctor, but you can put, you know, if you’re able to run a mile in less than 10 minutes, maybe you’re well, but if you can run a six or seven minute mile, maybe you’re more on the fit side of the continuum. And maybe if you’re sick, you can’t even walk a mile. You can put different, you know, physical tasks that we do in the gym along that continuum too. And the whole goal is just trying to maximize from every perspective our buffer we have against getting sick or having chronic disease or having decrepitude as we age.
Emily Kumler: So why do you think that resonated with you the way that it did?
Julie Foucher-U: So I think at that point I was, it was the fall of my senior year of college and I was deep in the process of applying to med school. So, I had just submitted my applications. I was starting to go on med school interviews. At that point, you know, I think I knew I wanted to go into medicine. What drew me to medicine most was the physician-patient relationship, sort of the science and the biology. You know, the way the human body works has always been very fascinating to me. But at that point I really thought I wanted to do, I studied engineering in college and so I was always very focused on kind of knowing one thing really well and really understanding how it works. And I kind of saw myself being a specialist. And especially when I ended up choosing the med school I went to, it was really focused on training specialists and training research scientists. And I thought that would be where I would be most comfortable is let me learn this one part of the body really well and be able to help people. I didn’t get there for another year or so, but I think that’s when the seed was first planted that, you know, there’s so much more to health. And at this point, I think my general understanding of medicine in our health care system was so limited because I just wasn’t exposed yet and I didn’t realize the magnitude of the problem of chronic disease. But that’s where that seed was first planted that I realized there’s a lot more to health. And as I started being exposed to some of the problems with our health care system and chronic disease in my first year of medical school, that’s when it really became clear to me that I had a unique position to be able to help people actually promote their health and address chronic disease from the root cause in a way that we aren’t really doing in our traditional health care system.
Emily Kumler: I think that’s so interesting, too, because I feel like one of the things that comes across over and over, even in this podcast, is like how everybody is sort of specialized, right? And so the idea that you have to understand how the specialization works with the whole system, it really does feel like an engineering problem. That’s sort of interesting that you come at it from that background, too, because, and I think we have to get to like sort of what is family medicine because you go from wanting to be a specialist to then thinking about the whole family. Right? Which is like about as far from being a specialist as you can get. Right?
Julie Foucher-U: Right. It’s the most general that you can be.
Emily Kumler: So tell me how that happened.
Julie Foucher-U: So, and I think that’s an interesting comment you make, too, about just how each, how the specialties work and how there are a lot of silos. We try to make the body like way over simplified. The body is so complex and all these systems are interacting. But the way that we’ve designed our medical system, we have people who are only focusing on one part of the body at a time. And you know, it’s good for fixing acute problems. It’s really good for fixing acute problems. I mean, our health care system is fantastic at that, but I think we’re running into bigger roadblocks now because, you know, we don’t have the ability to see how all those systems are interacting. So I got to family medicine because I think it was around after my first year med school. During that year, I actually competed in the CrossFit Games. I wanted to train and compete and sort of prove to myself that it was possible to do during med school.
Emily Kumler: And you did well, I mean I think that’s important to point out, right?
Julie Foucher-U: So that was my best finish that year. It was a rough year. There was a lot of ups and downs, but in the end it was really, you know, it was an amazing year and I’m so glad that I did it. And then as I went into my second year of med school, I knew I wasn’t going to compete that year because the second year of med school was much more demanding and there was a big board exam that sort of coincided with the Games’ season. So I did a lot of reflection. And I realized one, I mean I had this amazing platform that CrossFit had given me to be able to start having these bigger conversations with people about health and fitness. I realized that I could see what was happening in the gym. So during that first year of med school, I probably spent, I think we went every other week to a clinical setting, where we would go in a primary care setting and sort of see patients and learn basic clinical skills. It was really striking to me because I would go and I would see a patient with diabetes or high blood pressure and we’d say, okay, you need to exercise more and lose weight and change your diet and here’s another medication and we’ll see you in six months. And they would come back six months later and really nothing had changed. On the other hand, I’m going into the gym training every night. And there, of course, being involved in the CrossFit community, you’re hearing stories about people dramatically changing their lifestyle, losing a ton of weight, coming off medications for chronic disease, and it was a completely different picture. And so there, I really saw how important it is for people to be involved in a community that is supporting them in making positive healthy changes. And for the regular interactions. I mean the office visit is not the place where these types of changes are going to happen.
Emily Kumler: You as a doctor have to also, I mean like I assume you have to basically talk about the dietary guidelines, right? Or that’s like what most people would do. Like CrossFit obviously is more based on the Zone, right? And like get off the carbs. Did you ever feel like you had to like sort of, I don’t know, tow the party line at school knowing that you were getting this other information outside of school?
Julie Foucher-U: I would say at times I think it was just sort of a different mindset. And I think the way that I was able to see things was different than sometimes other people I was interacting with. But I would say, over the course of the time since I’ve been in school and in residency, our general understanding of diet and dietary recommendations has really changed in a positive way. So I would say it was probably more common back then that I would run into teachers or, you know, doctors who’d been in practice for decades telling their patients to, you know, eat low fat or you know, various things that didn’t necessarily make as much sense to me. And now we see that dietary guidelines have even changed. There’s more focus on eating whole foods and not eating processed foods.
Emily Kumler: So you never felt like that was a conflict for you? Because I could imagine it would be, just sort of being in that environment and knowing as much as you do about, you know, sort of what CrossFit recommends and the results that everybody talks about getting.
Julie Foucher-U: Yeah, I would say, I mean there were times where I would kind of bite my lip or I wouldn’t, if there was someone, a preceptor that I had or a faculty member that was giving certain advice to a patient. And then I would always try to at least discuss it with them afterwards and just try to understand where they were coming from. And one time I can remember specifically, I think I was in an endocrinology clinic, and there was a patient coming in who wanted to do a protein sparing modified fast for weight loss. I remember talking to this patient and like listening to what her diet was like and realizing, hey, she doesn’t need to necessarily do that extreme of a diet, but maybe just by switching to whole foods, and cutting out the sugar, and making some other changes, she might have a really good result or move herself in the right direction. But she had never tried those things before. So I remember having a discussion that time with the faculty about showing them some data on the paleo diet and talking about different other options. And so it was just, I think at times it was interesting to me, the extremes that patients would be going to in these very clinical settings without having tried other simpler things first. That might be a little bit better for the long run.
Emily Kumler: Yeah. That just feels so symptomatic of how much, you know, sort of confusing or misinformation is out there. Right. I mean most people have no idea what to do. And they think, you know, the whole like eggs are great, eggs are terrible. Like you know, we don’t do a good job being really clear because the research hasn’t been really clear. Right? So, I think that just creates a really dangerous situation that people fall into. And I mean I think that’s really part of the reason that we are where we are today. You know, it’s interesting because I can imagine you as this like super healthy, fit person in med school hearing advice and like, it would be very hard for me I guess is what I should say, to like actually keep my mouth shut. You know, I know there are situations where you have to do that. That’s why I’m not in any profession other than one where I get to just like blab away and say what I think, because I wouldn’t be good at that at all. So can you talk a little bit more then about like sort of how these two experiences are influencing each other? You know, it’s not like you got your L1 and then were like, okay, I understand what that’s like. You really sort of like double down and become even more invested in CrossFit and the brand becomes invested in you while in med school, which is like kind of unheard of, right? Because most people like go to med school and you don’t ever talk to them until they’re done. Hard to imagine doing anything else.
Julie Foucher-U: Yeah, I’ve been very lucky the way that everything has worked out. So after that, I realized family medicine was definitely the right fit for me because I really wanted to be focused on helping to promote health and having these long-term relationships with patients and their families, and how so much of this creating health happens, not in the doctor’s office but inside, you know, within people’s family units or what’s happening with them, you know, and their work environment, or their home environment, or where they are spending their time.
Emily Kumler: So what is family medicine? I mean I think maybe you could just explain what that is because I’m sure a lot of people have never heard of a family doctor.
Julie Foucher-U: Sure. So I guess back in the day it was just a general practitioner or I think in Europe they still call it a GP or general practitioner, but family medicine is basically primary care, comprehensive care for the family unit. So we take care of patients, we say from cradle to grave. So in residency we’re trained to do everything from obstetrics, to pediatrics, to women’s health, all the way up through nursing home. We spend time in nursing home care. In the past, I think family doctors in general had done very comprehensive care like that, and they still do, especially in rural settings. I would say now, in the U.S., especially if you’re living in a more populated area, I think family doctors tend to focus more in outpatient primary care for that whole spectrum. But there are certainly still a lot of family doctors who do inpatient medicine who do even some procedures. Like, I mean we do office based procedures but I know in the past family doctors were even trained to do some surgeries, colonoscopies, things like that. Obviously now those are done more commonly by different specialists.
Emily Kumler: I mean in some ways it makes so much sense, right? Because it’s sort of like this idea of like your doctor coming to your house and like seeing the environment in which you live in, right, I mean, and I don’t know if you actually make home visits anymore, but like just the idea that you know, you’d treat like a husband and a wife and their kids and that you’d see similar things. Right? Or like even things like stress levels, you probably are, you know, you’re going to get a more accurate picture of that kind of stuff than you will just by seeing one member of the family. We did a couple of episodes on maternal mortality issues and there’s a woman who had gotten her PhD or she had done like an advanced program at Duke. She did an amazing thing where she basically, it was sort of looking at the public health crisis and especially looking at black moms who were, you know, dying at these higher rates that are just completely unacceptable, right, because it’s like 60% of these deaths are preventable. She figured out that like if she could create a clinic environment where the newborn baby’s appointment coincided with the mom’s check-up, then the moms would come. But the way it is now, it’s like you have to take your newborn baby to the doctor three times the first week they’re home or whatever. And then like you’re also supposed to go get yourself checked somehow. Right? And that’s just, you know, women, new moms especially, are going to always prioritize their baby over themselves and that maybe we would catch some of these things, you know, especially like hemorrhages and stuff like that that are happening postpartum if the women were able to show up to appointments, and they do if it involves their baby. And I thought that’s such a like sort of beautifully simple solution to the problem. Right? Like make it more convenient. Think of these two, you know, as very different patients. But, that one is going to prioritize the other and the one that is in charge of making that distinction is the one who is going to ultimately be at the most risk. Right? And I feel like doing something like family medicine, you would probably be able to sort of counter a lot of that just in the way that you’re talking about. That sounds awesome.
Julie Foucher-U: Yeah, I would say that’s a huge plug for family medicine because if you have a family doctor you can do that. And that’s been one of the cool things about residency, where we do deliveries and then we take care of the mom and baby in the hospital and then we see them both in the office and there is just great continuity of care there. And oftentimes we do, you know, if they no show or if something happens, you know, you can reach out and figure out what’s going on. But I think there’s so much that you learn, and I think I’m learning now, even as I’m getting further into residency and seeing more and more of my patients in clinic and seeing their different family members, you just learn so much about what’s going on with the patient as you meet different people in their family and you kind of get an idea of what’s going on in their life. And so that’s really what I love about family medicine, too, is that we really, I think, strive to keep the person at the center of their care. You know, we use all of this data and all of these things that we have at our fingertips, but at the end of the day it has to make sense in the context of the person and what is most important to them. And so it is very much centered around kind of what the patient’s priorities are and how can we help best help them with their goals and get the most out of their health and their life that they’re looking for.
Emily Kumler: Well we also know that like, we often talk about like if you help a mother, you’re really helping the whole family unit often, right? Because like if you can get her eating better, being more healthy, she’s going to then make those changes for the rest of her family. Like if you’re trying to get everybody on like, you know, a better diet or an exercise regimen or whatever. Like if you could get access to the whole family and be like, all right, you guys are going to do this together, like, I can’t even imagine how impactful that would be. Right? Because so often it’s like you hear that the mom is like, oh my kids would never eat that. But then she starts getting great results or figures out that like, you know, this is actually really, some of this could be like dangerous for the kids, right, if they keep eating tons of sugar, and that like there is sort of a responsibility to model better. I mean I think that just makes so much more sense in a family medical practice rather than like a pediatrician saying it to the child, which is almost like kind of shaming. Right? I mean like the kid doesn’t know probably right from wrong and if the parents aren’t eating well, I mean I just like, I can imagine all kinds of scenarios whereby it would be like you’d get the whole family to buy in on something, like that would be tremendous.
Julie Foucher-U: Yeah. When it works, I think it is tremendous when people are motivated and want to make changes. And I would say, I know pediatricians do a great job of talking to the parents and trying to involve the parents because obviously we know that the young kids are not making their own food, they’re making their own decisions about what food is in the house. But sometimes it just comes down to the motivation of the parents and their understanding. And so I do think it helps you have a little bit more buy in when then you are also the caregiver for the parent and you can talk to them about their own health risks and you know, potentially, if you can get them to buy in then it really does, like you said, trickle down to the whole family.
Emily Kumler: Yeah. We had Shaka on a couple of weeks ago and you know, I mean I feel like she’s just like amazing with her like no nonsense approach to everything. And she really was talking about like how she has to sit down with kids and like kind of just break down like why are you having juice? You know, maybe they’re not tough talks, but like it comes down to education, right? Like if you don’t know and you think you’re getting your kids like organic apple juice and that’s fantastic. Like it’s a lack of understanding. I don’t think anybody’s like trying to be malicious with their kids. I just don’t think a lot of people understand.
Julie Foucher-U: Yeah. And it’s so hard to change our perceptions of these things, right? Like I think so many people just think, well, I grew up drinking juice and juice is what kids are supposed to drink and they don’t realize how it can have potential to be harmful. It’s sort of the same, like I think back to even when you were talking about nutrition and going through med school, like when I talked about, oh I’m, you know, following this paleo type diet and I’m not eating any grains or I’m not eating any dairy. People are like, oh, that’s impossible. You can’t do that. And so it’s sort of changing people’s minds like, do you really need juice or do you really need to be on your phone for three hours a day? Or sort of these habits that we think are necessary or that we think are impossible to break. But then actually stopping and breaking it down and thinking, okay, is this really good for me and what am I actually getting out of it? And you sort of look at the risks and benefits.
Emily Kumler: So I actually, I feel like that’s a great point to make and you are somebody who I definitely feel like, in terms of time management, I could learn a lot from you because you have so much going on, but like how do you make, like, I feel like in the process of deciding that you’re going to kind of do these two things that are both really intensive. I mean, going to the CrossFit Games is a huge accomplishment. Right? And like you’ve done it five times, like that’s incredible.
Julie Foucher-U: Yeah. Well of course my last year, I tore my Achilles, so it was four times at the Games. But I think, like I said, I’ve been really, really lucky the way that the timing of a lot of these things has worked out. And I think for me, my sort of strategy has always been just to really prioritize and decide what my priorities are at the time. And it’s okay if they shift from time to time. So for example, you know I competed in college, I did my first year of med school and then I took a year away from competing during my second year med school because I knew it was just going to be too much. And so I really focused on school that year. I focused on working on some of my weaknesses in the gym. And then the med school that I went to was actually a five year program as opposed to the usual four years. And the fifth year, or it was somewhere in the middle for most people, it was a year of research. And so what I did was I actually added on an extra year. So I did six years of med school and two of those years were research that I had basically spread out a year’s worth of research over two years. And so that is what allowed me to compete for two more years in med school. So it seems like a lot, but I was sort of creative in how I made that happen and was able to sort of shift my priorities from year to year and kind of know where I was going long-term. So even at the end, when I retired from competing in 2015, you know, I was definitely the fittest I’d ever been. I felt fantastic. I ended up tearing my Achilles at regionals, which was disappointing, but people would always ask me like, oh, don’t you want to come back? Don’t you want to not end it that way? Do you want to try to go back to the games again? But I was so focused on, I mean, I can’t take another year of med school. I know I want to be a doctor. I’m not going to delay this forever. So I went right back into my last two years of med school, doing those clinicals, and then moving forward into residency. So I think for me it’s really always been about being really clear on what my priorities are and then staying focused on those and not being afraid to re-examine and shift them as needed.
Emily Kumler: That sounds to me like you’re talking a little bit about expectations because I also think like people can misconstrue that and I think people do all the time with like what are your goals, right? Like what are your dreams? But you’re actually being really realistic about like what are the expectations that I’m putting on myself and how am I going to accomplish those things given this heavy load, right? On both sides, like you’re training a lot and you have demands for the year ahead of med school, you may have some expectation of what that’s going to be like, but you don’t know exactly what it’s going to be like. That’s a really important takeaway point for me and I’m sure for other people is like, you know, you have to be realistic. I think so often people try to do too much and they end up sort of falling on their face a little bit and then that that sense of defeat or failure sets them back. And I don’t think there’s anything wrong with failure. I actually think failure is like fantastic for people. But I think the idea that you’re sort of saying like, okay, is this possible? If it is, how am I going to break it down? What does it look like? And then when the plan changes, you’re not going to throw the other half of the plan away.
Julie Foucher-U: Right. And I think I learned a lot during that first year of med school as I kind of mentioned earlier. So, going into it, I actually did have some idea of what it was going to be like, because my husband had been a year ahead of me, so I had seen him go through that year.
Emily Kumler: So he’s the guinea pig?
Julie Foucher-U: He’s the guinea pig, basically, for our whole lives. But, so I saw him go through the year before, so I kind of knew what to expect and I knew what was going to be feasible. And also back in that time, that was 2011/2012, it was different. By the time it got to like 2014, the amount of time I was spending on training was definitely much more. In 2012, I was probably spending three or four hours a day maybe. And then it became more than that.
Emily Kumler: Just because it became so much more competitive?
Julie Foucher-U: Yeah, it was still earlier on I would say, in the evolution of the Games. So I knew it was feasible and I went into it and I think I was also going through a lot of other things at that time. It was just, you know, a transition, moving, I had lost some family members during that time of transitioning and starting med school. I really wasn’t happy with how I had finished at the Games in 2011 and took some time to process that. And so I really struggled, I would say for the first six months, six to seven months of that year, really even having motivation to train and feeling like I was even enjoying what I was doing. So I went through sort of this, I ended up sort of having a mental breakdown and being like, I remember talking to my mom on the phone one night and she said, you know, you don’t have to do any of this. She’s like, you can drop out of med school today. You can stop training for the CrossFit Games today. We’re still going love you the same. It’s not going to change anything. You should only do these things if you really want to do them.
Emily Kumler: What a nice mom.
Julie Foucher-U: I know, right? She’s the best. So, it really made me stop and think a little bit more because I had always, you know, when you go into med school, you really think a lot about why you want to be a doctor and you write your personal statement. And I was very clear on that. But for CrossFit, I had never really stopped to think about it. So I kind of started it, and I was good at it, and then I made it to the Games. So then, of course I wanted to do it again the next year, but I never really stopped to think about why I wanted to do it or why it was important to me. And so that really triggered me to go through that process of really thinking about why it was important. And once I went through that process and it became clear, then training became really fun again and everything kind of fell into place. And like we said, that was my best year at the Games. And so, I think for me that was an important year. It really taught me the importance of purpose in our lives, no matter what we’re doing. You know, life is too short to be doing a bunch of things that you don’t really care about. There are definitely things we have to do in life that maybe aren’t directly linked to like our purpose for being here on this earth, and you have to do certain things to get to places that you want to go. But I think for me, keeping the big picture in mind and part of that process was also thinking about the big picture of my career and how these two things were going to intersect. And I think that gave me a lot of purpose, too, for wanting to continue with competing.
Emily Kumler: So tell me a little bit about that. I mean, it sounds almost like you came up with your own personal statement about being a CrossFit athlete. What did that involve? Like what was included in that in terms of sort of sense of purpose when it comes to you identifying with the work that goes into that?
Julie Foucher-U: Yeah, so I think there were a few things. I think I realized that I did have some natural talent to be able to compete at that level, and not everyone has that opportunity.
Emily Kumler: Most people do not.
Julie Foucher-U: There were lots of other people that I was training with that were doing the same workouts as me that were not qualifying to the CrossFit games and so that is a huge privilege. The other thing that I really loved about competing was from the time I started until that time, I had improved so much. It was amazing to see the things that your body is capable of, or doing things that you, you don’t even expect yourself to do and really surprising yourself and doing things that you never could have imagined you could do. And so that to me was another motivating factor to say, I’m here in my early mid twenties and I want to be able to push my body and see what I’m capable of. And then I think probably the bigger, most important driving factor for me was really seeing how, by me competing on that stage or on that platform could have an impact on other people and that at first it’s very uncomfortable. It was very uncomfortable for me because I am not the kind of person who likes to necessarily be in the spotlight, but to have a conversation with someone who said, I saw you competing and it motivated me to make a change in my own life, or it, you know, in some way impacted them. That really meant a lot to me. And I saw that just by doing something that I enjoy doing and that I wanted to do, you know, I had this talent for, I could positively impact other people and potentially help them become healthier. That to me really unified with my goal of being a physician and helping people to live healthier lives. And so that’s really where it all came together, seeing that this is just another avenue that I can use the talents that I have to be able to positively influence other people to live healthier lives.
Emily Kumler: Well. And I think the other part of that really goes to the sort of sense of integrity that you have, because plenty of doctors tell people to do things that they don’t do themselves, right? And so it sounds like here you are becoming a real role model to a lot of people who are watching you compete. Whereas in med school you’re going from, you know, sort of like patient to patient or like you’re not really building relationships with people yet. And even if you do, there’s often such a sort of iron curtain, right, between like a doctor sharing anything personal about their life with a patient, which, you know, it’s probably unfortunate, right, because if we could all relate more to our doctors, we would probably follow their advice more. I mean I can only imagine I feel that way as a reporter often. Like, you know, it’s interesting on the podcast because I share my own stories, whereas when I was at 2020 and Primetime, or any print stories I’ve ever done, when I interview people, I’m always sharing. But it never makes it into the story. Right? So it’s like a totally new thing and I’ll be like, Jill, did I just say that about my mother? Like we have to delete that, we can’t include it. But, I mean I think to your point, like that’s really, I think that’s incredibly powerful. That is a really important point that like here you are on this stage becoming like really sort of the it girl of the CrossFit world. Right? And also going to med school and wanting to genuinely care and treat people who are sick, right, or help people stay healthy. That makes so much sense that there’s a convergence that happens for you mentally. Did that make you commit more to CrossFit you think?
Julie Foucher-U: Oh definitely, 100%. And I think seeing, like I said, it wasn’t just, oh I can do this and you know, be an example for patients in terms of living a healthy lifestyle. But it was also seeing how CrossFit itself really has the potential to really change someone’s life and change their health around, through the exercise and through the communities, through the institution, through all the other ways that CrossFit touches people. And I was seeing that in the gym and I saw how that was a much more effective tool for many people than what we are doing in medicine, and so I knew that I was going to come back around and be something that I wanted to really utilize in my practice.
Emily Kumler: Did your med school colleagues like have any idea of your sort of like celebrity within the CrossFit world? Like was that weird?
Julie Foucher-U: They did. So we had 42 people in our class. It was small. So I remember, I think it was that first year, the first summer, when I competed in the 2011 Games, it was just a couple months after we had started and then I think the ESPN shows came out in the fall and I remember watching them at one of my classmates houses and it was really funny. But yes, they knew and they, some of them, like I did an event at our gym and invited a bunch of them to try it and learn about it. I’ve always tried to just educate people about what CrossFit is because I think there’s so much misinformation about it out there and people’s perceptions and first impressions are often maybe not necessarily representative of what CrossFit is, so I always try to share that with people I’m working with, or my classmates, or my fellow residents.
Emily Kumler: One of the other things that I feel like I’ve always been struck by in terms of just, I mean, and we saw this with like, this was the first time when the women’s soccer team won and they were actually respected as athletes, right? Like, rather than like being hot athletes or like, you know what I mean, like sort of this, you know, it is what it is, but I think it’s so interesting because I feel like in CrossFit, people really respect the women for their performance, right? Like it’s like, can you do this and how well can you do it? And I wonder, you know, if you would just sort of like, talk a little bit about what that’s like in terms of like pushing yourself physically in a way that I feel like a lot of top performing female athletes have to do, but in CrossFit it seems like it’s a little bit different in the sense that like, you know, people will talk about how CrossFit women are like so strong or they’re so buff or like whatever. And it sometimes feels to me almost like they’re trying to take away, like that’s not normally people who are in the CrossFit community, right, it’s like outsiders who are thinking about the women in a different way. But I feel like for me, CrossFit feels like a very feminist kind of experience. Like whether you’re an elite athlete or you’re somebody like me who just really enjoys the workouts because I’m on the floor hyperventilating when I’m done and I know I’ve worked really hard even if it’s only for like five minutes, right? But I think as a woman, it’s also really interesting, because it’s like I am not self conscious at all while I’m working out. I am literally just trying to get the best time I can get or you know, really like get as close to doing an RX as I can, which I’m, you know, still pretty scaled. And so, I wonder what that was like for you, having like been a gymnast or played these other sports, like was there any difference for you or is it like when you’re, I don’t want to put words in your mouth, but I also feel like sometimes when I talk to like professional athletes, mostly men, who I’ve interviewed, they’ll be like, I don’t even notice the crowd, right? Like I’m so zeroed in, I’m not even thinking about it. And so maybe you were always like that because you were an athlete when you were younger as well, but I’d love to hear you talk a little bit about this sort of like female athlete side of it.
Julie Foucher-U: Definitely. So I would say for me, initially, before I even thought about competing, that is what drew me to CrossFit. And what I loved was that suddenly I go to the gym, I could be part of a community, I could have a coach, I could sweat next to all these people, and it didn’t matter at all about what I looked like or how many calories were on the elliptical or you know, what I ate that day. It was just about are you pushing yourself? Are you getting better every day? The people around you are doing the same and there’s so much, I think that really that’s where the community comes from is that it bonds people together from going through that experience of pushing yourself and just trying to be better in general. And so I think that’s one of the best things that I love about CrossFit. And as far as being a female in CrossFit is for me, it really helped me to take away really any thoughts that I had, or not any thoughts, but it definitely helped me to improve my overall relationship with my body, body image, self confidence, because it was all about these things that I could do in the gym and it wasn’t about what I looked like or how many calories I ate or you know, whatever I did on elliptical that day, which is I think what used to consume a lot of my thoughts when I was working out that way before. So that, right away, was really big. And then seeing, you know, when I first started, I remember watching videos of the previous year’s CrossFit Games and just watching the women and being so impressed with everything that they were doing, and you know, I never imagined that one day I would be there, too. But, I think there’s just such great role models in terms of women that are just, they’re just working hard and they’re doing their thing and it’s not necessarily about what you look like in the mirror at all. I think a lot of CrossFit gyms don’t have mirrors for a reason. It’s just about pushing yourself and getting better. And so I love that and I think I’ve always loved how the CrossFit Games has really been a very level playing field for women and men. So, they always have had the same prize money for women and men ever since the beginning. Women are generally very, I think respected, in the CrossFit community. I love that you can go into a CrossFit gym. A lot of guys that, you know, maybe think they’re in shape and they go in to try a CrossFit work out for the first time and there’s going to be women in that gym who are going to beat them, which is super cool. And now to see as CrossFit has grown, and as it’s been 10 years since I started, to see how many young girls are coming up in this environment where they’re learning these skills early on and they’re learning to be proud of their muscles, and you know, I remember kind of getting made fun of for having big arms when I was younger, when I was a gymnast or you know, maybe not made fun of, but it was just something that was different about me, and now I think there’s a lot of girls who think that’s really cool and who want to be strong like their moms someday, and that to me is really exciting to see what this next generation is going to be able to do because they have a positive fitness community surrounding them as they’re growing up.
Emily Kumler: Yeah, I love that, and I think, I mean I think there’s probably nothing better for little girls than to have like an outlet that’s all about strength, right, and ability. I mean, I also think like the other thing for me about CrossFit that I think a lot of people don’t understand is that yes, you can compete against other people, but most of the time, you’re competing against yourself. So like I have people, I have friends who are like, oh, I’m not that competitive. And I’m like, when you say that, I know you’re talking about me, but I’m also like, no, it’s about you, like you’re trying to beat your own score from the last time you did that work out. Right? That’s really cool. Because I mean, and it’s sort of like this idea of everything being measurable, and I think that’s just like a structure that really pushes you, like it just inherently pushes you. So it’s not like your trainer is like, oh, come on, you can do 10 more reps. Right? You’re like, I could do 10 more. I’ve got to get to 10 more.
Julie Foucher-U: And I think it’s interesting because there’s two different things. I think that one, it is competing with yourself every day. And at the end of the day, that’s what matters, is that you have, you know, things are measurable, you can set a goal that next time you want to be a little bit faster or lift a little bit more or whatever it is. But then I think there’s something, too, that I’ve learned over the past few years because I’ve gone in and out of different, you know, I’ve worked out by myself more at times and in a class at other times, and there is so much to say for working out in a group environment where, you know, I don’t necessarily have to be lifting the same amount of weight as the person next to me. Like this morning, I was doing a class and there was a guy in front of me. Obviously he had a lot more weight on the bar, but I was trying to keep up with him as far as the rounds in the workout. And if I had been doing that workout on my own, there’s no way I would have pushed myself that hard. And so I think there is something about using the positive aspects of, not necessarily, maybe competition, but just trying to push yourself a little bit more, that you get by working out around other people. But I think sometimes it can be hard for people to do that because maybe it makes them feel bad if they can’t keep up. Or it’s sort of, you have to kind of know yourself and know your pace, but then use the people around you in a positive way to get the most out of yourself.
Emily Kumler: That’s the other thing is that it doesn’t ever feel like, you know, like a Gold’s Gym environment, where like people are annoyed that you’re using the weights or like that you don’t know what you’re doing, right? I mean I feel like everybody’s always encouraging and I’m sure they’re encouraging of you because you’re this like amazing athlete, but people are encouraging of me, too, and I think that is really the community part of it, that sort of everybody starts from different places and then people sort of progress through. But it’s this idea of like, we’re all in it together. Right? I think that’s really sort of magical in a way. And interesting, too, because I think that also pushes you, right, because you’re like, oh these people are like encouraging me. Like, I got this.
Julie Foucher-U: Right. I wish that it wasn’t so uncommon, but I think it is. I mean it’s something really special. I don’t know what it is, but in general, the people that you find in the CrossFit community are just going to be good people and they’re going to want to encourage the people around them, and it’s going to be a positive environment.
Emily Kumler: Do you have any great like sort of excuse busters for like when people are feeling like, oh, I’ve started this new exercise regimen but you know, I’m really busy today or I don’t feel up to it. Like, I’m sure you have days like that. What do you tell yourself?
Julie Foucher-U: Yeah, I mean, I think it depends. So, I think for me, I have sort of a minimum that I know I need to work out this many times in a week. For me, it’s usually like, I mean three at the very minimum, but four is what I shoot for. And I know if I at least get that many, I’m going to do okay. If I start to drop below that, I start to not feel like myself and I get irritable and it’s just not good to be around me. So, I think you have to know what your number is, you know, sometimes you do need to sleep or sometimes like you’re sleep deprived, you have a lot going on, sometimes it is better to rest, and that’s okay, and you need to know when that’s okay to do. But sometimes it can help just to do something small. So it doesn’t have to be necessarily going to a class, but do a quick workout at home. My husband and I have been doing a lot of these five minute workouts in the morning, so we call them our morning fives. And we do, sometimes it’s just stretching, sometimes it’s 20 burpees, sometimes it’s some squats or whatever we come up with. But that’s a way just to make sure that you do something and sort of get your blood flowing and your heart pumping a little bit. And oftentimes you feel so much better just after doing that. So, you know, in summary, it’s okay to rest, but no, don’t make it a habit. You can’t have an excuse every single day. So I know as long as I get in four workouts in a week, I’m going to be doing okay for me. And then on those days where maybe you’re super busy and you haven’t gotten in your four workouts, then do something quick at home. At least that’s better than nothing.
Emily Kumler: Yeah, I mean I think that’s such a good point, and I also think like the mental health aspect of it is a big one. You know, I think there is tons of research to back up this idea, that exercise is not just the endorphins, it’s like all kinds of neurotransmitters that are working hard when you’re working out, and it like definitely can help pull people out of a depression and keep you from falling into one. So I feel like we’re sitting here in Boston and it’s like dark and gloomy. It’s like, you know, it’s so easy to say like, oh, I’m too tired. Right? Or like it’s gross out. I don’t want to go anywhere, but that’s the moment, I feel like for me anyway, where I’m like, now you have to go.
Julie Foucher-U: Yeah, because you said that. No, it’s so true. And I’ve seen that. I feel that 100%, I mean, there’s been times, I remember when, during my first year of residency, there was about a two week stretch where I just didn’t work out at all and I kept making excuses and then it does become hard to overcome that momentum. I think getting back into it is super hard, but immediately, I went to the gym, pushed myself through a workout, it wasn’t fun, but immediately after that I felt like a new person. And that’s where I’ve kind of figured out, okay, four workouts a week. That’s sort of my minimum. And I think you have to figure that out for yourself, what you need for your mental health.
Emily Kumler: I sometimes joke that I feel like if I don’t work out for a certain period of time, it’s like bumping into an ex boyfriend or you’re like, this is going to be awkward like when I go back, but I know it’s going to be fine after the first couple of minutes, like we’ll probably get along and it won’t be weird. Like you know, I feel like it’s a little bit like that if you like get out of the habit of going and you’re like, ugh, I got to go. But then you get in there and you’re like, this is fantastic, it’s fun, and I might like it. I mean I think your morning workouts, which I feel like you guys post on Instagram sometimes, they’re great too because I think once you get your body moving, you want it to keep moving. Like very rarely do you do like a mini workout and think like, okay, I’m done. I don’t want to do anymore, right? Your body gets moving and you’re like, oh yeah, I should go for a run, or like I should do something else. I feel like sometimes it’s like remembering to turn it off. Sometimes it’s harder.
Julie Foucher-U: It’s so true. I remember one of the old deans in my med school, she would always use this quote of action before motivation. So, if you wait around for motivation to come to start working out, you might wait forever. But, if you just start taking action, then usually the motivation is going to follow. So just like you’ve said, if you get yourself to the gym, you’re going to start doing something or if you do five minutes, then you’re going to want to maybe do a little bit more.
Emily Kumler: Totally. Yeah. I mean, and I think that’s because your body likes it, right? Like it’s good for it and it feels good. I feel like the last thing that I wanted to make sure we just talked a little bit about is how you’ve sort of thought about being a perfectionist and sort of modifying that view, which I think so many women especially feel like, oh, I’m not living up to the expectation that I had and I mean expectation in a different way than what we sort of alluded to earlier, which is like really sort of setting your game plan. And I think the idea of being a little gentle with yourself, especially through transitional periods, is such good advice. And I feel like it’s something you’ve written a little bit about and I know you’ve talked about, but I would just love for you to sort of share some ideas of how your thoughts on that I guess have evolved as you’ve gone through this experience.
Julie Foucher-U: It’s still definitely a work in progress. I was a gymnast, I was very much a perfectionist when it came to school and sports, and I think that obviously did me very well and you know, set me up for success. But then in a lot of ways, I think once you get out into the real world, you realize that’s not always the best way to approach life, and so I think I am learning how to channel that energy to specific areas and not to let it sort of overtake my entire life. And so now I definitely, and I think for me part of that experience was, you know, I learned a lot of that through CrossFit, through my competitive career, because going through challenges like having to take that year off and then come back, or even during that year, I remember CrossFit had asked me to come and film the movement demos for the Open workouts. And I remember feeling so self conscious because I thought, gosh, I haven’t even been training. I’m about to do these Open workouts in front of the whole world and I’m, you know, all I’ve been doing is studying and I’m so out of shape. And of course, you know, I was still in very good shape, but just not where I wouldn’t have liked to be had I been training for competition. I got there and it was such an amazing opportunity and you know, I did it, and it was fine. You know, like everyone understands that you have life going on and so I think that was a good experience for me to go through to say, hey, you’re not going to be always on your A-game. You can’t be perfect at everything all the time. And at that particular time in my life, studying and preparing for my board exam was taking the priority, and that’s okay. You know, if you put all of your energy into one thing to try to be as perfect as you can at it, then that means there’s a million other things in your life that are not going to be very good. For me, it’s been about identifying what are those things that are really important that I want to put my energy into, and focusing energy there, but then being forgiving of myself, realizing that you can’t do it all. There’s only 24 hours in a day and being okay with, you know, I’m doing the best that I can right now given the circumstances and given what I have to work with and being okay with that. And trying to have more positive self talk in terms of getting a little bit better every day or working towards a goal and instead of thinking negatively about, you know, things that I wish I had gotten done or things that I didn’t do as well as I wanted to.
Emily Kumler: You know, it’s so funny to hear you say that stuff because I am sure nobody watched those videos and thought you were out of shape, right? And it’s like you’re going to be your own worst critic. You know, the flip side is, at least for me, that I feel like perfection would be so boring, right? Like if you actually achieved perfection and you weren’t working on anything anymore, like that would be time to quit. I remember somebody, when I got married, gave me this advice and it was like at a shower or something where like everybody was reading advice and so it was like sort of this weird awkward moment. She was like basically like a second mom to me. She was a mom of a friend of mine I had grown up with and I love her and I feel like it’s some of the best advice. And she basically was like, you never want to be content. You always want to be working on your relationship. That’s such a strange thing to say to somebody who’s about to get married, right? Who’s like, I’ve arrived. I don’t have to worry about dating anymore. Like, I want to be content. But it’s great advice because the point is like, no, you’re always learning new things about your partner and you’re always learning new things about yourself, and that should require recalibration along the way, and growth, right? And growth is sometimes really painful. And so if we reach the point where we’re not trying to grow anymore, that kind of to me means you’re not learning anymore. And if you’re not learning anymore than like you should die. I mean like what’s the point of life if you’re not learning? Right?
Julie Foucher-U: So, I’m a big Tony Robbins fan, and he talks about it more in terms of balance, because you know how everyone says, oh, I’m searching for balance and I just want balance in my life. And he uses the analogy of being on a teeter totter and he’s like, so, you know, teeter totter, you’re going back and forth. He’s like, so if you achieve balance, what are you doing? You’re just sitting across from someone staring at them. He’s like, what’s going to happen? Like what fun is that? So it is, I totally agree. I think complacency is the enemy. And anytime that you just get comfortable and like you said, are just not growing anymore, I don’t think that’s very satisfying. And I think that where we, at least for me, I think where I get a lot of my excitement in life and pleasure and joy is from those moments of growing and learning and doing something new. And so it’s just been, for me, sort of embracing that and being patient with myself and being forgiving of myself and trying to let go of a little bit of that perfectionistic tendency or wanting to try to have control over everything all the time.
Emily Kumler: Yeah. I feel like I have a tendency to become so myopic on something I want to achieve that I like lose sight of the things that I am achieving in real time, you know what I mean? And so I feel like one of the things that I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is it’s sort of like having a rest day, right? Like have a moment of reflection. Take a second and think about where you were 10 years ago. Like 10 years isn’t that long and you’ve done so much. Right? And like that’s something to really take a second and feel proud of. I’m Emily Kumler and that was Empowered Health. Thanks for joining us. Don’t forget to check out our website at empoweredhealthshow.com for all the show notes, links to everything that was mentioned in the episode, as well as a chance to sign up for our newsletter and get some extra fun tidbits. See you next week.