Unplug from technology as often as possible. Staring at a computer monitor plus your phone’s ringing, pinging and dinging randomly all day and sometimes all night is a real detriment to not only your attention span but to your brain health and your stress level. Shut off all but the most important alerts, unplug totally at night, and retrain yourself to enjoy the silence. Sadly, this is getting very hard to do, no matter where in the world you are. My son and I went to Easter Island, the most remote place on earth, to get as far from civilization as we could. Getting off the plane when we arrived from Santiago, Chile, we had four bars on the cell phone, email, texting, and Facebook all possible. The same goes for Mount Everest: on the entire 50-mile very remote route through Nepal to the mountain, my team was very preoccupied with Instagram positing, sending What’s App pictures to family and friends a world away, and checking email. Sherpas trudge up and down this route chatting nonchalantly on the phone! So, you need to be very disciplined, but you do need to unplug.
As a part of my series about “5 Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Dramatically Improve One’s Wellbeing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Martin Pazzani, Act!vate Brain & Body. Martin is a fitness executive, entrepreneur, and mountaineer, now focused on launching a company to build brain and body fitness for people above age 50. His startup Act!vate Brain & Body is in the process of becoming a fitness tech company using tele-fitness and small studio locations. Formerly chief marketing officer of Bally Total Fitness and Crunch Fitness, an advisor to 24 Hour Fitness, and a keynote speaker at the Functional Aging Institute, he has done significant consumer research in the fitness business that gives him perspective and insight that few possess.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the story about how you first got involved in fitness and wellness?
I’ve been a member of a fitness club since 1980. As a mountaineer, it’s been important to maintain a high degree of endurance and strength to be both successful and safe. But I got into the fitness business officially when I was recruited to help turn around Bally Total Fitness and Crunch in 2003 and inject fresh outside thinking to a stagnant company. What an eye-opening and fun uphill challenge that was!
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
When I joined Bally I was curious to understand why people in need did not join fitness clubs, and why they quit, for Bally in particular and the industry in general. So we did more deep-dive consumer research than anyone in the industry had ever done before and we focused much of it on non-joiners and lapsed members. I was astonished to learn that most fitness companies including Bally were scaring off the very people that needed them the most. The least fit people, people over age 50, and women in general were not being properly served. The customer experience was all wrong for them, as was the nature and expertise of many staff and personal trainers. I was amazed at how many people were afraid to go into a fitness club for fear of being ridiculed, judged and embarrassed by club personal and by other club members. In some ways, the fitness business had been its own worst enemy. It’s much better now, but still has a long way to go to deliver on its potential and make population level impact.
Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting?
When I was much younger and first getting into formal training for high altitude mountaineering, I assumed I was indestructible. The amount of training I did was gargantuan, the risks I took were often excessive, and I feel lucky to have survived it all. Looking back on that, I do think it’s kind of funny how your brain works when you’re young.
What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?
My body now tells a different story: I’m actually not indestructible. You only get one body, so you better take care of it!
Can you share with our readers a bit about why you are an authority in the fitness and wellness field?
As chief marketing officer of the world’s largest fitness company, I did more consumer research on the category than had ever been done before and had access to the expertise and experience of 10,000 personal trainers and nutrition experts. As the founder of a new fitness technology upstart — Act!vate Brain and Body — and active with the Functional Aging Institute, I am on the leading edge of what is happening in functional fitness, brain fitness, and fitness technology for people above age 50.
And as a participant and club member, I have been living a fitness lifestyle for many years, enabling me to climb major peaks on all seven continents. Some of this must be working: I still climb, I just walked 100 miles across Nepal to Mount Everest at age 63, and after hiking over 100,000,000 uphill steps over five decades, I still have my original knees and hips! Also, I take no medications of any kind, which I take for granted but is apparently very unusual for a person my age, which I attribute to a high degree of fitness.
In your opinion, what is your unique contribution to the world of wellness?
I seriously hope the best is yet to come.
But, I triggered awareness programs and membership drives that drove over 1 million new members to Bally in one year which later got me invited to keynote at the first-ever Functional Aging Summit, where top trainers are being taught to focus on the age 50+ consumer. But that wasn’t enough to seriously help the industry — or even save Bally for that matter — so I hope my current ventures and future contributions, and my coming book (“The Secrets of Aging Well #1: Get Outside”) are an even bigger trigger to get many millions more to enjoy the benefits of fitness and wellness.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
My long time business partner, collaborator and mentor Mr. Andy Berlin, the legendary serial advertising agency founder, more than anyone has inspired me to think big, take professional risks, and never settle for mediocrity.
Can you share a story about that?
He actually did lure me back into the fitness business after I left Bally to help create a new model for the future of fitness, one that is specially designed for the needs of people above age 50, which has consumed me for the past few years. Sometimes an entrepreneur needs encouragement from another successful entrepreneur.
Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. We all know that it’s important to eat more vegetables, eat less sugar, exercise more, and get better sleep etc. But while we know it intellectually, it’s often difficult to put it into practice and make it a part of our daily habits. In your opinion what are the 3 main blockages that prevent us from taking the information that we all know, and integrating it into our lives?
- “I’m too old. It’s too late for me.” Not true. No matter how bad off you think you are, or how old you are, it’s not too late. Exercise is in fact medicine and now, more personal trainers are experts at helping formerly unfit and inactive people in their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s to regain strength, endurance, balance in order to live a more active life.
- Denial: “I’m fine. I don’t need to work out.” Well, that seems short-sighted to me. At some point, every body is affected by the trajectory of aging. If you do not exercise, your downhill trajectory will be steeper and you will make yourself more susceptible to a whole stew of problems (diabetes, metabolic syndrome, dementia) that are not only avoidable but also very expensive to care for. Think of exercise as upstream preventive healthcare, and if you do it, you can slow or even reverse the downhill slide and enjoy a longer, happier, healthier life.
- “I don’t know what to do.” It’s easy: get a coach or a trainer who understands the concept of baby steps. What seems daunting at first is actually quite easy and sensible and a good trainer/coach can not only instruct you, but make it fun, and set you on a path that can change your life.
Can you please share your “5 Non-Intuitive Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Dramatically Improve One’s Wellbeing”? (Please share a story or an example for each, and feel free to share ideas for mental, emotional and physical health.)
- The most accessible and simplest exercise you can do, brisk walking outside, with an occasional jog or sprint thrown in when you are able, is actually the best exercise for overall health and wellness. Great aerobic benefits. Builds endurance and leg strength, which helps with overall balance and core strength, and boosts your energy level and immune system, and has minimal chance of injury. In fact, researchers at University of Leicester report that fast walkers could live up to 15 years longer than people who move slowly. Our bodies have evolved to walk and the more you do, and the faster you go, the better off you are. In my upcoming book — “The Secrets of Aging Well #1: Get Outside” — I actually argue that brisk uphill walking for long distances over rugged terrain, i.e. hiking, is the fountain of youth. I am an avid hiker, and I have studied the benefits of hiking for many years, and there is solid evidence that for both brain and body health, it cannot be beat. Hiking develops the kind of fitness and endurance you cannot achieve through a gym-only exercise program because it helps synergize your entire body — eyes, brain, heart, muscles, joints, and especially your legs — enabling you to move and perform much better in the real world while triggering powerful, positive, physiological changes.
- Get outside more. Far too many people are house-bound, office-bound, city-bound, or gym-bound. My strong feeling is that we need to find more time to be outside in a natural setting and ideally far away from the hustle and bustle of civilization. Not only is the sunshine beneficial but the sights and sounds of a natural environment — birds chirping, ocean waves crashing, running streams and waterfalls, wind through the trees, thunderstorms, etc. — have broad positive effects on mood, reduced anxiety and stress, increased creativity and attention span, improved immune system, and much more. All that offsets the stress and tension of city life. Bird song in particular has a wonderful soothing effect on the human brain. That’s because eons ago, primitive humans knew that when the birds were singing there were no predators in the area. That’s hardwired into our brains still.
- Unplug from technology as often as possible. Staring at a computer monitor plus your phone’s ringing, pinging and dinging randomly all day and sometimes all night is a real detriment to not only your attention span but to your brain health and your stress level. Shut off all but the most important alerts, unplug totally at night, and retrain yourself to enjoy the silence. Sadly, this is getting very hard to do, no matter where in the world you are. My son and I went to Easter Island, the most remote place on earth, to get as far from civilization as we could. Getting off the plane when we arrived from Santiago, Chile, we had four bars on the cell phone, email, texting, and Facebook all possible. The same goes for Mount Everest: on the entire 50-mile very remote route through Nepal to the mountain, my team was very preoccupied with Instagram positing, sending What’s App pictures to family and friends a world away, and checking email. Sherpas trudge up and down this route chatting nonchalantly on the phone! So, you need to be very disciplined, but you do need to unplug.
- No music on your run/workout. Many think that pounding, high decibel music is a motivator for a good workout. I take the opposite view. For many, it creates unwanted stress and tension and triggers the creation of the stress hormone, cortisol, which in excess amounts leads to weight gain, anxiety, depression, and worst of all, it can harm brain cells. So turn the volume way down, or turn it off and listen to the silence. It’s amazing how many gym owners do not get this: one of the gyms I go to keeps the main exercise room music at 80–90 decibels. Giant speakers four feet from the heads of the people on the stair climbers. It’s so loud you cannot block it out with the music in your own headset. And the last time I polled the crowd, 7 of 10 people wore their own headset trying to block the club’s music, to no avail. Give silence a try and see how the stress evaporates.
- Go to the top of something, even a tall building, and enjoy the view. Most people spend a lot of time indoors, looking at screens up close, in an office setting, and focused on what is right in front of our noses. Your eyes are controlled by small, complex muscles, and if you don’t use the full range of those muscles, it will affect your eyesight and your mood. My solution to this is altitude, as often as possible. Look to the horizon. Look at a broad vista, and if you cannot get to the top of something, try the beach. The awe you experience looking out from a high place, even from the top of a tall building, or perhaps ocean-side, provides a mental boost AND it uses the full range of your eye muscles looking off into the distance. Those muscles relax when they are focused to infinity, and your stress level plummets.
As an expert, this might be obvious to you, but I think it would be instructive to articulate this for the public. Aside from weight loss, what are 3 benefits of daily exercise? Can you explain?
Since 50% of the population is over age 50, I’m going to focus my reply there:
-Daily exercise keeps you young. The anti-aging benefits are profound. It slows aging, keeps you limber and flexible, prevents the muscle loss associated with aging (sarcopenia), strengthens bones, enables your heart to keep pumping efficiently, and your circulatory system to keep your whole body well-supplied with oxygen and nutrients. In fact, when you exercise, your body responds by creating new blood vessels. This process is called angiogenesis, and it can produce improved eyesight, stronger muscles, protection against stroke, better sleep and digestion, and so on. Anti-aging indeed.
-Daily exercise keeps you sharp. The increase in blood flow and oxygen created by intense exercise actually builds new brain cells via neurogenesis and is thought to slow or prevent cognitive decline.
-Daily exercise boosts energy and stamina. Numerous researchers have found that everyone who exercises — from healthy adults to chronically sick, at all ages — experiences more energy and less fatigue. More energy and stamina can completely transform your outlook and give you a big confidence and mood boost.
For someone who is looking to add exercise to their daily routine, which 3 exercises would you recommend that are absolutely critical?
The answer here depends on assessing the person’s current abilities. An assessment is essential. If there is concern for injury, play it safe and do walking, bridges and rows until you are ready for more. For a more advanced workout, ramp it up over time like this:
- Walking is so very important but you need a little more than that. When ready, intermix walking with an occasional jog, and then up it to a sprint to elevate the heart rate. Gradual improvement to build a stronger, more efficient heart pump is key.
- Bridges are a safe way for a newbie to work the hips, glutes, and leg muscles without risking injury to knees. In time, or for a more capable person, I recommend a variety of squats and lunges, the ultimate exercise for motive power.
- Rows are a safe way for a newbie to work the chest, shoulder and arm muscles. A notch up, I recommend the classic push up, which can be done bent-knee or at an angle on the stairs if needed to get in enough repetitions.
At any level of difficulty, I strongly favor functional fitness movements, those that use bodyweight and involve multiple muscle groups and complex movements. A gym is not necessary and to avoid injury, learning functional fitness movements from a trainer is optimal.
In my experience, many people begin an exercise regimen but stop because they get too sore afterwards. What ideas would you recommend to someone who plays sports or does heavy exercise to shorten the recovery time, and to prevent short term or long term injury?
Some soreness is inevitable, it’s actually a sign of progress. But injuring yourself is not.
Every body is different on the issue of recovery and there’s no magic pill, so everyone from newbie to elite athlete has to listen to their body and adjust the workload and effort to be just tough enough to get results but not so tough to cause serious pain or injury. A coach can help you find that balance until you know it for yourself.
Newbies should go slow and ease into things. When you gradually build confidence and body awareness you can do more repetitions, more intensity, walk or run further, add heavier weights, in small increments. Over time this adds up and a few months later you’re no longer a newbie and you may find the post-workout soreness turns into a post-workout high.
Also, until you really know your body, you need enough recovery time: quality sleep, hydration and protein to help cells replenish and recover, and my favorite excuse to be a little kid again: chocolate milk! It’s one of the best recovery tricks I’ve learned through the years.
There are so many different diets today. Can you share what kind of diet you follow?
I have evolved to a low carb lifestyle, with intermittent fasting, and sometimes I will go to super-low carb to trigger ketosis. It’s not really a diet though, it’s now the way I eat. You have to drink plenty of water with this though or side effects such as kidney stones (which I did get once when I first started) are possible.
I do drop off this routine a few times a year because it’s hard to keep up, especially if you travel, and doubly so if like me, you like pasta, pancakes and pizza from time to time. Maintaining metabolic flexibility and adaptability while keeping calories under control is a realistic approach.
Which diet do you recommend to most of your clients?
The trusted nutritional experts I rely on have convinced me that a low-calorie Mediterranean diet has been shown to be most effective for the most people. It develops metabolic flexibility while meeting most nutritional needs.
I’ve recently become intrigued by all elements of fasting: nearly every important body function and organ seems to benefit from a few days of fasting, but what intrigues me the most are the claims that it helps reduce toxins and helps with longevity. This bears further study.
For active people I recommend serious reduction in carbohydrates as their energy food. A protein and fat based diet (no trans fats!), very counterintuitive from what we’ve been told for a generation, trains your body to burn fat as fuel; that’s a good thing if you want to remain lean. Natural fats are a more evenly burning fuel than carbs, without the highs and lows you get from carb loading. I’ve done this myself for long hikes and treks and the move away from carbs has boosted my endurance greatly.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you?
For me, there are two modern seminal fitness books:
“Spark, The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain”
by Dr. John Ratey
“The First Twenty Minutes, How We Can Exercise Better, Train Smarter, Live Longer”
by Gretchen Reynolds
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I would re-engineer the fitness business to be more science-based, more disciplined, more professional, and reinvent it as upstream preventive healthcare. That would make it a respected part of the medical/healthcare equation. And by upstream preventive healthcare, I mean so far upstream that things like obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular problems, and Alzheimer’s are greatly diminished and never occur in many people. This would drastically reduce healthcare costs and allow people to live longer, happier healthier lives.
I would refocus the fitness business on people above age 50 and create a company that could motivate them to get off the couch, and coach them to be more fit, mentally sharper, and active well into their 90s. Which incidentally is exactly what I am attempting to do right now.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
“Two roads diverged in a wood and I — I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” Robert Frost
Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
At every key juncture of my career, I have sought the road less travelled. The riskier, less expected, most challenging and interesting roles I could find at that point in time. I just don’t like following the pack, or playing it safe, or going through the motions. A high degree of difficulty is what makes any challenge worthwhile.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
I’d love to pitch a legendary investor like Peter Thiel on how to re-invent fitness as upstream preventive healthcare. I’d love to do the same with the big health insurance providers because prevention can save them billions of dollars and completely reshape the healthcare market, and they should be investing heavily on this. So much of what is labeled as preventive healthcare isn’t preventing anything, it’s treating or slowing a condition that could have been avoided in the first place.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!
About the author: Dr. William Seeds is a board-certified orthopedic surgeon and physician specializing in all aspects of sports medicine and total joint treatments. With over 22 years of experience, Dr. Seeds is focused on providing the most innovative results to those seeking to maximize their performance, relieve injuries, and live a healthy lifestyle.