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Dr. Greg Wells on How ‘Microchanges’ Can Make a Major Difference

Dr. Greg Wells on How ‘Microchanges’ Can Make a Major Difference

Toronto physiologist Dr. Greg Wells’s new book, The Ripple Effect, makes lofty promises, pledging that we can Sleep Better, Eat Better, Move Better, Think Better. A superachiever himself (Ironman, PhD, researcher at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Kids and professor at the University of Toronto), Dr. Wells nevertheless tempers those assertions by sticking to a simple message in the book, in stores tomorrow. It’s okay to dream big, but start small. Peppered with “1 per cent tips,” Dr. Wells advocates staying focused on micro-improvements (using spices, not sauces, to cut calories; walking 15 minutes a day to potentially lower risk of breast and colon cancer 24 to 40 per cent). “Microchanges are sustainable forever,” he says. “When they add up over time, it’s like compound interest for your body and mind.”

Does the world really need another book on how to live a better life?

People are inundated with information. I get it. Every person now has the entire human history of knowledge in their pocket. The problem is, they also have the whole history of misinformation in their pocket, too, which can be paralyzing. I tried to take scientific information, as well as proven studies, which translate into very practical approaches people can implement in their lives. It’s an integrated approach that shows how the ripple effect plays out. More sleep helps you lose weight. Healthy food choices have a huge impact on mental health. Physical exercise improves your stamina and creativity. This book isn’t about getting a sick pass in six weeks. It’s about crafting an amazing life you can enjoy for 10, 20 or 50 years.

What’s one of the most overlooked commodities of good health?

Sleep. Twenty per cent of the world’s population is sleep deprived. It affects whether you’ll survive cancer and your risk of recurrence. If you sleep less than six hours a night and have disturbed sleep, you stand a 48-per-cent greater chance of developing, or dying of, a stroke. It’s alarming because we don’t often equate sleep with survival. Sleep is foundational. If you want to get more fit, there’s not a chance of getting into great shape without sleeping seven to eight hours a night. More sleep means we can control our appetites better. We recover from workouts faster. Mental health improves. Prioritizing sleep helps us solve problems, learn better, and be more creative. Again, it’s the ripple effect. Do one thing, it has cascading benefits throughout your life.

What is the biggest impediment to get people to embrace the rudiments of healthier living?

For each person, it’s different. For some, it’s fear or lack of confidence. But for me, it’s lack of time. It’s all about scheduling, taking the time to exercise, sleep more, eat better – and often, frankly – defending it. Again, I revert back to the concept of keeping it simple. Go for a 15-minute walk at lunch, after dinner in your neighbourhood or just before writing an exam. Concentation and creativity will improve. Charles Dickens was rumoured to have walked 30 miles a day. Bob Marley and the Wailers would play soccer in the stadium before a concert and go for a swim before heading into the studio. The benefits from simply moving are incredibly powerful. It doesn’t have to be hard.

What’s the best exercise to boost your brain?

I would say exercise in nature. Studies show there are some unique benefits to working out in, and around, nature. It improves problem solving and the immune system. There are also benefits for mental health. If you want to do a spin class, go for it. But a bike ride on a trail is even better. Meditate at home? Great. But outside in a park? There’s an indisputable health bonus.

In the early 1980s, people who were overweight or obese in the Canada and U.S. made up less than 20 per cent of the population. Now that figure is 58 per cent in Canada, and 69 per cent in the U.S. Why?

It’s the combination of physical inactivity and the intake of high-caloric/nutrient-deficient food. We’re overfed and under-nourished. We can overcome obesity. But it’s going to require a major societal shift to make that happen.

What’s a key myth out there?

People confuse coffee and caffeine. Caffeine is a powerful drug that improves mental and physical performance. Two hundred milligrams of caffeine a day is safe (two 10-ounce coffees, four black teas, or eight green teas). But people shouldn’t use coffee as a crutch. Relying on too much caffeine is dangerous.

Is turmeric today’s super-spice?

It’s a spice that appears to have tremendous benefits, including reducing inflammation, but many spices do. This mild orange spice, with its active ingredient curcumin, actually slows down age-related cognitive decline and prevents Alzheimer’s disease. It acts as a potent pain reliever, soothes reflux disease and stops clot formation in our blood vessels.

And watermelon is a panacea for workout pain?

Eat a couple slices before your workout. It’s not only hydrating, but it decreases muscle soreness.

What’s your motto to live by?

Anything is possible.

Gayle MacDonald/Globe and Mail/April, 2017