Posts by Dr. Greg Wells

The Globe and Mail: Why we need to bring physical activity back into our schools

April, 10th 2015

Read this article on The Globe and Mail Online.

For some time, educational leaders have been emphasizing the importance of physical activity in schools. The premise is that if children are active, they will develop good habits, feel better, be healthier and grow into adults who make exercise a priority. This is an important goal, but it is only part of the story.

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Based on my recent work with school leaders, teachers and students, and an extensive review of the research in this area, I am reminded of another important reason that we have to get school communities moving: Physical activity has a significant effect on academic achievement.

The evidence for the bodily benefits of physical activity is clear. At any age, regular exercise improves the health of our hearts, lungs, blood, bones, skin and almost every other organ. A growing body of research also shows that exercise can improve mental health. Yet despite this wealth of evidence, it remains a challenge for people to incorporate physical activity into their lives. Sadly, only 15 per cent of Canadians come close to the recommended levels of physical activity.

The numbers are equally bad for schoolchildren. We don’t seem to be able to get them moving based on the idea that it will make them healthier. But there is increased traction for the idea that we can get them moving if we emphasize the impact of physical activity on academic performance. The concept is that by doing the right activities at the right times, we can change the way children’s brains work and increase their ability to consistently and easily perform at a high level.

The research is compelling.

Dr. Arthur Kramer’s lab at the University of Illinois showed that children who did aerobic exercise for 20 minutes before writing math tests improved their scores. It also showed that children who did regular exercise had different brain structures than those who were less active. The brain regions that were more developed in the exercise group were related to attention control, cognitive control and response resolution – the centres of the brain that help us maintain attention and crisply co-ordinate actions and thoughts. These results were confirmed in young adults, illustrating that it’s not just children who benefit from exercise before mental tasks.

Another study of 5,000 children in Britain, conducted by Dr. Josie Booth from the University of Dundee, found that 15 minutes of exercise improved performance in math by about a quarter of a grade point. She also found that those increments in performance continued right up to 60 minutes of exercise per day. This means that getting 60 minutes of activity could possibly boost academic performance by a full grade point (for example, from a B to an A).

Harvard psychiatrist Dr. John Ratey explains this concept in his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. He writes, “Physical activity sparks biological changes that encourage brain cells to bind to one another. … The more neuroscientists discover about this process, the clearer it becomes that exercise provides an unparalleled stimulus, creating an environment in which the brain is ready, willing, and able to learn.”

Imagine the impact on the ability to learn if we could design our school days so that children did physical activity right before math or science class. Or think about what is possible if we expanded this idea even further and programmed music right before creative writing classes or integrated drama and language.

The evidence is clear: Exercise before certain mental tasks will result in better academic performance for our students. For this reason, on top of the significant health benefits, we need to strategically build physical activity into all levels of academic programs on a daily basis. There are important financial and time considerations associated with this approach, but we can’t afford not to make this change. The costs of inaction are too significant.

Health Advisor contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging.

Dr. Greg Wells is a Professor, Scientist, Broadcaster & Author. He is the author of Superbodies: Peak Performance Secrets from the World’s Best Athletes, which explores how generics and DNA, the brain, muscles, lungs, heart and blood work together in extreme conditions. You can follow him on twitter, Linked In and Facebook. You might also enjoy his podcast!

If you found this information interesting and helpful please consider signing up for Dr. Wells’ monthly newsletter with health and performance tips, articles, videos and other insights.

 

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inspiyr.com: Why Exercise Is The Best Medicine

April, 5th 2015

This article originally appeared at this link on www.inspiyr.com.

You’re likely aware that exercise is good for you, and you’ve probably done a workout or two in your time. But despite your interest and practice, I’ll bet there have been a few times when you’ve struggled to get to the gym or out for that run. I’ll also bet that your mind has begged you to slow down or take extra rest during a tough workout.

To help you get to the gym, out for a run or on your bike, and to do your absolute best while there, I thought I’d share the physiological science behind the power of exercise. Over the years of working with athletes at all levels, I’ve found that when people understand what their training does to their bodies, they perform better in the practice session. By showing you the power of a few little molecules, I believe I can help you train better to be healthier and achieve your dreams – whatever those might be!

Exercise as Medicine

Exercise is the most potent medicine known to humankind. Cardiovascular exercise and strength training can help to prevent and treat almost every chronic disease that afflicts us. Movement can help to improve the function of your heart and lungs, stimulate the creation of new red blood cells that carry oxygen throughout your body, promote the growth of new muscle tissue, and make your bones stronger. It even helps to prevent infections by enhancing your immune system.

Exercise has been shown to prevent or lessen the impact of certain cancers, cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, muscle atrophy from aging, osteoporosis, depression, Alzheimer’s disease, and a host of other illnesses. There are documented benefits for almost every organ in the body.

How It Works

How does exercise create all these powerful benefits? The answer is very complicated, but a few molecules can provide some clues. Those molecules are called mTOR, PGC-1 and BDNF.

The mTOR molecule is activated inside your muscles when you exercise. When you do strength training, mTOR works to stimulate the growth of new muscle tissue. So the next time you’re lifting weights, don’t think about the muscle burn. Think about all the microscopic mTOR molecules you just activated that are circulating around and building your muscle fibers so that they become stronger.

Endurance exercise works a little differently. When you go for a run, ride, swim, row or other cardio-type exercise, a little molecule called PGC-1 is activated inside your muscles. PCG-1 then works to assemble proteins to make new mitochondria. Mitochondria are the energy factories inside almost every cell in your body. That’s why aerobic activities help to build your endurance: they stimulate your body to build new mitochondria.

The final molecule I want to mention is brain-derived neuropeptide factor (BDNF). When we exercise, there are powerful positive benefits for most organs in the body, especially the brain. This surprises people who think that the mind and body are separate. Some amazing new discoveries have been made recently using magnetic resonance imaging, which has shown that people with high levels of aerobic fitness have larger hippocampus volumes (a structure inside the brain). An increase in hippocampal volume is related to better memory. The benefits of exercise in the brain are thought to be because of BDNF, which increases with exercise. It also appears that when mTOR is activated in skeletal muscle, levels of BDNF increase in the brain.

The Takeaway

All of these relationships are being explored by scientists and it’s an area that we don’t understand very well yet. But what you can take away is that endurance exercise and strength training not only build up your body, they build up your brain as well.

I hope this helps you appreciate how wonderful your workouts are for you. This is a hot area for research, so stay tuned for more amazing discoveries. In the meantime, please use exercise as medicine to improve your performance and health.

If you found this information interesting and helpful please consider signing up for our monthly newsletter with health and performance tips, articles, videos and other insights. You might also enjoy my podcast!

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inspiyr.com: The Science of Sleeping Soundly

March, 31st 2015

The original article appeared at this link on inspiyr.com.

On the topic of sleep, I can generally divide people into two categories: those who fervently wish they could have more, and those who brag about how little they need.

While these are radically different attitudes, both groups share one fundamental reality: inadequate sleep to build and maintain optimal health.

We already know that poor sleep is linked to motor vehicle accidents, industrial disasters and medical errors, as well as weak concentration, problem-solving, memory and stress management. We also don’t exercise well or recover properly from workouts. And we are not more productive at work, despite believing that all those extra hours at the office boost our performance.

The Problem With Not Getting Enough Sleep

The science of insufficient sleep is pretty scary. According to the National Sleep Foundation, we sleep 20% less than we used to a century ago. Seventy million Americans have a diagnosed sleep disorder – and that’s just the people who actually went to the doctor to get diagnosed.

Why should we care? Lack of sleep is not going to kill us, right?

Wrong. It turns out that insufficient sleep – less than 6 hours per night – can cut our lives short. If you don’t sleep well:

  1. Your chance of developing heart disease increases by 45% and having a stroke by 15%. Your suppressed immune system also exposes you to colds and the flu and accelerates the growth of cancerous tumors.
  1. You are likely to gain weight. Adequate sleep regulates the appetite hormones Leptin and Ghrelin. You eat more when you’re tired (and tend to crave sugary and fatty foods) not only because good decision-making is impaired, but because your hormones are disregulated.
  1. Your brain can’t repair and regenerate. During sleep, the size of neurons is reduced by up to 60%. Why? Because extra space between your brain cells allows your glymphatic system to clean out the metabolic waste that accumulates. That’s right – you literally wash your brain of waste products and damage when you sleep well.

In short, good sleep is the foundation for living a healthy, high-performance life. Here are a few proven techniques that you can use to sleep soundly.

3 Proven Ways to Sleep Soundly

1. No screens before bed

Get rid of your screens, including your TV if you have one in the bedroom. This can be a huge lifestyle change, but having a light that flashes at you at 240 frames per second is a surefire way to keep you awake. It’s not good that 61% of people fall asleep with the TV on.

Avoiding light from screens allows your pineal gland to release the right amount of melatonin (a hormone that regulates sleep) at the right time. Television, iPads, laptops and mobile phones all compromise your ability to fall asleep and then sleep deeply. So you might need to cut out the late night talk shows or YouTube clips and pick up a good book instead.

2. Your bedroom needs to be really, really dark

Unfortunately, melatonin production drops as we age. This means that we need to stay away from light during the night, too. You should have thick blinds or curtains in your bedroom, keep all lights off (including in the bathroom), and even cover your alarm clock. If you would like to use a nightlight, find one that emits red light in the night and blue light in the morning. Red light stimulates melatonin production (think sunset) and blue light turns it off and wakes you up (natural daylight contains blue light).

3. Your bedroom should be cool

In the evening, increased melatonin levels cause the blood vessels in the skin to dilate, releasing body heat into the environment and cooling the body. This cooling promotes drowsiness and helps us fall asleep. At night, a temperature of 19 degrees C / 66 degrees F in your room should be cool enough to help you stay asleep.

The Takeaway

If we are well rested, we are less stressed, stronger and more effective in our exercise, sharper in our work and just plain more fun to be around. The catch is that the North American attitude toward sleep tends to be that it isn’t particularly important. As a result, we’re getting sick and not performing to our potential.

As you plan for a world-class life, the more you can commit to getting a great sleep, the healthier and better you’ll be.

If you found this information interesting and helpful please consider signing up for our monthly newsletter with health and performance tips, articles, videos and other insights. You might also enjoy my podcast!

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Year in Review: 6 vital health stories from 2014

January, 8th 2015

Working to improve the understanding, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of illness

By: Michael Kennedy

In 2014 the University of Toronto continued its legacy of life-changing discovery and solidified its reputation as a global medical-research powerhouse. 

It was a year that saw U of T medical researchers tackle everything from treatments for childhood brain cancer to the debunking of fad diets and explaining unconventional methods of teeth whitening

And researchers at the Faculty of Medicine, the Dalla Lana School of Public Health, the Lawrence S. Bloomberg Faculty of Nursing, the Faculty of Dentistry, the Faculty of Kinesiology & Physical Education and the Leslie Dan Faculty of Pharmacy weren’t the only ones working to improve health and wellness. Engineering researchers also shared knowledge that contributed to innovative health practices used to tackle disease locally and around the world

Writer Michael Kennedy reports on health and wellness stories for U of T News. Below, Michael shares some of his favourite stories from 2014.

Reducing risk and complications in the operating room

Researchers create “black box” for use in operating rooms to improve patient care

Associate Professor Teodor Grantcharov and his team of researchers have developed a “black box” for using in operating rooms, similar to that used in the airline industry. It’s been tested here in Toronto, at St. Michael’s Hospital, and in hospitals in Copenhagen, Denmark. The goal: to improve patient safety by identifying where and when errors occur in an OR and teaching surgeons to prevent them.

Publishing the largest genomic study to date on any psychiatric disorder

U of T researchers shed new light on biology underlying schizophrenia

As part of a multinational, collaborative effort, researchers from the University of Toronto and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) helped identify more than 100 locations in the human genome associated with the risk of developing schizophrenia. It’s hoped this work will lead to new treatments for the disorder, which has seen little innovation in drug development in the past 60 years.

“Large collaborative efforts such as this one are needed to identify genes that influence complex disorders,” said Jo Knight, professor of psychiatry at U of T’s Faculty of Medicine, CAMH senior scientist and the Joanne Murphy Professor in Behavioural Science. “The result is a major advance in understanding the genetic basis of brain functioning in schizophrenia.”

Diagnosing Autism at a younger age so treatment can start sooner

Unlocking Autism’s code

Dr. Stephen Scherer leads the Toronto research team that has identified the formula for diagnosing autism spectrum disorder (ASD) at an earlier age. This will let patients receive therapies at an earlier age, while helping to create  more advanced genetic diagnostic tests.

Explaining how sitting is killing you and what you should do about it
Everyone says sitting is the new smoking

Study after study has highlighted the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle that includes extended periods of sitting, and the catchphrase “sitting is the new smoking” has gained traction in the media and in popular consciousness.

Writer Jenny Hall turned to Assistant Professor Greg Wells of the Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education at U of T and an associate scientist in physiology and experimental medicine at the Hospital for Sick Children. His advice?

“For every 20 minutes of sitting, stand up and stretch for 20 seconds. Beyond that, within every two-hour block, try to find 15 minutes to do some activity, be it walking or stairs. Even just standing for a while is better than sitting down. I tell people to stand up in meetings. If everyone else is sitting, find a spot to stand up in the back. If you’re doing a phone call, get up and do it with headphones while you’re standing.”

Discovering a new class of stem cell

Stem cell pioneers’ major, multinational discovery may speed research

It was an effort so huge, they dubbed it Project Grandiose. U of T’s Professor Andras Nagy led a team of almost 50 scientists on four continents and the results, published simultaneously in five separate scientific articles in Nature and Nature Communications, grabbed headlines around the world. (Read the TIME magazine article. Read the South China Morning Post coverage.)

Committing to reduce hospitalization for heart failure by 50 per cent over the next decade

Historic $130 million gift to establish Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research

With a $130 million from the Rogers family – the largest monetary gift ever made to a Canadian health-care initiative – The Hospital for Sick Children, the University Health Network and U of T announced the creation of the Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research.

“The Toronto region is home to one of the world’s largest biomedical science and health education clusters,” said President Meric Gertler. “This exceptionally powerful network of researchers and educators is translating exciting ideas, innovations and therapies in stem cell research and regenerative medicine into clinical settings where they will address the most challenging problems across the spectrum of heart disease. With its pioneering spirit and innovative approach, the Ted Rogers Centre for Heart Research will be a world-class collaboration and a most fitting tribute to its namesake.”

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Get Out There Magazine: To Polar Bear Dip or Not to Polar Bear Dip

December, 28th 2014

We were curious: what happens to your body during a polar bear dip? Is it safe? Our resident expert Dr. Greg Wells explains.

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So you want to bring in the New Year in style do you? Fantastic! That means you’ll be joining other revelers in the traditional New Year’s Polar Bear Dip. Just so that you can fully appreciate the pain and suffering that you’re about to subject yourself to as you bring in the New Year, I thought I’d share some of the physiology that is happening behind the scenes, or under your skin in this case.

The celebrated Polar Bear dip usually involves jumping into a freezing cold body of water, ideally after having chopped a large hole through the ice. As your body hits the water and you become submerged in the icy waters there is an instant shock to the system that feels like pain that comes from every part of your skin that is exposed to the water (note – if you really want to show how tough/crazy you are make sure you submerge your head). The reason for this is that your skin has millions of little nerve endings that sense when damage is happening to the skin. They’re called nocioreceptors[1]. Nocioreceptors are sensitive to mechanical damage, heat and cold. When they’re activated they send urgent signals to the brain saying that “We’re in pain! We are in danger!!!”. That’s why you pull your hand back away quickly when its being burned or you withdraw fast from something that is damaging your skin. Cold causes the exact same reaction. So when you dive in that water – you’re activating pain receptors all over your body. Don’t say I didn’t warn you!

The next thing that happens is that the body tries to protect itself by preserving all the heat that it has inside your blood, organs, muscles and brain. The body tries to preserve its heat by shifting blood flow from the skin and muscles into the internal organs in the chest and belly, which puts tremendous stress on the heart and lungs. The other effect of this shift is that Polar Bear Dippers feel sluggish because of the decreased blood flow to the arms and legs. It will get hard to move. So make sure you have good safety precautions to get you out of the water if your muscles stop working the way you want them to!

Assuming that you get out of the water alive the next thing that will probably happen is that your body will want to heat itself back up as quickly as possible. So you’ll start shivering. Shivering is a survival mechanism that the body uses to protect itself from colder temperatures. Most systems in the body work only within a
narrow temperature range. When the body’s temperature drops, the body signals the muscles to start contracting in short, fast bursts—hence, we shiver. These muscle contractions increase energy metabolism in the muscle cell, burn fuel and produce heat. This is the body’s way of surviving in the short term, when its core temperature is too low. If you’re ever out in the cold and find yourself shivering, which means it’s time to go somewhere to get warm, fast.

So now that you know what’s going to happen to you when you jump in that icy water you can really appreciate the event and describe it to your friends and family in more detail. Have fun bringing in the New Year and be safe! Please post your pictures of your polar dip so I can see your adventures @drgregwells on twitter. Happy Holidays and Happy New Year! [1] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2964977/

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The Globe & Mail: Meditate on this to jumpstart your immune system

December, 17th 2014

This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail Health Advisor section at this link.

If you’re at all like me, you dread getting sick. I’m just not very good at lying around for days feeling as if I’ve been run over by a truck. So I’m all about trying not to get sick in the first place.

As a researcher at SickKids Hospital in Toronto, I have to get a flu shot. But since the flu shot is not 100-per-cent effective, I am working on other ways to avoid getting sick or, if I do, to get better as fast as I can.

In my hunt through the research on influenza, I came across a very interesting finding. In a paper published in the Annals of Family Medicine, Dr. Bruce Barrett and colleagues from the University of Wisconsin-Madison looked into the benefits of meditation and exercise for prevention of the flu.

Before the annual flu season began, they divided their research volunteers into three groups: one that would practise meditation, another that would exercise regularly and a third control group that just carried on with normal daily life. They then tracked how many people in each group got sick and how severe and long-lasting their symptoms were.

The results were surprising.

As an exercise physiologist, I would have bet that exercise would be more powerful than meditation for preventing the flu. I was wrong.

Both meditation and exercise reduced the number of people who got sick by about 25 per cent.

The severity of the symptoms was lowest in the meditation group, followed by the exercise group and most severe in the group that did neither.

The duration of the illness was reduced equally by meditation and exercise.

Perhaps the most interesting finding was the total number of missed days of work in each group. The meditation group only missed 16 days, compared with 32 in the exercise group and 67 in the observation-only group.

The researchers conclude that exercise and meditation are both effective in reducing the burden of respiratory-tract infections. Moderate exercise is known to be very beneficial for your immune system – the body’s system that fights off infection, illness and disease. This is partly because exercise improves the flow of fluids in your lymphatic system, which means that viruses, bacteria and toxins are filtered from your blood and lymph more effectively. Consistent exercise also increases the number and potency of macrophages, which are white blood cells that travel around your body and attack and destroy invaders. We know that exercise works and how it works.

Although meditation, yoga and relaxation have all been used effectively to help people reduce stress, hypertension, anxiety, insomnia and illness, how meditation works to accomplish this is less clear.

But some new research studies have shed some light on this area.

A group at Massachusetts General Hospital found that when people practised meditation – either experienced practitioners for a single session or novices consistently for eight weeks – there were improvements in the function of mitochondria (the energy factories inside all the cells of the body), better insulin metabolism (which helps your cells absorb blood sugar which they then use for energy) and less inflammation (high inflammation is related to many illnesses and diseases).

In addition, a research study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that students who practised meditation increased their levels of immunoglobulin A (which is a substance that identifies invaders such as viruses and bacteria so that they can be destroyed by your immune system) and that the levels kept increasing over the course of the four-week study.

At this time of year, some people are going to get sick. If you don’t want to be one of them, be sure to work out and take time to relax each day. Even better, try meditation. You’ll be doing your body, your mind and your immune system a lot of good.

Thoughts, questions or comments? Tweet to me @drgregwells.

If you found this information interesting and helpful please consider signing up for our monthly newsletter with health and performance tips, articles, videos and other insights. You might also enjoy my podcast!

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The Globe & Mail: Want to boost your brain power? Three ways getting physical can help

December, 15th 2014

This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail Health Advisor section at this link.

You know that exercise is good for your body. What you might not realize is that exercise is just as good for your brain as it is for your muscles. We are now learning how exercise can improve concentration, learning, focus and memory, and can even prevent and treat mental illnesses.

Here’s what we know about the correlation between exercise and the brain:

1. Increasing your physical activity results in reduced stress levels and helps your body deal with the hormones that are released when you’re under stress.

2. Increased blood and oxygen flow to the brain from exercise promotes the production of new cells and neural connections in the areas of the brain responsible for learning, memory, problem solving and creativity.

3. Exercise stimulates the release of endorphins, chemicals that are released by the pituitary gland in response to pain or stress. Endorphins also lead to feelings of euphoria and happiness.

Harvard psychiatrist Dr. John Ratey explains this concept in his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. He says: “Physical activity sparks biological changes that encourage brain cells to bind to one another. The more neuroscientists discover about this process, the clearer it becomes that exercise provides an unparalleled stimulus, creating an environment in which the brain is ready, willing and able to learn.”

How can we harness this process? Exercise primes the brain for mental performance. If you have an important thinking-related task to do during the day – a presentation, a major meeting or a test – take 15 to 20 minutes to do some light exercise in the hour before the event. This exercise will increase the flow of oxygen and nutrients to the brain and improve your mental performance.

Exercise also improves health at any age. It’s never too late to start exercising. By improving cardiovascular health, you can decrease your risk of heart attack and stroke.

Your brain also benefits whenever you exercise. In a six-year study of more than 1,700 people age 65 and older, researchers at the University of Washington in Tacoma found that those who exercised three times a week had a 32 per cent lower risk of dementia than those who were sedentary.

Another small study by researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that as little as 20 minutes of yoga can help improve brain power. “It appears that following yoga practice, the participants were better able to focus their mental resources, process information quickly, more accurately and also learn, hold and update pieces of information more effectively than after performing an aerobic exercise bout,” lead author Neha Gothe said, according to PsyBlog.

The key is to make exercise part of your daily routine. Not only for your body – but for your mind as well.

Thoughts, questions or comments? Tweet to me @drgregwells.

Health Advisor contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging.

Dr. Greg Wells is a Professor, Scientist, Broadcaster & Author. He is the author of Superbodies: Peak Performance Secrets from the World’s Best Athletes, which explores how generics and DNA, the brain, muscles, lungs, heart and blood work together in extreme conditions. You can follow him on twitter, Linked In and Facebook. You might also enjoy his podcast!

If you found this information interesting and helpful please consider signing up for Dr. Wells’ monthly newsletter with health and performance tips, articles, videos and other insights.

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The Globe & Mail: Want to work out more? Defend yourself against decision fatigue

December, 15th 2014

This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail Health Advisor section at this link.

Enjoying the summer? I’m loving it. Summer makes it so much easier to get outside and get active. But despite no longer having the weather as an excuse, Canadians still don’t come even close to getting enough physical activity.

A recent report on Canadians’ activity levels showed that only 15 per cent of us are getting enough exercise on a daily basis. (Keep in mind that the minimum standards that we are not meeting are designed to keep people from getting sick.) That means that 85 per cent of Canadians are at risk of chronic illnesses like cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes simply because they are not physically active on a daily basis.

While as little as 15 minutes of exercise each day can decrease your risk of certain cancers by 35- to 50 per cent, in general you should be getting about an hour of physical activity each day to be healthy, happy and minimize your risk of chronic diseases. That hour can be broken up into short increments: Go for a quick walk, stretch at night in front of the TV, do some gardening on the weekend, take a yoga class at lunch. Any type of exercise helps and any intensity is better than sitting on the couch.

In a previous column, I wrote about the power of being 1 per cent better. Spending 1 per cent of your day on exercise means taking about 15 minutes to walk, jog, run, stretch or play. But still we don’t do it. Why not? What’s missing?

One of the most interesting ideas I’ve come across recently is the idea of “decision fatigue.” Basically the hypothesis is that people have only enough mental energy during a given day to make a certain number of decisions that are hard to make. Decisions like “I am going to sit down and get this project done,” “I’m going to the gym,” “I’m not going to have that treat that I want to eat right now.” Once you’ve burned through your mental toughness for the day, you’re done. At that point your habits take over and you’re a slave to what you normally have done up to that point.

So if you’re looking to make positive changes in your life like sleeping, eating and moving better, then you need to take decision fatigue into account to make sure you make the right choices throughout the day. Because as you live your days so you live your life.

Here are a few things you can to live a world-class life and overcome decision fatigue:

1. Many people end their days by crashing out on the couch and watching some TV to “relax.” Unfortunately that’s a recipe for a bad night’s sleep. The flashing lights from your TV activate your brain and make it hard for you to fall asleep quickly. Have a plan to help you fall asleep. Get some books. Put them on the nightstand by your bed. Make it easy on yourself to do the right thing when you’re tired.

2. To improve your nutrition you have to plan ahead. This takes work and some effort but if you don’t do this then you’re going to be faced with hunger or cravings at some point during the day – and that’s when you’re most likely to go get something fast that’s brutal for your body and your brain. You only have to look at the lineups for Starbucks or Tim Horton’s at 3 p.m. to know that this is the reality for many people at work. Take food with you from home. Having some healthy snacks to rely on during the day is a lifesaver that can make a huge difference in your health and performance. Nuts and berries are great options.

3. If you want to exercise more, then make sure you build it into your schedule when you have the smallest chances of something else getting in the way. I exercise first thing in the morning before anyone else in my family gets up. Work can’t get in the way and neither can helping my daughter put on yet another princess outfit. Find a time during the day when you know you’ll be consistent and you won’t get interrupted or rescheduled.

World-class performers build routines that they follow almost religiously that protect them from decision fatigue. Workouts are scheduled, nutrition is planned in detail and sleep is a priority. Routines, planning and scheduling help them do the right things at the right times despite the exhaustion that comes with training full time. We can all live better lives and make the right decisions that we all want to make to be healthier, happier and to perform better.

What do you do to overcome decision fatigue and live the life of your dreams?

Thoughts, questions or comments? Tweet to me @drgregwells.

Health Advisor contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging.

Dr. Greg Wells is a Professor, Scientist, Broadcaster & Author. He is the author of Superbodies: Peak Performance Secrets from the World’s Best Athletes, which explores how generics and DNA, the brain, muscles, lungs, heart and blood work together in extreme conditions. You can follow him on twitter, Linked In and Facebook. You might also enjoy his podcast!

If you found this information interesting and helpful please consider signing up for Dr. Wells’ monthly newsletter with health and performance tips, articles, videos and other insights.

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The Globe & Mail: Why exercising outside may be better for your health

December, 15th 2014

This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail Health Advisor section at this link.

Now that the weather is blissful, I hope that you’re finding it a bit easier to get outside and be more active. If you are increasing your exercise and activity, that’s great; more physical activity will help your muscles, blood, heart and lungs – pretty much everything in your body. I find that getting outside to exercise is so much better than going to the gym. I go to the gym and I like it, but I really love running on trails. Think about running on the treadmill for an hour or going out and running trails for an hour. Instead of looking at a wall or TV screen you get to see scenes like this:

What’s amazing is that simply looking at pictures of nature can lower your blood pressure, stress and mental fatigue. That’s how powerful nature can be. So if you’re reading this at the office, change your desktop to a nature scene. And preferably a nature scene that includes water – research has shown that images containing water are more restorative than those without. See how this shot makes you feel.

But if you can get outside, by all means get out there. Here’s more about why this should be part of your health, energy and performance-enhancing life.

Exercising in nature has benefits that go above and beyond the benefits you gain by exercising indoors. Research has shown improvements in mental well-being, self-esteem and can even help with depression. This might be especially important for that moody teenager in your life, and it also explains why my wife kicks me out of the house to go on a trail run when I’m stressed out from a crazy day at work. I’ve found that trail-running seems to help me decompress much better than running on a treadmill or even on city streets, and the research backs this up as well. Being exposed to plants decreases levels of the stress hormone cortisol, decreases resting heart rate and also decreases blood pressure.

These studies are really interesting because we often think of exercise as only being good for our bodies. It turns out that exercise can be just as good for our brains and our minds, and that getting outside and exercising in nature might amplify the benefits.

One of the challenges that we are faced with is staying motivated to exercise. About half of people who join a gym don’t stick with it beyond the first year. But people who exercise outside tend to stick with their exercise programs more consistently than those who train indoors, according to a study done in 2004. So if you’re having trouble being consistent, consider adding an outdoor workout to your routine.

Another surprise benefit of getting outside and into nature is that exposure to plants like trees can improve your immune system. Scientists think that airborne chemicals that plants emit to protect themselves from fungus, bacteria and insects (these chemicals are called phytoncides) may also benefit humans. In a study published in 2007, people who took two-hour walks in a forest had a 50-per-cent increase in the levels of their natural killer cells. They sound scary, but they’re your cells that circulate through your body and kill bacteria, viruses, fungus and other invaders.

It also turns out that, if you prefer walking and light activity to running or more intense activities, you’re in luck. Walking in nature improves measures of revitalization, self-esteem, energy and pleasure, and decreases frustration, worry, confusion, depression, tension and tiredness far more than light activity indoors does, according to the latest evidence. Running outdoors, however, does not seem to have a greater impact on emotions or mood than running inside, maybe because running and more intense activities cause the release of endorphins that can cause feelings of elation and exhilaration, regardless of where you run.

So if you want to feel better, just get outside: Try gardening, heading to the beach or a lake on the weekend or going for a bike ride, and don’t worry about whether or not you walk or run.

Thoughts, questions or comments? Tweet to me @drgregwells.

Health Advisor contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging.

Dr. Greg Wells is a Professor, Scientist, Broadcaster & Author. He is the author of Superbodies: Peak Performance Secrets from the World’s Best Athletes, which explores how generics and DNA, the brain, muscles, lungs, heart and blood work together in extreme conditions. You can follow him on twitter, Linked In and Facebook. You might also enjoy his podcast!

If you found this information interesting and helpful please consider signing up for Dr. Wells’ monthly newsletter with health and performance tips, articles, videos and other insights.

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The Globe & Mail: No more multi-tasking? Why Single Tasking is the key to success.

December, 15th 2014

This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail Health Advisor section at this link.

It’s fall and that means one of my favourite times of the sporting year is underway: the baseball playoffs. There are few times in sport that completely capture my attention like the moment when an elite pitcher and clutch hitter square off with a game on the line.

I love those moments because both athletes are trying to reach the limits of their potential by drawing on all of their skills, training and experience. And they both exemplify specific performance elements that enable excellence.

The pitcher’s eyes focus on the target while he tries to block out the crowd, the TV and the crushing idea that this is a career-defining moment. The hitter breathes deeply to stay calm and relaxed while trying to remain on edge so he can deliver explosive power and energy at the precise moment. Both athletes are living entirely in the instant without thinking about the past or the future.

Learning general lessons from elite athletes is what I do for a living, so I’m interested in what we can all take from the pitcher-hitter battle to help us be better in our own lives. In this case, we can learn something from looking at how focused they are.

Focus is a key element for success in any discipline – be it music, sports, drama or business. Yet we live in the age of distraction. We have e-mail, social media, text messages and YouTube all competing for our attention, not to mention the job we are supposed to be doing. The problem is that distraction and multitasking go against how our brains work. No matter how much we want to take the drug that Bradley Cooper uses to access 100% of his brain in Limitless, the reality is that our brains can only do one thing at a time.

The nerves that make up the brain have very little stored energy. When we think, problem solve or create memories, the brain needs oxygen, glucose and nutrients to work. This “fuel” is provided by blood flow to whatever part of the brain is working on the specific task. But blood flow to the brain is limited and can only be delivered to a few areas at once. If we activate different parts of our brain by trying to multitask, we end up spreading the blood flow around and never giving the brain what it needs to get a single job done properly.

It’s like a firefighter trying to put out multiple fires at once by spraying water from a hose quickly across several burning houses rather than extinguishing one blaze and then moving on to the next.

Physiologically, we are not built for multitasking. Our brains work best when we focus on one thing at a time. To improve mental focus, try single tasking. Single tasking demands that we pick the most important task to work on first and perform that task as exclusively as possible until it is either complete or we are out of whatever time we have allotted for the job.

All you need to do is remember the focus of a hitter getting ready to smack the ball out of the park, and you can achieve that level of laser-like attention control.

For example, set aside one hour each day when you have time to completely focus and really drill down into a task that you have to accomplish – writing a report, analyzing some data, preparing a speech, or whatever is the highest priority on your list. During that time, turn off your phone or put it on silent and disconnect from the Internet. Be completely focused on that one task with no distractions.

If we focus, we can do more in less time, which makes better use of our energy. Try focusing more during your day and see how it works for you.

Health Advisor contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging.

Dr. Greg Wells is a Professor, Scientist, Broadcaster & Author. He is the author of Superbodies: Peak Performance Secrets from the World’s Best Athletes, which explores how generics and DNA, the brain, muscles, lungs, heart and blood work together in extreme conditions. You can follow him on twitter, Linked In and Facebook. You might also enjoy his podcast!

If you found this information interesting and helpful please consider signing up for Dr. Wells’ monthly newsletter with health and performance tips, articles, videos and other insights.

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The Globe & Mail: You only need to be 1 per cent better every day to reach your goals. Here are three ways to do it

December, 5th 2014

This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail Health Advisor section at this link.

At the best of times, watching Olympic athletes fling themselves down mountains at high speeds on skis, snowboards or bobsleds can be awe-inspiring. How, we ask ourselves, do they do that?

But when the athletes also have injuries that make us wince just to think of them, well, that raises a slightly different question: How can they do that?!

When I watched Jan Hudec win a bronze medal in the alpine skiing super-G event I was blown away. Not only was his athletic performance amazing but what he had to overcome to even get to the Olympics was incredible. Seven knee surgeries and a herniated disk as recently as a couple of months ago. I’m amazed that he made it to the start line – never mind that he won a medal.

Many athletes have overcome tremendous challenges to get to the Games and in some cases onto the podium. Another Canadian, Mark McMorris, won a medal in snowboard slopestyle despite racing with a broken rib. Seventeen-year-old figure skater Michael Christian Martinez is the sole representative of the Philippines. In order to qualify, Michael had to overcome asthma and a series of injuries.

How can someone with a broken rib, separated shoulder or recent knee surgery compete or actually win a medal? I think this is a really important question for all of us. We all have goals, hopes and dreams that we want to accomplish. But the path to reaching our dreams is rarely easy or direct. If it was easy everyone would do it – right? And that’s what makes getting to your dreams and goals so sweet!

How can we gain some inspiration and learn from our best athletes to help us in our day-to-day lives? Here are a few things that Olympians do to overcome obstacles like injuries – consider them nuggets of gold for all of us.

First Nugget: Start small After injuries, Olympians have to get right back to the basics and build their health, fitness and performance from the ground up. You can do exactly the same thing. Go for a 15-minute walk. Do some simple exercises. Go take a yoga class. Just get active.

Second Nugget: Be consistent Olympians build their strength, flexibility, balance, and cardiovascular fitness over thousands of hours and many years of deliberate practice and training. So don’t worry about it if you get off track for a while. The key is to get back being active as soon as you can. When you start again you might get frustrated, but each time you get going your fitness will come back faster and faster.

Third Nugget: Build a routine Make exercise and physical activity part of your routine. Book it off in your calendar. Make it a priority. That way you won’t have to make a decision about whether or not to do it when you’re busy or if you get tired during your day. Olympians build daily routines to make sure that they can perform on demand. You can do exactly the same thing.

Remember: You only need to be 1 per cent better each day The difference between a medal and 10th place in many events is just a tiny fraction. And the difference between you getting more fit or not is also just a tiny fraction. I call it the aggregate of 1-per-cent gains. Like compound interest for your body and your brain, doing something small each day will leave you with more… more strength, more confidence and more possibilities.

Canada sent 221 athletes to Sochi. My bet is that most of them competed with some sort of pain. We can all win gold by remembering how they managed it. We can gain lots of inspiration from our athletes, but it’s important that we actually apply their skills and techniques in our own lives to reach our goals and dreams.

We may have some of the best athletes in the world, but we’re faced with an epidemic of physical inactivity here at home.

The best part about exercise is that you don’t need to do much to reap the rewards. As little as 15 minutes of exercise per day has been shown to decrease the risk of breast and colon cancer by up to 40 per cent. Similar statistics exist for almost every chronic disease we’re faced with.

You can live like an Olympian by overcoming your obstacles and exercising your way to better health, energy and performance at whatever you’re most passionate about in your life!

Thoughts, questions or comments? Tweet to me @drgregwells.

If you found this information interesting and helpful please consider signing up for our monthly newsletter with health and performance tips, articles, videos and other insights. You might also enjoy my podcast!

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The Globe & Mail: Why Getting Fit Gets Easier On A Good Night’s Sleep

December, 1st 2014

This article originally appeared in The Globe and Mail Health Advisor section at this link.

A couple of years ago I had the bad luck to catch a virus that my two year old daughter picked up at her daycare. Thankfully she only got a mild cold. I got viral myocarditis – basically the virus went into my heart and caused loads of very painful inflammation.

Until that point I was doing reasonably well with sticking to an exercise routine. But after the illness I could barely walk up a flight of stairs. And if I did make it up the stairs I’d have to rest for a few minutes to recover. Suddenly I was in the worst shape of my life.

So as an exercise physiologist I decided to use myself as a test subject and experiment. I went back to my research and explored what was needed to get back into good physical condition as fast as I could, and to lose as much body fat as possible. I wanted to get fit and get lean.

The few weeks I was laid up in bed recovering from the virus I checked out as many research papers as I could. What I discovered was not what I expected. Apparently, the first thing I needed to do was sleep more. Believe it or not to build the foundation for a better, healthier life we need to be better rested.

I hear what you’re thinking. It’s easy to talk about getting more rest while you’re lying in a hospital bed for weeks. In the real world there just isn’t enough time to get everything done and sleep well. Work, family and exercise is sometimes more than many people can handle at once. But the research clearly shows that if we take a bit more time to sleep, so many things that people want to achieve in life become possible. Let’s take losing body fat as an example.

We are in the midst of a worldwide obesity epidemic. We are also sleeping less than we ever have in history. Amazingly, those two problems are connected. Sleep helps regulate the amount of leptin and ghrelin in your body. Those are hormones that help to control and manage your appetite and satiety. So if you sleep better, you’re better able to avoid cravings for sugar and high fat foods.

What if you want to exercise more? Have you ever tried having a great workout when you’re tired? It’s really tough. Once again it comes down to hormones. When you sleep, your body releases Human Growth Hormone, which promotes fat breakdown and increases in muscle mass. That’s right, sleep means more muscle and less fat!

Somehow it has become almost a badge of honour to sleep less or to try to get by on as little sleep as possible. But sleeping less causes so many problems I don’t think that the payoff is worth it.

According to the Centre for Disease Control in the United States sleep is critical to health. Insufficient sleep is linked to motor vehicle accidents, industrial disasters and medical errors. Not to mention that after a sleepless night we all have problems concentrating, remembering things and we can get more irritable. We can become more stressed more easily. And that’s the last thing we need in this crazy world where volatility is the new normal.

So how much sleep do we need? We’re all different. I need eight hours. You might need 10. The generally accepted research suggests that children need at least 10 hours, teenagers need about 9-10 hours, and adults need 7-8 hours. There is a small percentage of the population that has a gene that allows them to sleep for 3-4 hours a night and to be rested. I wish I had that gene, but sadly I don’t.

When I was trying to recover from my heart infection, my wife and I made sleeping a priority and got between 8-10 hours a night for about three months. We got healthier, and my fitness improved dramatically. And I was much better at work, even though I took more time out of the day to sleep.

So what can you do to make sure you sleep better? It’s really important to create an environment in your bedroom that helps you to sleep well. Stay away from electronic screens for 45 minutes before you sleep and keep your room as dark as possible. Melatonin (a hormone that helps regulate sleep) is produced by your pineal gland, which is located deep inside your brain and is very sensitive to light. Because the pineal gland responds to light via neurons that project from your eyes, you have to ensure that you are in a dark space while you sleep so that the pineal gland can release the right amount of melatonin at the right time to help you sleep better.

So you might need to cut out the late night talk shows or YouTube clips, and pick up a good book instead.

Health Advisor contributors share their knowledge in fields ranging from fitness to psychology, pediatrics to aging.

Dr. Greg Wells is a Professor, Scientist, Broadcaster & Author. He is the author of Superbodies: Peak Performance Secrets from the World’s Best Athletes, which explores how generics and DNA, the brain, muscles, lungs, heart and blood work together in extreme conditions. You can follow him on twitter, Linked In and Facebook. You might also enjoy his podcast!

If you found this information interesting and helpful please consider signing up for Dr. Wells’ monthly newsletter with health and performance tips, articles, videos and other insights.

 

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Guest Post: Do we know about GMO?

November, 6th 2014

By Trionne Moore, BA, RHN, IOC Dipl Sports Nutr. Registered Holistic Nutritionist & Workplace Wellness Consultant

President, The Healthy Road – Corktown

October was non-GMO month.  It was an enlightening time – full of vibrant controversy and dialogue.  One of the hottest topics was – and continues to be – non-GMO food labelling laws.

In Canada, we have no mandatory labelling laws for products made with GMO ingredients.  To give some global context here, 64 countries have mandatory GMO labelling laws (http://justlabelit.org/right-to-know/labeling-around-the-world/), and some even prohibit the cultivation of GM crops (check out this interactive global map of global policies: http://www.centerforfoodsafety.org/ge-map/ ).  Ten years of polling show that over 80% of Canadians want GMO labelling transparency http://www.cban.ca/Resources/Topics/Labeling.  Although we do have strict safety evaluations required for the approval of new drugs and supplements, GMO’s are considered safe (first) until science proves otherwise.  And although it does exist, there is currently no consideration of, or call for third-party evidence as to the impact of GMO’s on our health and environment.

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Canadian Living Magazine: How to stay cool this summer

July, 15th 2014

By Kate Daley

Feelin’ hot, hot, hot? An exercise physiologist explains what happens to your body when it’s warm outside—and offers his top tips for staying cool.

When it’s hot and humid out, it’s all too easy to skip your workout and stay indoors to enjoy the A/C. But getting outside in Mother Nature can have positive psychological and physical benefits. Greg Wells, an associate scientist in Physiology and Experimental Medicine at The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, gives his hot-weather rules for your workout.

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The Globe and Mail: Amp up your run with sandy terrain

July, 14th 2014

JENNIFER GOLDBERG

Special to The Globe and Mail

Published Friday, Jul. 04 2014, 4:20 PM EDT

Alyssa Schwartz fell in love with running on sand during her regular visits to her family’s condo in Sunny Isles Beach, Fla.

“Running on the beach was a symbol I was on vacation and it was something I looked forward to,” says the Toronto-based writer and digital consultant, who ran her usual five kilometres along the beach four times a week whenever she was there.

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Runners World: Three Tips for Running Downhill

April, 22nd 2014

Train on descents – without getting hurt – to build strength, boost coordination, and even have some fun.

By Cindy Kuzma; Image by Clarke Tolton

When most runners tackle hills, they focus on the difficulty of the climb. But downhill running poses its own set of challenges – and rewards.

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Toronto Star: Body of evidence sheds light on Jose Reyes and injury risks

April, 4th 2014

Blue Jays shortstop isn’t the only elite athlete who seems to break down too often. Experts explain why.

By: Kerry Gillespie Sports reporter

Blue Jays shortstop Jose Reyes has been injured so often that the question wasn’t whether it would happen again this season but when, and which body part would give out. This time, though, he hit the disabled list with tightness in his left hamstring after just one at-bat. That makes it easy to think of Reyes as fragile. His real problem, though, could be something quite different. He might be too fast and too tough for his own good.

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