Meet The Locals: John Gruhn

Physiotherapist John Gruhn works with his partner Liz Pralica at Active4Life Lifestyle Medicine and Physiotherapy.

In between treating Singleton’s community, he’s also studying for a medical degree.

I recently stopped in for a chat about the benefits of lifestyle medicine, why he loves Singleton and how he’s studying to become a doctor.

How did your passion for physiotherapy arise?

To be honest, physiotherapy was my second choice. I wanted to study medicine, but I just missed out by 5 marks. In hindsight it’s been a great journey. I feel physio brings you closer to your patients.

I gained an army scholarship during my last year of study and when I graduated, I became a uniformed physiotherapist at Lavarack Barracks in Townsville. I left the military in 1993 and went to work in disability services, private practice and hospital, where I gained experience in different areas of physiotherapy. I worked for more than 10 years with both children and adults with intellectual and physical disabilities.

And now, in June I’ll be in my third year of my medical degree. It’s taken me almost 40 years to gain entry to a medical school, but it’s finally happened. Better late than never!

Congratulations! What brought you to Singleton?

In 2004 I was looking for a change and an opportunity arose to work in the field of physiotherapy with mine workers. I’d always been interested in that area, so I took a job with Coal Services Health and moved down from Cairns. I’m glad I did. Singleton is a lovely community. I met my partner Liz here and we opened Active4Life in 2007.

I’ve heard that you also have a degree in mining engineering. Does that give you a special insight when you’re treating mine workers?

Yeah, it does. I worked underground as a mining engineer, gas drainage engineer and ventilation officer, then I moved to an open cut mine when the underground mine closed in 2013. I stayed there for seven years and I developed an appreciation for the difficulties faced by mine workers having to juggle shift work with family commitments and so on. It’s not an easy gig. Many of our patients are employed in mining, and I can relate to the work they do.

What do you like about living in Singleton?

Singleton’s great because you have access to a range of fun things without the need to travel to a big city. But on the occasions that we do need to get to the big city, it doesn’t take long to drive to Newcastle or Sydney. We’ve got the vineyards nearby, and there’s the beauty of the bush. There’s a wide range of activities available to us. We have a dam where we occasionally go paddling, Lake Saint Clair. We even have a purpose-designed running and mountain bike track nearby.

You’re a Fellow of the Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine. But can you explain, what exactly is lifestyle medicine?

In my view, most health professionals do not receive adequate training in even the basics of Lifestyle Medicine—nutrition and physical activity—yet we know that 85 percent of chronic disease today is caused by unhealthy lifestyle choices in these and other areas.

So, Lifestyle Medicine is a branch of medicine that deals with research, prevention, treatment and reversal of diseases caused by lifestyle factors such as nutrition, physical inactivity, and chronic stress. It’s an evidence-based therapeutic discipline that aims to restore a state of balance between these important areas of life, including healthy eating, managing stress, movement and exercise, sleep, fun, happiness, and relationships. Having those domains out of balance can undermine one’s state of wellness. Rather than resorting to medications that may only mask a symptom that someone might be presenting with, lifestyle medicine seeks to address the underlying causes.

And what drew you to lifestyle medicine?

It was probably an experience I had during my teens with my parents’ declining health. Conventional medicine didn’t get to the bottom of their ailments. Both developed ailments that were poorly managed, and they died at a relatively young age from, in my view, entirely preventable problems.

Nothing was done at the time to alleviate my mother’s suffering or our family’s suffering. Ultimately, I’d like to be the kind of practitioner that helps to alleviate people’s suffering, provides support where there isn’t any, and fills some of the gaps in our current system.

That’s been the driving force behind my personal ambition to become a physician and a physio, and incorporate lifestyle medicine into that equation.

Physio is often perceived as something for athletes. Who can benefit from physiotherapy?

That’s a good question. Physiotherapy is available to everybody, from children to older people, all age groups and all abilities and disabilities. Physiotherapists are “movement experts” who focus on the structure and function of the human body. We work with people of all ages to treat a broad range of health conditions including sports injuries, musculoskeletal, cardiothoracic and neurological conditions that include a variety of chronic health conditions like diabetes, cystic fibrosis, obesity, osteoarthritis and stroke. Physiotherapists are involved in the assessment, diagnosis, planning and management of patient care. There’s actually a wide range of people who can be seen by physiotherapists. It just so happens that in this region, most of our patients happen to be employed in the mining industry.

How do you like to spend your downtime?

I love running, kayaking, cycling, swimming and triathlon. There’s an annual paddling race called the Hawkesbury Classic that starts at Windsor and ends up at Brooklyn Bridge, and it’s done during the night. It’s actually not as bad as it sounds, once your eyes get used to the dark. Twice Liz and I have had a go at that. We completed it on one occasion and didn’t complete it the first time. It’s really good fun, and it’s on in October every year. Although, with COVID, it was cancelled last year.

Fingers crossed you can have another crack at it this year, John. Best of luck with the medical studies and thanks for the chat!

And, you can find out more about keeping healthy at:

Photo credits: Active4Life Physiotherapy website

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