Guest Hero: Ben Greenfield. Fitness, nutrition and human performance consultant at BenGreenfieldFitness.com
While we all know that staying physically active is essential to a long, healthy, productive life, we don’t often make time for it in our days and I think that is because we really don’t understand exactly what’s happening behind the scenes. Hopefully this podcast will give you get a better understanding of the whys, the hows and even the whens of exercise so you can seize the moment to grab a movement snack.
Hello, my cubicle cardio, open space sit-ups, corner office chin-ups, home den dips, and coffee shop sprinters. My name is Brock Armstrong, and I am not the Workplace Hero. Nor am I the Workspace Guru, the Office Space Sage, or the Business Space Mentor. We are in this together, me and you. One podcast at a time. Improving our lives and hopefully dragging a few of our co-workers with us.
Now, as we warm-up for our main-set (do you like my athlete lingo there?), I want to thank some true heroes – the folks who have left reviews for this podcast in iTunes. Thank you to: AstridH77, TreeClown, Westcoastlistener, JW108, WallyPhD, KristenStaite, and Kdigitty108 for leaving all 5 star reviews along with some helpful feedback as well. I truly appreciate it — and, if you are a podcast listener I know you have heard this a million times – but leaving a review really does help new listeners find the podcast. Plus it makes me feel good and serves as a form of payment for the hours per week that I spend putting these episodes together. Think of it this way: if you can’t put dollars in my pocket, you can put some love in my heart.
Ok! On with the show.
I found a great list of “5 Horrible Exercise Excuses” over at wellnessmama.com and and a few more over at BreakingMuscle.com that I think sum up the top excuses that I have also heard over my years of being a Fitness Coach. They are:
Excuse #1: I’m too Busy
Yes. I get that you are busy. I don’t pretend to be the busiest person in the world and I’ve even used this excuse. But I bet if you were to truly track how you use every minute of your day, you could find a spare 20 minutes… probably more. Remember in the last podcast episode at workplacehero.me/distractions how we learned that we check our smart phones 105 times per day? If we have time to check our phones every 6 minutes, surely we can get up and break a sweat occasionally too… right?
Excuse #2: It’s too Expensive
If you think the only way to get fit is to join an expensive gym, buy a bunch of fancy equipment, or hire a personal trainer then, yeah it’s probably too expensive for most of us. Good news is, later in this episode you will learn that you don’t need any of that to exercise. You truly only need your body and some inspiration. And maybe an old pair of shorts.
Excuse #3: I’m in Pain
Yes, this excuse does have merit if you are injured or dealing with chronic pain – you do not want to “push through it”. We here at Workplace Hero do not believe in “no pain, no gain” but most injuries can be handled appropriately with some modification, adaptation, or simply choosing a different way to exercise. If you are dealing with chronic pain you may also want to consider the very real possibility that your inactive lifestyle is contributing to or perhaps even causing the chronic pain.
Excuse #4: I Move Enough Already
This was my excuse for a while too because I worked in an old building with very few washrooms and only one extremely slow elevator. I hear this excuse from new parents as well. Don’t get me wrong: If you have an active job or lifestyle that keeps you on your feet then you are doing better than a lot of people out there… but there is still something mentally and emotionally rewarding about YOU, focusing on YOUR body, through YOUR own dedicated workout – not simply as a byproduct of having hyper kids, a slavedriver boss or having to take 4 flights of stairs every time you have to pee.
Excuse #5: I Don’t Like it
At the heart of so many of these excuses is this: Exercise isn’t fun. It’s boring. It’s uncomfortable. And believe me, I tried a variety of things before I found something that really “fit” for me too. It took me a while to figure it out and, get this, it keeps changing. For a while I loved running, then I rediscovered hockey, then triathlon, then you couldn’t keep me out of the pool, then obstacle courses and now I am addicted to lifting heavy stuff. There are so many options – don’t let your preconceived notions of how boring it is to pump iron or how strange you feel taking yoga stop you for digging into an evening shinny game or a lunch hour power walk.
Excuse #6: I’m Too Old
No one is too old to exercise. Walking is exercise. Yoga is exercise. There are so many forms of exercise to choose from, ranging from low impact to high impact to mobility to balance to strength training. There are even classes specifically designed for seniors. A great place to start looking for classes that fit your age and ability is your local YMCA.
Excuse #7: I Have a Bad Back
Unless the doctor tells you to just lay in bed, activity is the best way to keep your back limber, to strengthen it, and to prevent additional pain. Dr. Ullrich, a board-certified orthopedic spine surgeon and medical director of Spine-health states “bed rest for more than a day or two can actually undermine healing.” But here is a PSA: If you suffer from back pain, see a doctor or physical therapist for a correct diagnosis, as well as for specific exercises and stretches to help alleviate pain. Don’t be a wimp but also don’t be an idiot.
Excuse #8: I Am Too Fat
You have to start somewhere, right? Believing that you are too overweight to exercise is like saying you’re too skinny to eat. Your body needs exercise just the way your body needs food. No matter what number you are on a scale, you can do something to start the process of strengthening your bones and joints for the load that they’re carrying. If you are extremely self-conscious, you can workout at home. Please don’t fall into the trap of believing that exercise has to hurt or make you sweaty and out of breath to be effective. Exercise is often a matter of just moving more. It doesn’t need to be a difficult class in the gym or excessive time spent lifting weights. Start small and work your way up to more challenge and volume in activity only when you’re ready to do so.
And lastly, this has to be my favourite excuse of all. And by favourite, I don’t mean that I like it.
Excuse #9: I’m Skinny, So I Don’t Need to Exercise
Gah! As a species we have to stop confusing exercise with weight loss. They are not the same thing! There are so many benefits we get from exercise – weight loss is only one and honestly, it is by far the smallest one as well. Most weight loss experts will tell you that results are 80% from diet and only 20% from exercise. Yes, lean mass is usually associated with better health, but it is not an indicator of your organ health, lipids levels, or insulin sensitivity. Exercise is not just to keep our weight down, and let’s try to to disassociate weight loss from fitness. Weight loss is a number, fitness is a process that benefits our entire body and mind.
Ok. Enough with the excuses! Let’s talk about why you would want to exercise in the first place. If it isn’t that great of a way to lose weight, what is it good for?
Well, the body is a complex thing and a lot (and I mean A LOT) happens in your body when you first start working out. Let’s take a look at just a few.
Starting with changes in your muscles, which use glucose and a thing called ATP (Adenosine triphosphate) for contraction and movement. To create more ATP, your body needs extra oxygen, so breathing increases and your heart starts pumping more blood to your muscles. Then, as you workout, tiny tears in your muscles occur and make them grow bigger and stronger as those tiny tears heal between exercise sessions.
There are also changes in your lungs. As your muscles call for more oxygen (as much as 15 times more oxygen than when you’re at rest), your breathing rate increases. Once the muscles surrounding your lungs cannot move any faster, you’ve reached what’s called your VO2 max—your maximum capacity of oxygen use. And, in a nut shell, the higher your VO2 max, the more badass you are. A high V02 max is one of the things Lance Armstrong (no relation) was known for before he got known for that other thing…
There are also changes in your heart. Your heart rate increases with physical activity to supply more oxygenated blood to your muscles. The fitter you are, the more efficiently your heart can do this, allowing you to work out longer and harder. As a side effect, this increased efficiency will also reduce your resting heart rate and your blood pressure will decrease as a result of new blood vessels forming.
Then there is some fun stuff that happens in your brain as well. As Sarah Klein says in her Huffington Post article, This Is What Happens To Your Body When You Exercise: “When you work out regularly, your brain gets used to this frequent surge of blood and adapts by turning certain genes on or off. Many of these changes boost brain cell function and protect from diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or even stroke, and ward off age-related decline.”
A number of very cool neurotransmitters are also triggered: endorphins, serotonin, dopamine, glutamate, and GABA. You may recognize these names because some of these are well-known for their role in mood control and they explain why exercise can be one of the most effective preventions and treatments for anxiety and depression.
There are of course also changes that happen in your joints and bones, since exercise can place as much as six times more than your body weight on them. Peak bone mass is achieved in adulthood and then begins a slow decline, but exercise can help you to maintain healthy bone mass as you get older.
You have probably heard that weight-bearing exercise is one of the most effective remedies against osteoporosis (better even than your calcium supplement which may actually do more damage than good). In a vast oversimplification, when you are young, your bones are dense but actually somewhat porous and soft, and as you age your bones can easily become less dense and more brittle — especially if you remain or become inactive.
Dr. Joseph Mercola has a great blog post about the benefits of exercise. In it, he says that one of the key health benefits of exercise is that it helps normalize your glucose, insulin, and leptin levels by optimizing insulin/leptin receptor sensitivity. This is perhaps the most important factor for optimizing your overall health and preventing a plethora of chronic diseases.
But exercise affects your body in tons of other ways as well, directly and indirectly and even the most surprising side effects are almost universally good ones. For example: Improved sexual function, Changes in gene expression, Clearer skin, Improved mood, and Improved sleep.
It’s time to bring in our Guest Hero for the week. To dive even deeper into this subject, I asked Ben Greenfield, for some help. Ben, who is also known as “The Brain” of triathlon, holds a Master’s degree in exercise science and biomechanics, an ISSN Sports Nutrition Certification, a Serotta Bike Fit Certification, and the highest attainable certification as a Strength & Conditioning Coach by the NSCA. Ben also has an information packed podcast over at www.bengreenfieldfitness.com (where I was his co-host between 2011 and 2015). Ben Greenfield is also a biohacker, human body and brain performance coach, ex-bodybuilder, Ironman triathlete, professional Spartan athlete, anti-aging consultant, speaker and author of the New York Times Bestseller “Beyond Training: Mastering Endurance, Health and Life”.
I asked Ben for his take on why we need to worry about moving and exercising more in the first place.
Why indeed if we aren’t going to, say, want to go out and get a six-pack or if we’re Batman perhaps a nine-pack abs, or we don’t want to go out and do a triathlon or a marathon, should we move and exercise? Well, it seems like there’s some kind of evolutionary or ancestral, depending on your bent, advantage to moving. There’s a variety of things that happen physiologically when you move, when you exercise, that go way above and beyond just you being able to, say, put on a unitard and go deadlift copious amounts of weight.
One would be, and you’re probably familiar with this one, is miracle grow for the brain. One of the primary ways you can increase things like the growth of new neurons and improve your intelligence and your memory and your executive function is with movement and specifically exercise. It’s something called “brain-derived neurotrophic factor” that gets released when you exercise or BDNF. Originally, it was thought that you could only get that with aerobic exercise like jogging or something like that, but it turns out now, any type of movement. Lifting something heavy, sprinting, anything seems to cause brain growth. That’s one thing. Basically you do it so you don’t get stupid.
There are some obvious de-stressing benefits. We’re all familiar with this concept of catharsis and the fact that if you have a lot of cortisol and the subsequent epinephrin and these excitatory neurotransmitters that cortisol is going to release, well if you don’t have some kind of an outlet for those, they can often lead to internal stress that builds up, and as farfetched as this may seem, leads to things like ulcers and high blood pressure. In some cases, some have even suggested cancer. This idea of reducing internal stress by moving, by giving yourself an outlet would be another big advantage.
Of course, we know that beyond the sinews and the body fat and the big biceps, we have our immune system. Nobody likes to get sick. Well, one of the main ways that you get stuff moving around your body … One of the reasons I had one of those dorky little mini trampolines here in my office that I’ll bounce up and down on sometimes is your lymph flow. It’s one of the best ways to clean your body up is to move and to move vigorously and to exercise. Even if you have no desire, again, at all to drop your body fat percentage or to get strong, I would hazard a guess that you probably don’t want to get sick, and people who move often tend to have, or do have based on research, stronger immune systems.
There’s all the side benefits too like happiness and confidence and longevity and all these downstream benefits. I mean, yeah, it goes way beyond just being able to show off at the track.
So, the next thing you listeners are probably wondering is why do we modern humans need to think about this. Surely Palaeolithic or even Elizabethan humans didn’t “go to the gym” or play “lunch hour games of horse.” Did they? So, why do we need to worry about this now?
Hmm, well first of all, I love that term “Elizabethan human”. I’m actually going to be calling myself an Elizabethan human.
You have to use “forsooth” all the time if you do that.
Yes hello. I am Ben and I’m an Elizabethan human.
But would you say that this is even more important these days because we’re spending so much time … We wake up, we sit in our car, we sit on the subway. We get to work, we sit at our desk. We get back in the car and we sit there, and then we come home and we sit on the couch in front of the TV. Is this of an even more importance than it has been in the history of humankind because of this sedentary behavior?
I mean, it’s a tricky question because there’s kind of like two replies to that question. One, yeah, of course it is important. The more sedentary you are, the more important it is to figure out how to bookend exercise the beginning or the end of the day. I’d say even that thinking pattern is a little bit flawed. We should instead say, well, now that we’re surrounded by all these pieces of furniture and environmental variables, and post-industrial luxuries that allow us to sit and lay down and be still for copious amounts of time … Perhaps what’s best is not to say, okay I’m going to exercise at the beginning or the end of the day. Perhaps instead you’re going to say, okay well I’m going to stick it to the man and I’m actually going to figure out how to not use all of these modern things that surround me that allow me to stay in this sedentary position.
Right now, Brock, I’m standing. I’m not just standing, I’m standing on this topographical mat that’s got bumps in it and little things that I can move my feet around.
You’ve got me beat. My mat is just flat, but I am standing.
Oh okay. Perhaps it’s at least Elizabethan if not topographical.
Yeah…. and so things like treadmills, and I’ve got a heavy punching bag right next to me here. When I’m on the airplane, I have this rule that every time I go to the bathroom, I’ll do 50 squats in the tiny little airplane bathroom, and I don’t go for an hour without standing up and stretching and going back and visiting with the flight attendants. When I’m waiting for a plane to fly or waiting for a bus, or waiting in line at the dentist or the doctor, I’m doing little squats and jumping jacks. Moving and staying active and moving that lymph flow and increasing that miracle grow for my brain and increasing my confidence and my happiness and my longevity without necessarily ever stepping foot into a gym. I’d say, yeah it’s important to exercise but perhaps it’s even more important to figure out ways to hack our environment and set up rules in our lives that allow us to not be stuck sedentary all day long.
That’s fantastic. That leads directly, it’s like you read my mind, into my next question which is what kind of things can we do while we’re actually at work, in the office, or in our cubicle or wherever we happen to be working that we can build these kinds of things into our day?
Yeah. Well, it’s a great question because I don’t drive to the gym. I have a gym membership and I go there sometimes to play tennis or to take my kids to jujitsu. The reason for that is because I’ve set up my environment so that I can exercise at the drop of the hat when the opportunity presents itself. I don’t want to spend 10 minutes driving to the gym and 10 minutes going back because that’s 20 minutes of exercise and sometimes that’s all the time I have period to exercise.
Surround yourself with things that allow you to stay active all day long. This morning’s a perfect example. Before you and I began to talk on today’s show, I had a cancellation. I was supposed to … I talk with people about their blood, and their biomarkers, and their health, and their sleep, and all sorts of stuff. This guy was going to talk to me and he canceled, that bastard. I have a kettlebell here in my office and I also have this little elliptical trainer type of set up. I did five rounds of a minute, as hard as I could do on the elliptical trainer, and then 30 kettlebell swings. Just back and forth and back and forth. Boom. I found that half hour slot and I got exercise in today that improved my mitochondria and my lymph and everything we just got done talking about, but I squeeze it in right there because I had that stuff right there.
That’s one thing is to actually surround yourself with things in your office, whether it’s a medicine ball, or a stability ball, or a kettlebell, or a heavy punching bag, or some kind of a fancy workout contraption like a walking treadmill desk. It doesn’t matter but have it there and have it there top of mind so that at the drop of a hat, you can actually exercise. You can even exercise while you’re working. In many cases, I’m on my treadmill while making a phone call.
Another thing would be to accept the fact that movement snacks are okay. It’s okay-
… Instead of … yeah, snacks.
Movement snacks does not mean you wave your hands around and eat a Twinkie. It means that you’re actually snacking on movement all day long. What that means is resist fitting into that status quo, orthodox idea that you have to go to the gym for an hour to exercise. Well who says you can do four 15 minute little snacks throughout the day? By the end of the day, you’ve done that hour at the gym because you’ve got this little routine you do that’s like, whatever, 15 push ups, 15 squats, 15 crunches, 15 lunges, 15 jumping jacks five times through. That takes you 15 minutes and at a few different times during the day you’re going to do that. All of a sudden, you’ve got these little snacks, these little movements you can rely on. For me, it’s usually jumping jacks or burpees. I’ll do these little things throughout the day. That’s another way that we can squeeze it in.
A few other things that I’ll do … I’ll say three other things. I start my day with momentum, meaning, when I get out of bed, as the coffee’s on or whatever, I’ll just do 100 jumping jacks or I’ll do a few quick yoga moves or something that gets my brain thinking, oh hey, you started to move today already so you might as well keep doing it. It’s this weird psychological trigger that gives me momentum to keep moving the rest of the day.
Another thing that I have are a lot of little workouts in my back pocket that I can rely upon based on how I feel. If I’m really tired and I don’t feel like exercising, what I’ll do is I’ll walk out my door 10 minutes and I’ll walk back 10 minutes and I’ll tell myself, okay, every time I pass a telephone pole, see if I can hold my breath as long as possible. I’m moving, I’m holding my breath, but it’s something that I’m like, okay, that’s okay, that counts. Even if I’m really tired and I’m having a crappy day, I can at least freaking walk and hold my breath.
Then there’s other days where I’ll have, what I just talked about, where I’ll have the kettlebell and the elliptical and that’ll be another workout that’s a tried and true workout. If you have a few workouts memorized that you can rely upon, what it does is it eliminates decision making fatigue and keeps you from sitting there, rubbing your chin trying to figure out what you’re going to do with all this crap that you heard on the podcast that you’re supposed to put in your office.
You’re standing there staring at the medicine ball and the kettlebell and you’re like, okay, that’s all there but what do I do? Well, if you know, right off the bat you have memorized … Okay, one of my go-to workouts is I pick up that medicine ball and I lift it above my head 15 times. Then I slam it into the ground 15 times. Then I do 10 push ups and 10 squats and I do that three times through, and that’s my workout. That’s one of my memorized workouts. I have a few of those that I just have memorized that completely eliminates decision making fatigue that I just know I can go to and I can do that at any given time of the day. I’ve got a few hard ones and I’ve got a few easy ones.
Then the last thing that I do, because I’m a family man and I would hazard a guess that a lot of busy people are family people, is I don’t necessarily forsake the idea or as we would say in Elizabethan terms, forsook the idea that you can exercise with your family. In many cases, I will just … If my boys get home from school, I’ll tell them, “okay guys, let’s go out and shoot hoops and you guys are going to play PIG. Dad’s going to run up and down the driveway and I’m going to grab one of you each time I get to the top of the driveway, carry you down, carry you up, and then set you down. The other guy shoots hoops and I carry you down, carry you up, and we do that ten times through.” Or, “We’re going to go on a hike and I’m going to put a heavy rock in my backpack so you can keep up with me and we’re just going to hike.”
For example, I even do those breath hold walks with them. Occasionally, we’ll do a few wrestling moves down in the basement and that’ll be my workout, is me just moving and having them chase me. We have these Velcro bands we’ll attach around our ankles and we’ll chase each other around seeing who can get the bands off each other’s ankles. We’ve got Nerf guns that we’ll fight with in the house. It doesn’t have to involve a barbell or dumbbell or kettlebell for it to count as a workout. It can be just like you running around and fooling around with your kids. That counts. Give yourself permission that that counts. Those are a few ideas.
Those are fantastic. I love the idea that it doesn’t have to be complicated. I think that a lot of us do have this preconceived notion of exercise needing to be something very structured, something planned, something that happens in the gym, something that involves expensive equipment, expensive outfits, all of that kind of stuff. You’re saying that it doesn’t have to be that way. Every little bit of movement really counts.
Except for as far as expensive outfits go, I do really, really encourage people to get the puffy aerobic socks, and like I mentioned earlier, a unitard. Preferably a leopard print unitard. It just makes you feel really good about yourself as a exerciser if you can do that.
You are a child of the 80’s so you can’t resist.
Every week on the podcast, I try to give all the listeners, all the workplace heroes out there, a piece of homework that they can build into their day right away and continue for the next five business days to try and build a new habit or break an old habit. Do you have anything that they could start incorporating right away as soon as they finish listening to this podcast?
Yeah I do. I was just reading in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research this morning about how beneficial this thing called a hip hinge is. All it involves is … and you could totally Google this and look up a video or perhaps in the show notes.
But you bend forward at the waist and thrust your hips forward as though you were… thrusting your hips forward. I think most people kind of know how to thrust. We have this strange evolutionary mechanism that makes us want to walk around thrusting. Anyways, you thrust your hips forward. You can do it with a weight. A perfect example of this would be a kettlebell swing. It’s like the perfect hip thruster activity that is even better than sprinting for your cardiovascular system.
My piece of homework for people listening in is to learn how to do a hip hinge, where you bend at the waist and you push your hips forward. You could do it body weight only. If you want bonus points, buy yourself a little kettlebell and learn how to do a hip hinge movement called a “kettlebell swing”. Now, whether you do the regular body weight hip hinge or you do the kettlebell swing hip hinge, set a goal for yourself for the next week to do 30 at some point each day. That’s it. It will take you a minute or two to do 30.
Okay. How about if you had a heavy backpack? Would you be able to grab the top of that and use that instead of a kettlebell?
You could use a heavy backpack. You could use a milk jug. You could use a small child. You could use a very large piece of steak.
A small co-worker, perhaps.
I’ll stop before we start to hurt people, but yes, you can use other things.
Awesome. I will definitely find a video of that and put it in the show notes over at workplacehero.me/workout
Thanks Ben. That was very helpful and informative. It’s great to talk to you again.
Well, thank you for having me on. It’s wonderful to hear your lolling Canadian accent and it’s also wonderful to hear that little Elizabethan twinge that you worked in, so thank you.
Ok. While we all know that staying physically active is essential to a long, healthy, productive life, we don’t often make time for it in our days and I think that is because we really don’t understand exactly what’s happening behind the scenes. Obviously, we know there is a big difference between having a bucket list goal of doing something like running a marathon and simply being a healthy individual who will has both physical freedom now and will be able to enjoy an active retirement. Hopefully this podcast gave you get a better understanding of the whys, the hows and even the whens of exercise so you can seize the moment to grab a movement snack – and make this week count!
Workplace Hero is researched, written, narrated and recorded by me Brock Armstrong with editing help from Eleanor Cohen. Podcast logo by Ken Cunningham and original music by my band, The Irregular Heartbeats. Today’s Guest Hero is Ben Greenfield. You can find more about him and his award winning podcast at bengreenfieldfitness.com.