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National Post: Greg Wells, author of Superbodies, on finding his own fragility

Published on December, 12th 2012
By Dr. Greg Wells

By: Ben Kaplan

Greg Wells is the author of Superbodies, a scientist, physiologist and health professor at the University of Toronto. The 41-year-old has biked across Africa, ran marathons in the arctic and spent 16 years advising Olympic athletes and coaches.

Arguably one of Canada’s most qualified health experts, Wells acted as the sports science analyst on CTV during the 2010 and 2012 Olympic Games. On the day when the kinesiology professor thought he might die, however, Wells was unable to make sense of his own body.

“I was lying in bed completely relaxed and my heart rate was 85 — double what it normally should be,” Wells says, in an interview at his office at Sick Kids hospital, where the scientist conducts experiments on diseases related to the muscles and lungs.

“I checked myself into the hospital with my own work badge and said, ‘My heart’s going crazy.’ Then I sat back and asked myself: ‘If I’m done, am I OK with that? Yeah, I’m good.’ It created a sense of calm and after that it was: ‘All right, let’s get healthy.’ ”

Wells is a unique patient because he has a deep reservoir of resources to tap into to assist him with his health. Eventually, his team deduced that his heart virus began with a bug from his two-year-old daughter, who had become sick at her day care. Working two jobs, writing a book, heading to the Olympics, selling his house and being present for his family had thrown his nervous system out of whack. Wells had always been an athlete. But a lack of sleep, poor eating habits and a 70-hour workweek sent him on a downward spiral that he hasn’t been able to recover from yet.

“I went from running 10K and doing 100K bike rides to not being able to walk up a flight of steps,” he says. “There’s four things I need to keep in mind if I want to be healthy — sleep, nutrition, stress and exercise. I have the same concerns as everyone else.”

During the holidays, stress level rises. Spread thin between engagements and work, the tendency is to shirk off sleep to create more time at the office and eliminate exercise because there’s not enough hours in the day. Jack Goodman, who works in the cardiology division of Mount Sinai hospital and teaches physical education at the University of Toronto, says walking even 20 minutes a day can not only strengthen your body, but also eliminate tension.

“A lot of stress comes from a lack of personal control — you don’t have self-mastery, you don’t control your schedule and you’re not in power over the decisions you make,” says Goodman, who works with Wells, and recommended his colleague visit the emergency room. “Apart from the value of exercise, keeping your own routine, especially in December, is important because it signifies control of your destiny. Identifying that time as your own is helpful, let alone how exercise can induce a relaxing mental state.”

Currently, a group of Canadian researchers are refining the PAR-Q form, the questionnaire everyone should take before beginning to exercise, and a new form should be initiated in the new year (it’s already being used in England). The problem that Goodman and doctors from around the world have recognized is simple: The form makes exercise seem too scary.

“We want to allow for a more elaborate clearance level, allow people to exercise without going through unnecessary steps,” says Goodman, who nevertheless advises males over 45 and women over 55 to see a physician before embarking on a new exercise routine. “The risks of exercise, as we’ve always felt, are quite low. What happens is people become nervous from these horrific examples.”

For now, Greg Wells is not a horrific example, but rather someone — someone who should’ve known better — who burned the candle at both ends, wore down his immune system and wound up in critical care. Since the June incident, Wells has given up coffee, boosted his intake of leafy vegetables, begun meditation and turned off every computer in his home at least 90 minutes before settling into bed at 10 p.m. His situation is noteworthy for what it reveals: Even the country’s top health expert get sicks if he ignores his health.

“The other day I went walking and got passed by two 70-year-old women, they blew by me, but this is where I’m starting from,” says Wells, who not only expects to return to full health, but also compete in an Ironman in August. “I’m pretty driven, pretty type-A, but I’m trying to calm down and slowly, I’d say by 1% every week, I’m beginning to feel better. My wife’s noticed a difference. Instead of coming home at 800 miles per hour, I come home calmer and can function. I engage with my family.”