“Nutrition is also very important when it comes to wellness”, With Dr. Adrienne Herrenbruck and Parveen Panwar, Mr. Activated

Nutrition is also very important when it comes to wellness. My simplest and I think the most useful eating habit, is adding more single-ingredient foods. No need to restrict anything from your diet, just try to add a couple of whole foods in each meal or snack. When my schedule is full, I prioritize the […]

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Nutrition is also very important when it comes to wellness. My simplest and I think the most useful eating habit, is adding more single-ingredient foods. No need to restrict anything from your diet, just try to add a couple of whole foods in each meal or snack. When my schedule is full, I prioritize the easiest meal of the day for me, which is breakfast. As I said earlier, I prep my breakfasts even though I work from home. This means that at least 30% of my food intake is high quality and nutritious.

As a part of our series about “How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance, & Focus”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Adrienne Herrenbruck, PhD.

Dr. Herrenbruck earned her PhD in Exercise Physiology from the University of Kentucky and now serves as an Associate Professor of Sports and Health Science for American Public University System. With over 10 years of experience in the Wellness and Exercise Science field, Dr. Herrenbruck understands well the importance of building and sustaining positive habits for a healthy and productive life. As a Certified Exercise Physiologist through the American College of Sports Medicine, Dr. Herrenbruck is trained to work with clients of various health backgrounds and help them achieve optimal wellness through the best, scientific practices.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?

Absolutely, and I’m thrilled to be included in this important series! I grew up in the Southeast (near Nashville, TN) and was consistently involved in both organized and recreational sports. In fact, you can ask anyone in my field and it’s probable that their excitement and love of exercise science are driven by an early appreciation of being active. Alongside my active childhood, I was part of a family that frequently ate at home. Although my mom is a quintessential southern cook (and an excellent one at that), virtually all of our meals were homemade from scratch. The combination of this lifestyle as a child and into adolescence served me well. I have a huge appreciation for both quality food and moving my body!

Aside from being active and building an interest in living well, I was also homeschooled. I know many have a negative connotation to traditional homeschooling, but I’m here to say it’s possible to be well-educated, and socially adept, even being homeschooled k-12 (we’re not freaks). After finishing high school, I attended Murray State University where I earned my bachelors in Exercise Science and met my now husband of eight years! Upon completion of my degree I attended Georgia State University where I pursued and earned my master’s degree in Exercise Science as well.

After graduate school I worked for a couple year in the field in various roles before deciding to pursue academia and collegiate level teaching full time after completing my PhD at the University of Kentucky.

What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.

That’s a good question. Many individuals in our family are nurses (I think we have 5 at this point) and although I really enjoyed science all through school, I did not enjoy the idea of working with those who were sick. Somewhere along the way, I realized that I could work to help prevent individuals from becoming ill, and I was completely sold. It was a bonus that I loved everything about sports and could now nerd out about the human body for good reason. As for getting into academia, I have to credit the students of Kentucky Wesleyan College. I had an opportunity to teach there for a couple of semesters when I had my master’s degree and I completely fell in love with the entire process. From that point on I knew that academia and teaching at the collegiate level was my goal long term.

None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?

Without a doubt, the most supportive person in my life is my husband, Steven. When I went to him with the idea of pursuing my PhD (which meant moving), he was one hundred percent on board. It was likely the shortest conversation we’ve ever had that has had such a big impact on our lives. He gladly moved and dealt with my anxiety for the next four years. He was truly in the trenches with me, and I think he was just as excited for me to defend my dissertation as I was!

Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?

This isn’t funny, but I think it’s a common mistake in the health and fitness world. Early on in my career when I was learning all the science of how the human body works under exercise conditions, I truly believed that being healthy was quite simple. While I still believe there are simple things one can do, the actual act of creating a healthy lifestyle is very complex. We are not robots. Therefore, it’s near impossible for individuals to follow the seemingly oh-so-clear advice to “eat less and move more”. From experience, this usually does much more harm than good. Healthy living is very nuanced, and after several failed attempts with clients, this became very apparent.

The road to success is hard and requires tremendous dedication. This question is obviously a big one, but what advice would you give to a young person who aspires to follow in your footsteps and emulate your success?

Do what needs to be done to move the needle, not what you think will move the needle. This may sound strange, but often I think we make up stories in our head about what actions will get us certain results. It may seem like if I write 500 words every day eventually I’ll become a world-renown author, but this is rarely the case. Instead, I suggest studying people in the position you eventually want. See what they really do day in and day out, and copy. Try to decrease the notion of romanticizing a position and get down to the nuts and bolts of what got them where they are.

If someone wants my role, specifically, there are a few necessary and unavoidable steps. First, find a well-respected graduate program and earn the approval of an academic advisor. From there, focus on research, and building experience. Ask for opportunities such as teaching assistantships. Try to present at any conference you can. Basically; hone your skills and be as active in the field as possible. Lastly, never underestimate the power of asking for what you want. I got my first full-time teaching position by sending a cold email and asking to take someone to coffee while we were at a conference.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

I highly respect Cal Newport and his books. Specifically, his last three (So Good They Can’t Ignore You, Deep Work, and Digital Minimalism) have helped me craft my own philosophy on productivity and success. He does a fantastic job of creating systems to help you achieve a high level of output while enjoying your life, loving your job, and relishing in career autonomy.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?

Interestingly enough, it’s the quote that inspired the title of one of Cal’s books. Steve Martin: “Be so good they can’t ignore you.”

I’ve long appreciated this quote and used it as a type of mantra throughout my career. This, I believe, is what brought me to find Cal’s books in the first place.

What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?

This may not seem interesting to many, but I’m currently embarking on a complete overload of several courses in the Sports and Health Sciences curriculum. I actually love this process. It’s tedious, very detail-oriented, and sometimes frustrating, but incredibly rewarding.

Something that may resonate and be useful to others is the process I use prior to making any changes. I create a single capture location (google doc usually) and then ask all previous instructors of the course what their feedback or thoughts are on the current format. Sometimes there’s not much, but often this simple quick email comes back with a few clearly common issues. Perhaps an assignment is not clear to students, or there’s too much overlap in a few sections.

The take-home message for non-academic’s is; don’t re-create the wheel! You may be able to imagine what issues are in the current system you’re improving, but why imagine when you can get concrete evidence? Start there, and the rest will fall into place more easily.

Another, potentially more interesting project is a book idea I’m hoping will come to fruition in the coming months. My goal with this book is to give individuals a road-map for creating a lifelong healthy lifestyle based on habits (I’m currently open to any literary agents that are interested in representing me, ha!).

OK, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the core focus of our interview. This will be intuitive to you but it will be helpful to spell this out directly. Can you help explain a few reasons why it is so important to create good habits? Can you share a story or give some examples?

Habits are important because we, as humans, make nearly 90% of our decisions daily automatically, with very little to zero thought. What you eat, how you move, these are all automated pathways in the brain that are well worn. Habits are powerful because when we make the well-worn paths healthy choices, we become, as a result, automatically healthy. This allows us to not waste our very limited will power on trivial decisions such as blueberries vs. chocolate chips for a snack.

How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?

Habits are the foundation of my lifestyle and therefore they contribute immensely to my success both personally and professionally. Without habits I would constantly be functioning from a place of what I “should” do, relying on willpower and white-knuckling to do what needs to be done.

There are quite a few habits I track regularly, and even more that are so automatic I almost don’t realize they exist. Specifically, for building success a few come to mind. First, I have a moment of solitude every day. For me, this is during my morning walk with my dog. No phone, no music. Just Waylon and me strolling and observing nature. This is vital to my morning feeling less anxiety-driven and more relaxed and enjoyable. Second, I time-block schedule my day. I have a general rhythm I follow in my week because I have several repeating tasks (grading, writing announcements, interacting in class, etc). However, I still make sure I know exactly what I will be working on today, and at what time. This is paramount, because I’m intentional and not just aimlessly choosing from a seemingly never-ending list of to-dos. Third, I prep my breakfasts in advance. Although I work from home, having a healthy, filling breakfast to start the day is important for my focus.

Speaking in general, what is the best way to develop good habits? Conversely, how can one stop bad habits?

Habits are built with repetition. I like to use the analogy of a path in the woods. If you keep taking the same path, clearing brush as you go, eventually it will get so well worn that it’s easy to walk on. Conversely, if you never go down the path that’s already there, eventually, grass will start to grow, then brush, then fallen leaves, until one day that path won’t even appear to be an option.

To create new paths, or abandon others, takes consistency. You can’t clear a path once and expect to never clear it again. Consistency is what makes the path the automatic choice.

The biggest thing to remember is that if you want to stop taking a path, there has to be an alternate. Until your brain believes there’s an alternate it will never stop taking the well-worn path. This is why it’s important to focus on building new habits first.

Let’s talk about creating good habits in three areas, Wellness, Performance, and Focus. Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimum wellness. Please share a story or example for each.

The number one habit that I think the majority of people can benefit from is taking more steps. Although there isn’t a perfect number, not being sedentary is certainly good for our health, both physically and mentally. During my time as a PhD student, I didn’t have a car, rode my bike to campus (about 2 miles one way), and then walked from lab to classroom several times a day. Then, when I got home, I went directly to my evening serving gig where I easily walked 5 miles a night. This may sound extreme, but it was such an easy way to stay healthy without even needing to formally exercise. Today, I get plenty of movement thanks to at least two walks a day with my dog.

Getting enough sleep is another place many struggle to create a consistent habit. I think this is well-known but highly underappreciated. Often “hustle” is given priority when sleep would actually improve your health and performance. I have no shame in saying that I like and try to get nine hours of sleep each night.

Nutrition is also very important when it comes to wellness. My simplest and I think the most useful eating habit, is adding more single-ingredient foods. No need to restrict anything from your diet, just try to add a couple of whole foods in each meal or snack. When my schedule is full, I prioritize the easiest meal of the day for me, which is breakfast. As I said earlier, I prep my breakfasts even though I work from home. This means that at least 30% of my food intake is high quality and nutritious.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

For steps, I highly recommend tracking daily, whether it’s an apple watch or an old-school pedometer, tech is extremely good at accurately tracking steps. From there, go for the low-hanging fruit. Walk to get coffee. Walk to your co-worker’s desk instead of sending an email, etc. Don’t brush off these simple actions as “not good enough”.

For sleep, I certainly think avoiding screens is huge. It’s obvious and talked about a lot, but I know many people who don’t actually do anything about it (I’m guilty of reading on my iPad occasionally). I’m a fan of skipping social media entirely, but certainly, we can go without screens for 30 minutes. Also, I think avoiding shows and information that are jarring. It’s ok to say “I don’t watch scary movies at night because my dreams keep me up”.

With your nutrition, be ok with simplifying your options. Your food does not need to be photo-worthy. Find something you truly enjoy that is extremely nutritious, then prep it for the week! For me, this is usually overnight oats or chia seed pudding.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal performance at work or sport? Please share a story or example for each.

First, having a regular set aside time to improve skills is important. For me, what skill I’m working on changes fairly often. Currently, I’m working on a few professional development courses that are available at my workplace. I dedicate one morning each week to improving various skills in my field. Although it’s not much time, within the course of a month or two I’ve strengthened an area of my work that may put me “ahead” of the ball. It’s also intrinsically motivating to be good at what you do, so even if you don’t get recognition for this, it will create self-confidence.

Another habit I find helps me with my performance, is truly clocking out when the work is done. And by work being done, I don’t mean my to-do list is clear, it just means I’ve done a full days work, and it’s time to check out. When I’m off work, I’m off. No email notifications, no checking in on courses. The internet and working from home has created a working environment that sometimes has the expectation of “always available”. I find this is much more harmful than helpful.

Lastly, I make sure to stay hydrated throughout the day. If I drink more coffee than water in the mornings, I’ll have a headache by early afternoon (non-caffeine related). A simple habit of drinking enough water throughout the day mitigates this well and allows me to stay focused and perform my best.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

The first is simple, decide which day you would like to work on these skills, and mark it in your calendar as a repeat event. Then, at the beginning of every quarter consider the skills you hope to improve. Plug and play!

In order to check out when I clock out, I have no work-related information on my phone. My computer stays on my desk, and I honestly avoid talking too much about work unless it’s exciting and fun information.

Staying hydrated is quite simple, find a bottle you like (I have a healthy human and a yeti I switch between), fill with purified water, and keep it within arm’s reach.

Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal focus? Please share a story or example for each.

First, leave your phone in another room. Drastic? Maybe. Effective? Yes. As you may be able to tell from several of my answers, I have a bit of a negative connotation towards phones. Not because I don’t like to call or text, but because we’ve created a world that says, “all things are important and need your attention now”. This is not true. All texts, emails, and definitely Instagram stories, do not need your attention right now. When you’re working, work deep. Put all distractions away. If necessary, you may start out using a timer similar to the Pomodoro technique.

Second, I suggest creating rituals around your work. In my office I have a candle I light, I turn on specific piano music, and have my coffee and water bottle both within reach. These simple aesthetic changes tell my brain that it’s work time.

Lastly, I always have a plan when I set down to work. I don’t open my computer and wonder what I should tackle first. This is already decided and outlined intentionally thanks to my time-blocking. I have a plan, and I work on the plan.

Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?

As mentioned earlier, all habits are created with repetition. For these and any other habits, I suggest lowering the barriers. For instance, create a specific place you set your phone while you work (mine is on the charging dock in another room). To make your work more enjoyable and create a ritual, consider things you like. Buy a nice candle or paint your office a new color. Don’t underestimate the aesthetic role in work performance. If you want to work with music, practice working with the same kind of music until your brain no longer registers it as distracting. I’ve been using the same pandora station since working on my master’s degree back in 2010.

To improve your plan, try allotting a few minutes at the end or beginning of each day to make your schedule intentionally. I generally prefer creating the next day’s plan the evening before, just before I shut off for the day.

As a leader, you likely experience times when you are in a state of Flow. Flow has been described as a pleasurable mental state that occurs when you do something that you are skilled at, that is challenging, and that is meaningful. Can you share some ideas from your experience about how we can achieve a state of Flow more often in our lives?

Primarily I think flow is achieved by creating an environment dedicated to working without distractions. You will not get in a flow state if your email notifications are on. Slack will kill your flow. Also, from a productive standpoint, you will not achieve flow if you’re constantly worried about what all else is left to accomplish. This points back to the importance of having intentionality in your schedule.

Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

This is a very difficult question to answer! Although I’m not sure I have a complete philosophy to share, I would hope to inspire a movement that is focused on imperfectly pursuing a “life lived large”. I want to inspire people to do hard things and say yes to new challenges. This can apply to health, professional performance, or personal life. When we pursue difficult tasks and push ourselves to be better, we grow as a person. At the same time, I want people to know being imperfect is part of the human condition! The balance is found somewhere between pushing for new goals and being perfectly content with the beautiful life we have now.

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, especially if we both tag them 🙂

Another difficult question! At this point, I feel like I’m “fangirling” a bit, but why not have coffee with Cal Newport to discuss his philosophies and ask him questions about his position as both an academic and writer (something I’m striving to become)? Unfortunately, tagging him won’t work since he doesn’t have social media, so perhaps we need to bombard his email address or website. I’ll buy the coffee!

How can our readers further follow your work online?

Thanks for asking! All are welcome to visit my website where I write about the convergence of science and healthy living.

Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.

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