Why we all need to become more human: Greg Wells at TEDxUofT

Why we all need to become more human: Greg Wells at TEDxUofT


[MUSIC PLAYING] Wow, incredible introduction. Thank you so much,
and thanks everyone for sticking around and
being here late in the day and listening to all of
our incredible ideas. And I’m so inspired by
what we’ve heard so far. It’s amazing to be here
and to be a part of this. And I’ve definitely learned that
I want an invisibility cloak for sure. But I also want to talk
to you a little bit today about this–
this vegetable peeler. You might be like, wow,
straight from the Olympics to talk about a
vegetable peeler. But it’s really interesting
because this– the design of this is just
absolutely fascinating if you think about it. It’s designed to
peel vegetables, and we’ve all got
them in our homes. But the design of this one
is particularly interesting because it has a very
large handle on it. And if you notice, there’s
little grip– a little– whatever– pieces
of plastic here to make it really easy to grip. I have no idea who designed
it, but the fascinating thing about this is that
it was designed for people with arthritis to
make it very easy for people with arthritis to
make their food. As a result of it being
so easy for someone at the extreme end of
what humans go through and someone that’s suffering
through a chronic disease– as a result of designing
for that person, they’ve sold millions
and millions and millions of these things,
because it makes it easy for all the rest
of us to use them as well. And I told– my dad called me
and told me about this idea, and I explained this to my wife. And she was like,
that’s great, so you’re like a vegetable peeler. And I was like, that’s
really nice, sweetheart. Thanks for the support
of all my ideas. But let me explain
a little bit more about why she
probably said that. Because I actually live
a life that– where I work– out in the
extremes all the time, I am out working in
crazy environments. I’m an exercise physiologist. I study the limits
of what humans are capable of doing, as
a result– take kids up into the mountains
of– in this case, Bolivia– take their blood. We ran– they, I should
say– they ran five marathons in a row up at
12,000 feet, and we were studying how the
human body adapts to that. I’ve had the honor and
privilege of working with many, many Olympians. That’s Adam Van Koeverden from
Oakville– multiple Olympic medalist. He’s got a– I was extremely
stressed at this moment, because he had a $60,000 piece
of equipment in his boat, and if he tipped,
University of Toronto would have been extremely
unhappy with me at that moment, and– little learning point,
I went for a run with Adam this morning. Never, ever go running
with an Olympic champion. It’s just
extraordinarily painful. So if I have to run out
back and puke for a second, it’s just because I’m not
feeling all that great right now. But I wanted to have
a chat with them, and so I asked him one question. He talked for 20 minutes. It was great. Anyway, I was like [SIGHS]. That’s the Olympic
side of things that I was doing–
that I am doing still. And the other side of my
life is at the Hospital for Sick Children where I
study how we can use exercise to prevent, diagnose, and treat
chronic diseases in children. And I think that what we
learned from the absolute limits of what humans are capable
of doing on the Olympic side and from the limits
of, unfortunately, what people go through
in chronic illnesses and chronic diseases– the
way in which we overcome those challenges
applies to all of us. Just like we learn from the
extremes– it helps all of us– people function really well. We can learn from
the Olympians to be able to do what
we need to better, and we can learn
from people that have overcome chronic
diseases to help us overcome a huge crisis in our world. And the images– or
sorry, the symbols that come together to
create the term crisis are a combination
of the symbols that represent danger
and opportunity. And the danger for all of
us in the entire planet is that we continue down the
road of physical inactivity, poor nutrition,
and a lack of sleep that we’re all on right now. The opportunity is
that we change things. And the reason why
we have to do this– the reason why we
have to overcome this is because the World
Health Organization has identified
physical inactivity– the items I have right up
here– and poor nutrition as the number one health
concern in the planet– on the planet for all of us. The number one concern in the
world right now for all of us is physical inactivity
and poor nutrition. And we see that. We see that from
the obesity epidemic that we’re faced with
in the Western world and in the developing world. We have a
sleeplessness epidemic. We have skyrocketing rates
of mental health challenges. We have the best access
to food we’ve ever had in the history of humankind
yet we’re malnourished. It’s completely–
it’s just not working. The way that we’re
working is not working. We have unlimited
access to technology, and we can’t sleep at night. So this is broad strokes, and
I’m talking about the world, and I’m talking about big,
big picture things right now and things we have to overcome
because we are actually in a crisis around the world. Unfortunately,
for me, as a quote unquote health expert and a
teacher of all of this stuff, it’s fine because I talk
about this, and it’s great. As a professor, we throw
graphs up on the board, and that’s awesome. But, unfortunately, it makes us
think the we’re really smart, whatever. We do it for that reason. But then, unfortunately,
every once and a while it actually comes home
and hits you individually. And about 18 months ago, all
of this came home for me. That’s me in the cardiac ward at
[INAUDIBLE] General Hospital– where I work, so it’s a
little bit embarrassing to check yourself into your
own hospital to get tested. But what had happened was
I was working like crazy, setting up two new
labs, launching a book, getting ready to go to
commentate the Olympic games. I had a two-year-old
at home– lover her dearly– haven’t
slept in two years– ready to trade her in. My wife was finishing
grad school. We had just moved houses. Apparently, that takes
years off your life. Who knew? It would have been great
if someone told me that. Anyway, all that
stuff came together to create the
situation where I was in the hospital with
a cardiac infection because my daughter
who’s two– love her, sweet– picked up a virus
at daycare, brought it home, and that virus preferentially
attacks the heart tissue of 40 to 42-year-old Caucasian males
with an athletic background. Repeatedly in the hospital,
frustrated like crazy, staring at the ceiling hooked up to all
of this gear– and, of course, what does an extreme
exercise physiologist do in that circumstance
when you can log into the hospital network? You register for Iron Man. So, a year later, I
actually completed Iron Man. So from 12 months– from the
moment I was in the hospital, staring at all this
gear– getting really– I’m being recorded,
so I won’t say it. I was upset. straight through to a
year later, I actually got myself fit enough
to complete Iron Man. Don’t look at the time– time’s
a little bit embarrassing, but I got it done. It’s a long way. I was not proud about that,
but anyway– I did get it done. And I did a few things in order
to allow myself to get there. I ate better. I slept better. And I moved a lot. And I got a really cool
bike out of the deal, which allowed me
to bring that home. And unfortunately, my daughter
ended up riding it one day. But the reason why I throw that
is because I had to get better. I had to get better
because I wanted to spend a lot
more time with her. I was in my own–
and yeah, that’s a princess dress she’s
wearing on my triathlon bike. It’s a little– anyway. It was so important
for me– because I was in that moment of
crisis– to get myself healthy because I wanted to spend a
lot of time with my daughter. And I was actually
in that moment where I realized unless I
made some significant changes, it wasn’t going to happen. And so I adopted
those three things– eat better, move
better, sleep better. And I did that because I’m
doing all this research. And what I started with–
for like three months– was learning how to sleep. That’s all I paid attention to. Because unless you sleep
well, it’s impossible for you to do the other things
really, really well. Actually, for
people– and there’s 50% of our population right
now that has obesity or is overweight– and
everyone’s worried about how much exercise
they’re getting and how much sleep
they’re getting. What they really need to worry
about as an initial thing to get started is how
much sleep they’re getting, because that’s the
foundation for absolutely everything. And the reason why it’s the
foundation for everything is because we have
hormones in our body. So hormones are
chemicals that get released from endocrine organs. They circulate
through your blood, and they hit target cells,
and they activate them. So in English what that
means is that– let’s say you get startled. Remember the last time you
got startled and scared, and then you realize, oh,
OK, there’s nothing wrong, but then your heart starts
pounding in your chest? That’s because
adrenalin got released from the adrenal glands–
right over your kidneys– circulated through the
blood, hit your heart, and made your heart into
this superpower organ that was pumping blood
through your body to get you ready to run or fight
or do whatever it needed to do. That’s the power of our
hormones inside of our body. And we have these
incredible hormones, and they help us
to sleep better. So when you sleep better, you
actually regulate the hormones throughout your entire body. You regulate the hormones that
help you to regulate appetite. You sleep– all this exercise
things that can come out– you can’t exercise well unless
you’re sleeping well because of the changes in growth
hormone, which actually goes through your entire body
and repairs tissues. So all sorts of
incredible things happen when we sleep well that
lay the foundation for you to actually get
really, really healthy. The hormones that help
us on the nutrition side– on the eating well
side are leptin and ghrelin– two hormones that actually
help to regulate our appetites. And so unless we
have great sleep, we can’t actually
do the other things that we’re looking to
try to do in our lives. And then when you start
to actually sleep well, other amazing things
happen as well. This is an MRI scan of the
brain– someone’s brain– and you can see all of the
different neural networks. And this is all mapped out– all
the different neural pathways throughout the brain. It’s just incredibly fascinating
and absolutely amazing What’s even more incredible
when you consider sleep is that when you
sleep, you actually clean out all of the space around all
of those different nerves– all of the little pathways where
there’s liquids, where there’s fats, where there’s nutrients–
all of that gets cleaned out. You literally wash
out your brain when you sleep at night so
that your brain recovers, your brain regenerates, and
you can actually perform better during the course of the day. And in order for–
for all the people that are watching that
are OK, that’s great, Greg, genius, tell me how
I’m supposed to sleep better. So here’s one thing you can
do– it’s an easy thing to do. This is another MRI
scan of the brain. It’s sliced through
the head– if you watch “Walking Dead,” you might
recognize this– but sliced through the head at the level
of the eyes– you can see the eyes up top, couple
things coming back, the brain around the
back– it’s actually an image of one of my
grad students’ brains– volunteered for this project,
not so much, but anyway. Draw your attention
to the optic nerve. The optic nerve takes
information from the eyes into the brain. And whenever light
hits your eyes, it converts into electricity
in the back of your eye and goes through
your optic nerve straight into what’s
called the pineal gland. The pineal gland is
a gland that releases a hormone called melatonin. And melatonin– you know when
you’re lying in bed at night, and then you’re reading or
whatever, and all of a sudden you feel really drowsy
and then you fall asleep? That’s melatonin acting. It regulates sleep
and wake cycles. And when you pummel your
eyes with electrical activity or with light, it
actually shuts off the release of melatonin
from your brain. So what do all of
us do, typically, these days right before you’re
about to fall asleep at night? Read off the iPad or
whatever, check your email, check Facebook– I guess you
guys don’t check email anymore. You check your Facebook. And we’re pummeling our eyes
with electrical activity, even watching television. You’re actually destroying
your ability to sleep. You can’t get to sleep. Our world is geared towards–
another great example of how our world has this
amazing technology– incredible
technologies– but they don’t help us to be healthier. They don’t help us
to perform better. So my wife and I took
three months, figured out how to sleep, cleaned
up our bedroom. Got the dark light out, got rid
of the electrical devices out of the bedroom, and then
started to actually learn how to get energized throughout
the course of the day so that I could start
getting into a much better situation
around eating better. That was the second step. The second key thing that
we all need to work on, and this is absolutely crucial. I’ve discovered– again, this
is another wonderful shot of me in the hospital– so
happy in that moment. Handed the nurse
my phone and said, could you please take a
picture of me in this device, because this is just ridiculous
that I’m actually here. And when we got
out of that moment, went back to my hospital
room and discovered that they’re bringing
us lunch– to all of us in the cardiac
ward, and I looked at what they were
serving us, and it was all like orange juice,
white flour sandwiches, these extraordinarily
over cooked vegetables, a little piece of dessert– all
pro inflammatory– all things that actually cause
heart disease. It was like what is going on? What? Why is this happening? You know? Why? How are we supposed
to get healthy? And everyone’s like,
can I have seconds? Like, really? Really? You’re here. So the whole– once
again, the whole world is conspiring against
us getting healthy. And this is in a
hospital that’s supposed to help us get healthy. So I realized we had to make
significant changes to the way that we are living our
lives and the way we think about nutrition. I came across this
great equation– h equals n over c, which
basically– health is equal to nutrients
over calories. How many nutrients can you get
into your body per calorie? That is the fundamental
idea that we need to follow if
we’re actually going to get healthy around food. So I got out of the hospital. I came home, bought a blender,
stuck it on the counter and made a whole
bunch of things. And it helped me to define
what was good versus bad. Here’s some examples of
things that are bad for you. Zero nutrients, 200 calories. Right? Lots of calories, nothing in
there that’s any good for you. I love scones and doughnuts
and stuff like that– gone. Versus tons of nutrients and–
yeah, what was that again? It’s a ton of apples,
like loads of– you just get piles and
piles of food into you that have incredible
amounts of nutrients and not that many calories. So if you think about
a different approach– and taking that blender, putting
a whole bunch of these types of things into it, and creating
something for yourself, it looks like that. Not the most appetizing
thing in the world, but if you want to get
lots of Twitter followers, post this stuff and people
tweet it like crazy. OK? Check out what Greg bought
for his lunch or whatever. It’s crazy. People love this
stuff, and that’s what my life turned into–
was eating all of this. My students even
make jokes of it. They take pictures–
check out what Greg’s having for lunch today–
more salad and chicken or salad and other types of tofu,
salads and tempeh salads and all sorts of other
incredible proteins we can use to get ourselves
as healthy as we possibly can. That’s the approach that I took. But once again, you’re
fighting against the world. You’re fighting against
the way things are set up. And this is a problem
that wasn’t just for me. I know it’s a problem
for many other people, and it’s actually a problem in
the developing world as well. We go on a lot of
expeditions, and this is– the next shot
from an expedition we did in Northeast India. We ran through the
Thar desert– took a group of youth ambassadors. We were exploring issues related
to health in the developing world, and we were
broadcasting all over the world about issues related to
health in these incredible environments– beautiful,
wonderful people we encountered– just an
incredibly peaceful community– wonderful, fantastic,
amazing place– just incredible children and just
really wonderful, fantastic people. And we came across very
traditional sources of food, and the healthy things that
we were looking for in order to fuel ourselves–
but when I was in this little village, this–
I found this gentleman here in his vegetable stall. Right next to him was this. This is what we’re
faced with, and this is in the Northwest–
Northeast corner of India. This is how things
are penetrating throughout the world. This is what we’re up against. This is what we have
to try to change, and we all need to
think about this. And we all need to find ways of
eating better despite the fact that we may have– we do
have access to more calories than we’ve ever
had access before in the history of
the world, but we’re undernourished because,
unfortunately, we’re making choices like this one. So the final step
of the puzzle is trying to get around this
idea of moving better. And when I got my
sleep sorted and when I started to figure out my
nutrition, I was like, OK, I’m ready to exercise. And I’d start running
around, and so you’re walking– I began with walking. My first walk was 400 meters. I’m really proud of myself. That was a great moment
for me considering that I used to swim
internationally. I actually rode my bike
8,000 K through Africa, so I thought of myself
as a reasonable athlete. My first walk– 400 meters. Fantastic. Awesome. I got to work one
day, tried to walk up the stairs– couldn’t do it. I had to stop and rest
on one flight of stairs. Just devastated with the state
of the union of Greg’s body. But I worked at it. Every single day, I walked. Every single day was my walk. And I built up to an hour. A few months later,
I was feeling really good about myself. I had registered
for Iron Man, so I was like, I need
to keep doing this. I’m out there. I’m hauling. I’m feeling great. I’m really proud of myself. And then I got blown
passed by two ladies who were a lot older than
I was– a lot older. And so this is a
picture of me waving to them as they blow by me. And I was pretty upset by that
because I thought– anyway, I was really upset about it. But then something
clicked, and I was like, they’re
walking really fast. I tried to keep up with them. I couldn’t. I was like, oh my god,
they’re really walking fast. And I realized– and
they were talking to each other, which
made it even worse. Because– clearly,
it was two friends. They were out there, and
they do it every single day. They’re out there
like it’s clockwork. 6:00 at night, we
are out for a walk. And they’ve obviously
been doing it for years, because they were fit. And I thought to
myself, OK, instead of being upset about
this, it was actually an incredibly motivating,
inspirational moment. Because it means that
anything is possible. Any one of us can
do it as long as we commit to doing a little
bit over an extended period of time. And as a physiologist,
of course things start flying through your brain
about what actually happens to your body when you move just
a tiny bit every single day. There’s an MRI
scan of my chest– so if anyone sees anything
bad, let me know afterwards– but you can see my heart is
right in the middle there. It’s all– that’s heart,
lungs, liver, digestive tract, arms are coming down the side. So one of the things that
happens when you exercises is that your heart tissue
actually becomes much cleaner. Your muscle– your heart
becomes much stronger. Your lungs grow a
little bit bigger. Your lung tissue gets
really, really dense. Other incredible things happen,
like you grow more red blood cells. You grow new red blood cells. Red blood cells carry
oxygen, and the energize every single tissue
inside your body. If you want more energy–
it’s kind of counterintuitive. The more you exercise,
which makes you tired, the more energy you
get because you end up with more of these
red blood cells. And you end up with
more mitochondria. Mitochondria are little
energy factories. They live inside every single
tissue inside your body, and they create loads
of energy for us that we use to
think– that we use to move– that we use to
digest food– everything relies upon these incredible
little structures. And when you exercise
consistently, you grow many more of them. The other amazing
thing that happens when you exercise
consistently is you get these picture
of the two ladies that went by me–
one of the two ladies that went by me– you may
end up with– actually end up with a six pack. Incredible benefits for your
actual muscle tissue itself. But you also have this
circulatory system. You’ve all probably heard of
the blood circulatory system– your blood vessels, capillaries,
arteries, and veins. But you actually have
another one as well. It’s called your
lymphatic system, and your lymphatic system is
a second parallel circulatory system you may
never have heard of. If you have a blister–
you had a little blister, and there’s that
white clear fluid that comes out of the blister–
that’s your lymphatic fluid. That actually flows all the way
through your body all the time. It picks up debris. It picks up by bacteria,
viruses– cleans it out, kills all of it off,
takes it to organs where it can be cleaned
out and destroyed. Your lymphatic system
helps you to stay healthy. So if you exercise as
little as 15 minutes a day, you pump fluid through
the lymphatic system and you decrease your risk
of getting colds and the flu by up to 75%. Which is great. You’re like, OK, cool, I
get fewer colds and flus. That’s awesome. I hate being sick. That’s great. But your immune system is
what fights off cancer. If you exercise
15 minutes a day, you can reduce
your risk of cancer by up to 50– colon and
breast cancer by up to 50%. If you exercise
15 minutes a day, you can cut your risk of
cardiovascular disease by up to 40% just
because you’re going to have all these benefits
that I just talked about. This can completely
revolutionize your health. It can change your brain. It can change every
single part of your body, and there’s physiological
rationale for why all of that happens. And I can tell you
about what I did and getting blown away
by the older ladies and getting back into shape
and getting to Iron Man, and that’s fine. But I work at the Hospital
for Sick Children, and so I encounter people that
are absolutely incredible. And there’s a young man
that I met many years ago that had a disease
called cystic fibrosis. CF is a lung disease. It’s genetic. There is no cure. It, progressively destroys
your lung tissue and also your digestive tract. It makes it very
hard to breathe. And ultimately,
children require– or people require
a lung transplant in order to continue to survive. And this young man had
come up and discussed– his lungs were not doing well. He was down to
45% lung capacity. And at 30%, you have to
get a lung transplant. So he’d lost half
of his lungs, and he was getting close to– frankly,
he was getting close to death. So he talked to us, and
he said, what do I do? We said, well, the research says
that if you can be physically active, you can slow your
rate of lung function decline and you can prolong your
life– which in his case was a matter of immediately–
he had to do it. So he said, OK,
Greg, that’s great. How do I measure that? He was a 14-year-old kid. How do I measure that? So I gave him an accelerometer,
stuck it on his belt, came back three months
later and showed me this. This is his data that I pulled
off of the accelerometer. And this data– accelerometer
tracks movement– so the more it moves, the
more you see those spikes. And what’s really cool
about this is this boy had actually incorporated
spikes of physical activity into his day at 8:00 AM,
10:00 AM, noon, 4:00, 6:00, and a couple more
around 8:00 at night. And this matches perfectly
with the research that shows us that
the more physically active throughout the course
of the day– that you are throughout the course of
the day, the more likely it is that you’re going
to be able to fight off all of these chronic diseases. It’s been eight years
now, and he still hasn’t had a lung transplant. So this is an incredible example
of someone at the extremes– the worst possible scenario he
could be in physiologically– learning from someone–
from the exercise that we’ve learned
from the Olympians, applying it to his own
life, and revolutionizing his own health– revolutionizing
his own performance and actually fighting off a
disease and staying alive. So it comes down to this
idea– eat, sleep, move. If we can do all
of these things, we are going to
change ourselves. We’re going to change
the world around us. And it begs the question,
though– if we know this and there’s all
of this research, how come it’s not happening? Why doesn’t everyone do this? Why do we have this
global obesity epidemic? And I believe,
because– the reason why we’re having so
much trouble with it is because of these
societal things that I’ve already
talked about, but also because it’s a bit overwhelming. It seems like it’s a lot. It seems like it’s really
hard to actually get ourselves to get up and
do something about it. Because we go to the gym,
we work out, we get sore. You go for a run
with an Olympian like I did this
morning, you get– you feel awful for
a little while. But you shouldn’t go
maybe do that much, but a little bit
will maybe help. And so a friend of
mine, Jim Elzinga, who climbed Everest ended
up getting lung cancer. And they went in and took
out a chunk of his lung, and when he went back
out, he was saying, Greg, the way that
I got back to health again was I started
walking my driveway. I was doing three or
four minutes a day of walking my driveway. And he was like,
I was just trying to get 1% better
every single day. And that really
resonated with us. We thought about how could we
use this aggregate of 1% gains to show people that this
is actually possible? We can overcome the
biggest health challenge our planet is faced
with by applying the aggregate of 1% gains. Here’s some examples for you. If you have a 2000 calorie
diet like we normally do, 1% is 20 calories. Add that up over the
course of the year, it’s 7000 calories about–
maybe a little bit more– 8,000 calorie, somewhere in there. That’s well over two pounds. The average person
in the Western world gains about one pound a year. 20 calories a day–
obesity epidemic reversed. Reversed. What’s 20 calories? A little bit less than
a packet of sugar. Hardly anything. In terms of moving better,
1% of our day is 15 minutes. I’ve already told you the stats
about reducing cancer, heart disease– it also
can actually reverse diabetes for up to 48 hours. And I’m not going
to even begin to get into the positive
effects of exercise on mental health, which we have
a massive epidemic as well. So by just simply
being 1% better, we can reverse the
obesity epidemic. We can reverse the
number one problem in the world, which
is physical inactivity according to the World
Health Organization. And we don’t need to
do very much to do it. We all just need to get
up and move a little bit. So you’ve all been sitting
for about 15 minutes. Can you all just stand
up with me for a second and shake loose your legs? Right? Just move yourself around. Move the arms up. Right? Stretch a little bit. Roll your head around. Look, there’s people
laughing and stuff! That’s awesome! You guys look silly! No, I’m just kidding. You look great! You look fantastic! That’s awesome! So this, literally,
is all we have to do. As you live your life,
so you live your day– oh, sorry– as you live your
day, so you live your life. Now you’ll remember
all that– you’ll remember that one, right? If you can just do this every
single day 1% at a time, we can change the world. You change yourself. You can change the
people around you. We can change the world. So thank you very
much, everyone. Enjoy.

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