Dr. John Briffa: Staying Fit While Staying in the Office?!


JONATHAN: Hey, everybody. It’s Dr. John Briffa and Jonathan Baylor, back, helping you take care of business. And in this episode, we are going to start talking about one of my favorite topics, which is how exercising less can actually help you take care of business even better than worrying about exercising more. John, this is so counter to everything we’ve been told.

JOHN: Yeah. I think a lot of people, even those that come from relatively sporty backgrounds — I know you come from a very sporty background; so do I. So I was quite an avid runner when I was younger, played college rugby.

I’m not sure everyone listening to this would know what rugby is, but anyway, it’s a team contact sport —

JONATHAN: It’s football without pads, for everybody that doesn’t know what it is (laughter).

JOHN: Yeah. That’s how it is, yeah [overlap]. And the reality is, for people from that background, I think, imagine that exercise is a certain thing and it takes a lot of hard, intense activity and it’s very time-consuming.

So it involves, for example, I don’t know, going to the gym for an hour and a half four or five times a week, for example. That’s what a lot of people imagine exercise is. The reality is, there is pretty good evidence that we can get really useful levels of activity, much, much more quickly and simply, with less effort, basically.

One of the problems with thinking that exercise is one thing, this huge thing, rather than what it might be — something more manageable — is that sometimes, we can be a bit “all or nothing” with our exercise. So for

example, we’re either going to the gym four or five times a week, for example, or we’re doing practically nothing.

And there is this middle ground that I think people can very often aim for and find themselves in, that fulfils all of their needs, but doesn’t require them to put in huge amounts of time and effort that are, for a lot of people, quite unsustainable.

JONATHAN: John, that is a key point for our listeners, in that exercise is very goal-specific. If you want to become a better rugby player, you will exercise differently than if you want to become a better cricket player or a better golfer or a better marathon runner.

And what we’re here to help you do is to become a better team member in the corporate environment in which you’re working. So it’s not about becoming a marathon runner. If you want to become a marathon runner, that’s fine.

But just like you train in a very specific way to become a marathon runner — and you’ve probably heard about that; you can read magazines on that — what you haven’t been told about is how to use exercise, if your goal is just to be the best attorney or the best engineer or the best doctor or the best accountant or the best consultant, possible. And that’s what we want to help you focus on, here. Is that fair, John?

JOHN: That’s exactly right, yes. And as we were alluding to earlier, it is often much simpler, often requires much less effort and is much less time-consuming than one would imagine, to achieve those ends.

JONATHAN: And John, I know you and I share the same — well, the research is pretty clear here; actually. There is a lot of debate in the nutritional community and much of that is due to misinformation and ideology.

But what I find exciting is, in the actual research communities — exercise physiologists — the modality that exercise associated with positive health outcomes and associated with improved performance, globally — not just improved, like, you’re a better runner now, because unless your job is to run, we’re here to help you with your job.

There’s really two forms of exercise that you need to focus on. And one, I personally don’t even call exercise; I call activity or being a person. And that just means moving your body. And then the other kind — and that’s very natural. It’s — again, I don’t think it’s exercise, because taking the stairs isn’t exercise; it’s what every single person did the floor elevators were invented (laughter), so we need to do that.

But then, there is this other very unnatural activity — which, just because it’s unnatural, doesn’t mean it’s not good — and that is resistance training, or short-duration, higher intensity activities. And we’ll cover both, here.

JOHN: Yes. And I think that’s absolutely right. There are these two, I think, keys. As he says, one is essentially, activity. A good core activity, obviously, is walking. And I’ve seen many individuals over the years who are either very sedentary or they do this feast-and-famine thing: they’re either going to the gym regularly and exercising formerly regularly, or they’re doing practically nothing.

I think walking often gets relegated and isn’t really thought of as being useful, in terms of people achieving their health and fitness goals.But the research strongly suggests otherwise. So for example, just getting people walking, if they are traditionally quite sedentary, improves overall fitness. That’s been shown.

You think, well, I can get fit from walking? Well, yes. Fitter, okay? Not necessarily fit enough to run a sub-40 minute 10 kilometer, for example, but certainly fit enough, for example, to enjoy long-term good health. And in fact, walking is associated with improvements in long-term health and, for example, reduced things like heart disease or diabetes.

What that sort of evidence shows is that, for a given length — so that’s for a kilometer, for example, for a mile — whether you walk it or you run it, the benefits appear to be about the same. Now, you might say, well, if I run it, it is quicker. Well, yeah, you can do that if you like running. Not everyone likes running.

And secondly, when you are running, you generally need to get changed twice and have a shower, whereas when you’re walking, very often, you don’t have to do any of those things. So we have fitness benefits, we have long-term health benefits and most certainly, we have brain-related benefits.So walking has been shown to improve mental functioning in older individuals.

It seems to help back health and it’s relatively low risk, as well, because very few people injure themselves through walking. And it’s relatively low impact; it’s the sort of thing that is utterly sustainable. Can you see yourself, I don’t know, running marathons when you’re 80? Probably not.

Could you see yourself walking for, I don’t know, 20 or 40 minutes each day, when you’re 80? Very possible. It’s sustainable, in that sense. Now, one of the reasons why I don’t think it gets the attention it deserves may have to do with certain commercial considerations, because just like we have a diet industry, we have a fitness industry.

And the fitness industry may possibly, I don’t know, want to persuade people that if they are going to take exercise, they need this piece of equipment and they need to go to this class and this gym and do it this way, whereas walking doesn’t require any of that. No special equipment required.

It doesn’t require you, obviously, going anywhere near a gym. And I think, for that reason, maybe it doesn’t get the focus or attention it deserves.

JONATHAN: John, you hit the nail on the head so many components, there. And I think a good analogy for our listeners, maybe think of walking a bit like you might think of vitamin C or water or sleep — this self-evident thing, which is, obviously, critical for optimal health.

There is a reason we have legs, right (laughter)? We’re here to walk. That is what people have done, that’s what people need to continue to do. Walking is essential; if you do not walk, your health will suffer, so you have to walk. And it really doesn’t need to be any more complicated than that.

John, as you mentioned, we can — people conflate exercise. So, again, it’s really goal-specific. If your goal is to become a better golfer, then you still should walk, but you’re going to have to do a bunch of other stuff. Remember, our goal here is what types of physical movements enable you to be the best professional you can be? And walking is, unequivocally, one of those.

And it’s easy to do and it’s exciting and I have yet to see any research that doesn’t show it to be beneficial. And John, the key point you made– which is hard to over-emphasize — is, it is sustainable and it is low risk. I’ll take a chance, here and

I will say that the single most important thing about any form of physical movement that you should consider before doing it is safety, because if you quickly want to compromise your ability to be an awesome professional, hurt yourself and be in pain.

Because you want to talk about the inability to focus, you want to talk about the inability to be impressive in a client meeting? Well, if you’re in pain and you can’t walk properly, because you’ve strained your knee or torn your Achilles tendon or you have back problems, that’s not a good idea.

So John, your rule of thumb of, “can you see yourself doing this, when you’re 80” is a great rule of thumb.

JOHN: Yeah. And there’s another thing that I think is important about walking: not only is it sustainable, I think it’s very doable, for most people. And some people may have, I don’t know, bought into the idea that, if you’re going to take some form of activity or exercise, that it needs to be uninterrupted — that we have to get 40 or 45 minutes, or an hour, of uninterrupted activity or exercise, for it to be beneficial.

This has actually been studied. So they have taken individuals and, for example, exercised them for half an hour each day, and in other people, they have split into two 15-minute sessions or three 10-minute sessions. And then they have measured things like, for example, fitness and markers of health.

And basically, what the evidence shows is, the effects are the same, whether it’s three 10-minute sessions on the treadmill or one 30-minute session. So therefore, more continuous exercise, the effects are broadly the same. So sometimes, it’s useful for people to know that whatever activity they take can be broken up throughout the day, if they want to.

So that means a relatively brisk and short duration walk in the morning, one at the end of the day and one in the middle of the day can be doable but also, again, highly beneficial.

JONATHAN: And I know some of this may just seem counterintuitive or different from what you’ve heard, but remember, with exercise, especially– I apologize for being repetitive, but it’s so important — exercise is goal-specific. When you pick up a fitness magazine, when you see an infomercial on television, those recommendations are based on either goals of fat loss or athletic performance.

And not that those are bad goals, but remember, what we’re talking about here is how to exercise to globally make you better at life — which I know sounds a little bit silly. But I once heard a story — one of the areas I studied in school was philosophy.

And one of my philosophy professors said, “Well, why would you ever study philosophy? It has no practical application.” And he used an analogy of philosophy to resistance training — which is the other form of exercise we’ll talk about here, today — which is, you don’t resistance training, thinking that someday, someone will drop a barbell on your chest in the street and you need to have the ability to lift it off you.

You resistance train because it makes you stronger.And being stronger makes you better at everything. And understanding philosophy makes you smarter.And being smarter makes you better at everything. Walking will make you better at everything. And the other form of exercise we’ll recommend for optimal performance and to make you better at everything, is resistance training.

JOHN: Yes, I completely agree with that. And I think, to just say I grew up — so I was born in the ‘60s, grew up in the ‘70s — I was, as I said, an avid runner. And I believed the only way to maintain fitness and health was to churn through the miles.

And you know, there were times in my life when I was running 40 or 50 miles a week and even competing in running events. One of the problems with all of that is that, not only is it unsustainable — for most people; I mean, some people are, I suppose, born to run and they do very well with that — I actually had a succession of running-related injuries that took me out of running, thankfully, I now realize.

But the other thing is, it does nothing for the upper body, of course. No amount of running is going to particularly strengthen the legs. It makes them good, with regard to stamina and endurance, of course; it doesn’t strengthen them, particularly.And it does nothing for the upper body.

And it is important, I think, for people to maintain strength in their upper body — and I know you know this much more than I do — partly because strength is important, because it enables you to do things. I mean, even if it’s only just moving boxes and carting luggage around, it’s important to have some strength.

But it is also important to prevent infirmity and disability, potentially, later in life. A strong body is one that’s less frail and more likely to be a body that maintains its independence. And that, I think, is also critically importantbecause, while these shows are partly about the short-term and optimizing performance, all the while, we have a night to the long-term, too.

And one very simple way of maintaining our independence and our general health and well-being is to maintain a relatively strong upper body — not a big upper body, necessarily; a strong one.

JONATHAN: And that global strength, John, a lot of people don’t necessarily appreciate just how global it is. For example, if you have to walk up many flights of stairs — and sometimes, I’ve had experiences where, I’ve worked with individuals who will be very embarrassed because in professional settings, they will be talking with people.

And then they’ll be walking up stairs and they will no longer be able to talk, because they will be out of breath. And it’s very embarrassing for them. And they then feel like they need to go improve their cardiovascular performance, they need to go jog, such and such. But let’s think about the global benefits of strength training, for a second.

Imagine you weigh, let’s say, 200 pounds. If you can make your legs fifty percent stronger, which, for many people who do not resistance train now and start resistance training, you will experience a fifty percent increase in strength within a month.You will be shocked at how quickly you can become stronger.

Well, your legs, historically — this is just illustrative — were lifting — had to exert a certain amount of force to lift your 200 pounds up these stairs. But if your legs become fifty percent stronger, conceptually, when you’re walking upstairs, it’s like they’re only lifting 100 pounds. So it’s like you’ve taken some weight off.

You haven’t taken the weight off; you’ve increased your strength and that which you thought would only be possible by becoming an avid marathon runner — a.k.a. dedicating two hours a day to improving your cardiovascular performance — can actually be done in dramatically less time, with dramatically less opportunity to hurt yourself, if you focus on just strengthening the muscles.

JOHN: Yes. And the idea that people can get quite a lot stronger, quite quickly, I have seen, time and time again. And I have seen it particularly in individuals who are — for want of a better term — getting on a bit in years. So a lot of people I meet in the corporate sector have done hardly any resistance training in their lives.

Even when they — well, obviously when they started — they might be weak, but even at relatively advanced years, when people start resistance training, very often, their improvement is considerable and very quick. And they are working off a relatively low base.

Now, I sometimes say to individuals, when talking about resistance exercise, “It is really never too late.” It really is never too late to start. It usually is not too early, either, as you know, but it is never too late. And often, the briskest improvements that you see are in individuals that really haven’t done anything, possibly for decades.

And I think that’s helpful for people to know, because I don’t want anyone thinking, oh, it’s too late for me. I’m 57, I’m not going to start that now. No, actually, 57 would probably be an ideal age to start these things, if you haven’t done them before.

JONATHAN: John, you’re exactly right. In fact, the research is quite clear that the segments of the population that have most often been sheltered from resistance training are those who can benefit the most. When we think of resistance training, we often think, young male athletes.

And frankly, if you’re young and a man, you already have lean muscle tissue on your body, your hormones are such that they are a bit more anabolic–meaning they support lean muscle tissue — whereas, if you look, for example, at individuals who have been on this earth a bit longer, females, these are individuals who can benefit so dramatically.

Not to say that young males can’t benefit, but so often, the exact people: individuals that are getting on in the years and individuals who are female, these are the individuals have yet to even scratch the surface. I mean, it’s a whole modality of exercise which can be done in the convenience of your home. It can even be done in your office.

You could buy resistance bands off the Internet or at your local sporting goods store for $30 and you can, very easily, do 5 minutes of resistance training while you’re on a conference call. And then, you will be stronger; you will be a stronger person.

It’s literally like just becoming smarter: you will improve the IQ of your body by, conceptually, 20 points and be better at everything — including things like self-confidence and posture and how you carry yourself. And those have dramatic impact on perception, in the professional arena.

JOHN: Yes. It’s funny that you should mention the resistance exercise bands. So they are available. Obviously, people at home, if they wanted, could use either that or, for example, some dumbbells. And actually, for quite a long period of time, I kept a pair of dumbbells in my kitchen.

Now, what I do is, I have a 10, 12-minute resistance exercise circuit that goes through the major muscle groups, both in the legs and in the arms. And I think it’s a good idea for people to develop something like that for themselves that they can do, reasonably regularly — not necessarily every day, but reasonably regularly.

But prior to that, when I was just getting into resistance exercise at the tail end of my running, I just kept a pair of dumbbells in my kitchen. And then when, for example, I was waiting for some food to cook or the kettle to boil, I would just pick them up and some bicep curls or lift them above my head or do some, what they call lateral raises, to exercise the deltoid muscle in the shoulder.

Just that. When I had a few spare moments and was waiting for something to happen — it could be a conference call — was enough to make a significant difference to the strength of my body, but also, very quickly, how it looked. And, you know — all right, we don’t need to get into this now — but a lot of people like to look good naked, don’t they? They just do.

And having a bit more tone in the musculature, particularly the upper body, both for men and women, can be something worthwhile for them. It’s not for everyone, but a lot of people will benefit in that way, too, should they want to.

JONATHAN: Absolutely, John. And it’s not just when you’re naked. We all know that, from decades past, shoulder pads were very popular in business suits, because the ratio of your waist to your shoulders matters a lot. And the easiest way, through exercise, to change that ratios is through strength training.

And you won’t look bulky; it’s incredibly difficult to look bulky. But what you will look is strong and confident. And John, as you were saying, from a practicality perspective, there are four basic movements we can all start doing today, which we already do.

And if we just modify them slightly, they can become the backbone of a resistance exercise. The first movement is a squat. If you sit down — which all of us know how to sit down — you kind of know how to do a squat. You can, obviously, go on the Internet and you can learn more about — go on YouTube — learn about perfect form.

But one resistance exercise you can try now is: sit down and back, as if you’re sitting in a chair, except, before your butt hits the chair, just hold that position. So put your arms out in front of you and literally, get in the position to sit down, but do not actually let your weight sit on the chair. And just hold that.

Hold that for as long as you can, up to 60 seconds. And just do that a couple of times by moving more slowly and by using your body weight as resistance. Again, you can do that, literally, anywhere. So that’s going to help with your lower body.

Now, for your upper body, things like using resistance bands to do a rowing action. So think when you open and close doors; you’re doing a rowing action. You can use resistance bands to, again, do this very slowly, very controlled, strengthen your back and strengthen your arms.

For your chest and other arm muscles, push-ups are another great option — which, again, if you’re not comfortable doing push-ups, you don’t have to do actual push-ups; you can rest your knees on the ground and you can simply slowly lower yourself down.

This is something that can be done in your office, can be done in a hotel room and, if you’re even ambitious enough, can be done in an airport — which I have done, at times — waiting for your airplane.

And then, finally, for your shoulders: you can use those same resistance bands and do what is called a shoulder press, which is like a push-up, but over your head. So you stand on the resistance band and you basically raise your arms above your head and then, back down.

Using resistance bands, body weight and slow, controlled movements, literally, anywhere you are in the world, in 5 to 10 minutes, you can globally improve your body.

JOHN: And I think it’s important to remember: these things don’t need to go on for a long time. They don’t need to be very complex. They don’t need to demand huge amounts of effort. But these very simple exercises, I think, payback massively. If you do them regularly, basically, people will get stronger.

There is very little doubt about that; they will get stronger doing them, but they haven’t put much time or effort into them. But they payback massively, I think, over time, in terms of how people feel and how they function.

And particularly, this frailty thing, as we get older, the idea that we are still able to do things that we could do in our 20s, now in our 70s: that, to me, is a very attractive proposition. That may be a function of my age, by the way.

But I find anything that demands relatively little investment of time and effort, that pays back massively, in terms of my overall health and my functioning, going forward, is a really worthwhile investment.

JONATHAN: That cost/benefit — marginal cost, marginal benefit — hits the nail on the head. And John, one final tip here — which is maybe just a way to summarize what we’ve talked about here — is practicality for professionals like you, me and our listeners, is critical. So instead of thinking you need to go to the gym, that you need to go to exercise, maybe think about bringing exercise to you.

You already walk, you already have stairs, and you can already stand instead of sit. That takes you no more time. It doesn’t take you any more time. And again, you don’t need to go to the gym; you can bring resistance training to you. And then you don’t need to change, you need to shower.

Time, for our listeners, is the scarcest resource in the world. So bringing exercise to you in a marginal cost, marginal benefit, optimized way, allows you to optimize your performance and take care of business. And that’s what we’re here to do, right, John?

JOHN: Couldn’t agree more.

JONATHAN: Well, listeners, I hope you enjoyed this show. And remember, this weekend every week after: we’re here, John Briffa and Jonathan Baylor, to help you take care of business. Ciao. See you soon. John, that was great.

JOHN: Great. Fantastic. Right. Well, first of all —