Gabrielle Reece doesn't mix fitness with husband Laird Hamilton: 'I'd rather break bread with him than go bang iron'

Gabby Reece on mental health, marriage and staying fit. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Gabrielle Reece on mental health, marriage and staying fit. (Photo: Getty; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

The Unwind is Yahoo Life’s well-being series in which experts, influencers and celebrities share their approaches to wellness and mental health, from self-care rituals to setting healthy boundaries to the mantras that keep them afloat.

Gabrielle "Gabby" Reece may have hung up her volleyball net long ago, but fitness continues to play a major role in her day-to-day life. The former professional volleyball star and model tells Yahoo Life that "it's the thing that's helped me armor up toward my best mental state," and it's one of the many topics she regularly tackles on her wellness podcast, The Gabby Reece Show.

Speaking from the Kauai home she shares with husband Laird Hamilton and their daughters, the Tru Niagen spokeswoman opened up about aging, body image, the importance of doing mental health check-ins and why she and her surfing star spouse tend to avoid working out together.

How do you prioritize your mental health?

I had sort of a bumpy childhood, like so many people, and I used to kind of use, unknowingly, a personal check-in to stay oriented [in terms of] what I was feeling or what I was seeing. Because sometimes I think we feel like someone will say, "Well, that's not what you're seeing, or feeling." And it's like, "Yeah, no, I think I am." I got that practice pretty early so that I could kind of stay oriented, if you will — like, oh, that's up and down and north and south and so forth. I do some breathing exercises that is like an active meditation, but really, I always say, anytime I'm by myself, in a vehicle or a shower or what have you, I will do a very honest check-in about all my feelings — the good, the bad, the ugly — and then start to strategize like, well, what needs to be done about that? The follow-up to that is some kind of movement.

And also, we're not our feelings. We have feelings, but I think the other thing I've learned for life is: We are not our feelings. Like, I feel sad, but I'm not necessarily sad. So those check-ins [help], but quite frankly, my whole lifestyle — exercise, eating, getting to bed — honestly, is like my reinforcement to trying to have a somewhat decent mental health.

Do you have any self-care rituals that you swear by?

I have a couple. Some people fly out of bed, ready to take on the day. I like to be quiet. I'm not necessarily gregarious in the morning. And so sometimes, right when I wake up, when I know I'm about to get up, I will actually do one of those check-ins because there's days where I'm like, Yeah, I'm not ready to face it all. I have a family, I have work, I have the things that everybody else has, and there's days where I'm like, Oh yeah, I don't have it.

And so what I'll do is I go back to kind of thinking of who I'm really trying or hoping to be, and also what that looks like in my life. And I will not put my feet on the floor until I have lined up with that person a little more. So I let myself have all the feelings. And then I say, OK, that's cool. But you've said that you're trying to be this person. So I just take a second until I put my feet on the floor, and then that's almost like a trigger for me, like, OK, here we go. And I do start my day a lot of times with my husband; it would be the one time in the day together that we have a cup of coffee and just sort of visit and look out the window.

What role does fitness play in your overall well-being?

I think it's the thing that's helped me armor up toward my best mental state. So you figure if I'm moving and then breathing heavy and releasing endorphins and just sort of doing something that's so straightforward — that's the thing about exercise, right? Like, it's not against me. It's not for me. It's just a very straightforward undertaking, and also there's something really honest about it that I like, which is just hard work. And that kind of reinforces my belief system of trying to be as straightforward as possible because we can get into our own narratives, other people's narratives, all these things. So this, for me, is very straightforward.

Then I try to support all my moods by the food I'm eating. I think people don't realize, and I know it's really cliché, but for example, alcohol is a depressant, no ifs, ands or buts around it. So if people get in that quagmire and it's like, "Oh, I feel this way [when I drink}." It's like, well, you might, and you also might not be helping yourself [with] some of the things that you're also putting in your body that mess up your chemistry... And so sometimes I look at it a little bit clinical like that, where I know that vegetables are good for me, but ultimately they're probably just supporting me at the end of the day. I just try to eat and move in a way that keeps those as those things lined up.

People think wellness is movement and eating. And my husband and I talk a lot about this, where [wellness is] like spokes in the tire — and it's all those spokes: So it's your relationships, it's how you're feeling about yourself, it's your sense of purpose. It's whatever those things are. And if one spoke is off, that wheel isn't working.

And I think especially now we live in a very fragile time. It's very confusing and I'm a fully formed adult supposedly, but I couldn't imagine being [age] 17 to 27 right now. You're supposed to be forming at a time where everything seems upside down. So what are the things that you can control? I can move and sweat and I can try to eat good. I can try to get to bed and support myself that way because everything else is not up to me... I'm trying to ground myself in the things I can be in charge of.

Do you have any other wellness secrets?

I think breathing is a big one for people. We're on average taking something like 15 to 18 breaths a minute. If we could get this down to three full inhales and exhales, nose breathing only, that's a really good one to downregulate to put you into your parasympathetic [nervous system]. So talking about mental health, it's a big one for keeping you out of fight or flight [mode]. And I do take certain supplements. As a female, I take primrose oil, flaxseed oil. I take fish oils. I take Tru Niagen. I actually took it for about two and a half years before I worked with the company because it's supporting cell function... I just felt better, had better sustained energy.

You and your husband have both been professional athletes. Does fitness play a part in your relationship? Do you work out together?

It's like too many bosses in the kitchen sometimes. I was teaching for many years a free class where we live in Kauai; it was a dollar. And he would come in — there's like 60, 80 people, whatever — and he'd be like, "Don't tell me what to do." The whole class is me telling everybody what to do. But my point is, we're husband and wife first. Yes, we encourage each other. Sometimes we talk about creative ideas around training or changing things, 'cause you've gotta change it up. But typically, [we work out together] probably less than you would think. I'd rather break bread with him than go bang iron.

People ask me too, "Are you guys competitive?" It's like, yeah, no — I'm trying to stay married [laughs] and be cooperative. But I know plenty of couples, that's kind of fun for them. That's not fun in our house; we're way too serious and intense, and it doesn't end well ever. So we stopped doing that like 20-something years ago. But I think maybe it's our values on that topic are lined up. How we do it is in some ways similar and in some ways super-different.

[But] you take two people like Laird and I, who are both pretty intense, and also we've been in this space a long time and we have our very own different ideas about how to do it. So it's like a bad idea. But I respect him, so I'll see stuff and be like, "Hey, what are you doing there?" and question him. And that's a healthy way to do it, but like, yeah, no.

Being 6-foot-3 has obviously served you well in terms of being a model and athlete, but how has your relationship with body image changed over time? I can imagine that being so tall might not have felt like an asset growing up.

Yeah, [being] 6 feet at 12 and people aren't like, "That's so cool." No, they thought I was a substitute teacher, but that's another story. I'm now forever grateful for that, because what it did is it got me quickly to understand that I wasn't going to look like everybody else or fit in all the same styles. And even like, when things were cute, non-style, they looked ridiculous on me. So what it did was it made me really focused on myself and I stopped a long time ago comparing myself to other women.

But there were enough times that I also could use my body as a tool — that it was an instrument. Like, oh, it's getting me from A to B and I'm lifting this thing and I'm jumping over here. And that was good too, because if it was just about how do I look, that's pretty torturous because one person might be like, "You look great." And another person's like, "I don't like the way you look." So are you going to go up and down with that? And so I think I learned that lesson a long time ago.

Then you start to have to redefine it as you get older. The other thing is you don't compare yourself to who you were. I think that that's really important, is to try to just be the best who you are at this moment and not be like, God, when I was 27 or whatever... It is interesting. Like, I have pictures of myself modeling and I was 18. That person — part of me exists, but that's gone.

And so I think it's about pursuit. Like, what am I into today? What am I pursuing? What am I? Who am I trying to be? And not telling the same old story and not also being defined by my roles. I'm not just someone's mother and someone's wife and I wasn't just a volleyball player. I think I'm just me and I'm expressing myself in all these different ways. And the problem is, when we get stuck in those roles, I think that can kick your butt in kind of a weird way. So if we keep expanding and we check out things that excite us or turn us on, I think those are the things that really help.

And take care of ourselves, right? I've taken very good care of myself. I mean, I'm beat up, I have a fake knee, so it's not like I've been sitting in a bathtub, but my point is, ultimately overall I've taken care of myself in a way that I'm aging probably about as well as I could hope to be aging.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

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