To develop the habit of restful adequate sleep, make it a priority. Go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time every day. Shut down your technology, any negative thoughts and especially pay attention to what should be a lack of lighting.
As a part of our series about “How Anyone Can Build Habits For Optimal Wellness, Performance, & Focus”, I had the pleasure of interviewingDr. John Zielonka.
Dr. John Zielonka is one of Canada’s most trusted health and wellness experts. Author of 8 books including the best seller “The Science of Brain Health- The Simple 7 Step Solution to Prevent the Nightmare of Alzheimer’s”, he is a functional health doctor, an orthomolecular nutritionist, holds a fellowship in Vitamin Supplementation and Anti-Aging and is the founder of National Health Day in Canada. He has made over 100 television and radio appearances and has helped thousands to transform their health and their lives.
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?
Surprising to many, I grew up as the very quiet and shy middle child in Toronto, Canada yet today I obviously have no problem speaking in front of large audiences. From an early age my dad taught me the value of hard work and earning your own money. I was that kid who walked around in the summer with my lawnmower knocking on doors to cut your grass and in the winter it was my shovel to clear your snow off your driveway. As for paper routes, at one point I had 7 at the same time with my first one at age 7. If you let your 7 year-old ride his bike across a major 6 lane street into a different neighborhood to go door to door today, you’d probably be charged with child neglect.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
Growing up for me was the opposite of health. I can’t tell you the number of times I would visit my dad in the hospital for his latest heart condition while I was still a teenager. You could literally go from head to toe on my dad with a different health condition; heart disease, diabetes, diverticulitis, osteoporosis, osteoarthritis and multiple forms of cancer. He was under the care of so many different doctors and on so many different drugs yet nothing ever got better. It was this realization that there had to be a better way that led me to dedicate my life to help the world find true health.
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?
There were many people over the course of my life and professional career that offered encouragement and provided opportunities that it would be hard to pick just one. Whether it was Miss Peck, my grade 5 teacher who encouraged me to excel at learning or Mr. Morrison who gave me the opportunity to begin my professional education, they were all greatly appreciated. I’m pleased to say I’ve tried to pay it forward by acting as mentor to many friends, patients and students. I’ve always been someone who doesn’t really believe in luck; rather I believe that one is fortunate to take action on the opportunities afforded to them or the ones they create for themselves.
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?
As a neuro-functional chiropractor, while I care for a wide variety of conditions, my main goal is to optimize one’s spine and nervous system thus optimizing your brain-body connection. However, public perception is that we’re mainly back doctors. I’ve often told the story of my first month in practice as a brand new grad where a new sports injury caused me significant low back pain. It became so bad that in the course of caring for other patients, I would be leaning over them to perform a chiropractic adjustment and I would suddenly go into spasm being unable to move. If you’re at all familiar with this position, you could understand how a few seconds might go unnoticed but I went into spasm for a full minute or two while holding onto a patient as they were lying on their side. How on earth do I explain to the patient I’m holding that while I’m fixing their back I’ve just gone into back spasms? Imagine the irony of a chiropractor contemplating shutting down his brand new practice because of back pain. My concern was so great that my own care even included a visit to one of my old professors at my chiropractic college who reassured me that I was in fact doing all the right things and that I would recover.
The lesson learned was twofold; one, that I maintain my own health in tip top shape and two, that I may want to pay particular attention to some of the contact sports that I was playing at the time. Having said that, the biggest lesson was the humility, greater empathy, and understanding from a patient’s perspective of what they were going through.
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?
I find this an incredibly interesting question as I have a different definition of success than most. Many people believe that the definition of success is simply achieving one’s goals. However, if this was true, all one would ever have to do to be successful would be to set really low goals and you could always consider yourself successful. My definition of true success is to actually achieve your true optimal potential and as such, I would argue that success is a never ending pursuit through the course of your lifetime. Of course this requires relentless dedication and effort where you will encounter never-ending challenges. My advice would be to understand that getting past each challenge simply makes you stronger. The old saying is that God only challenges those who are strong enough to overcome those challenges. On a personal note, my daughter is now experiencing this on her quest to become a veterinarian. Whenever things become challenging, I point out to her that if it was easy, everyone would be doing it.
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?
Would I surprise you if I said Curious George? It really was the first series that turned me onto reading when I was 6 years old, other than my comic books, and I remember taking every opportunity to sneak over to the school library. I was also very fond of brain teaser books which taught me how to think outside the box at an early age. Obviously I’ve read and listened to thousands of books over the course of my lifetime and am now at the point where I’ve actually written 8 books myself. I honestly don’t know if there’s just one that stands out as each would build on the one before it and even change how you interpreted it. When you think you’ve found “the one”, you may not realize you had to read 20 others to get there. What I have always appreciated and conveyed to all my children is that the entire knowledge and history of the world as well as all the ideas to share is at our fingertips for those who wish to make the effort and have the opportunity.
Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Why does that resonate with you so much?
I have two favorite quotes; one by Hippocrates that I like so much that I commissioned a large painting with it for my health centre that explains what true health is really all about:
“Humans are designed to be healthy as long as they are whole. Body, mind and spirit. People are characterized by self-healing properties that come from within and an innate health force. Perfect health, harmony is the normal state for all life”.
Needless to say it so strongly resonates with what I’ve preached over the past 30 years of my professional career. How is it that Hippocrates, the father of medicine, understood this 2,000 years ago and how different is this from our so called sick-care system?
My second quote is much shorter and from Confucius — “To Know and Not Do — is Not to Know”. Unless we take action, nothing happens. This has led to a saying that I coined years ago and share with my patients — “Hope is nice — but action is better”.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
I’m incredibly excited to be working on 2 new projects both near and dear to my heart.
The first is a brand new book (and accompanying functional health program) just released on Amazon last month that reached bestseller status in multiple categories — “The Science of Brain Health — The Simple 7 Step Solution to Prevent the Nightmare of Alzheimer’s”. Alzheimer’s is a dreaded disease that modern medicine really has no answers to that is almost 100% likely to affect either you or a loved one. Not only did I experience this with both of my parents but I also carry the Alzheimer’s gene.
The second, believe it or not, is another brand new book (and accompanying functional health program) also released on Amazon last month that reached bestseller status — “The Science of Vitamins Meets Optimum Health & Common Sense (2nd Edition) — Transform & Protect Your Health for Life”. While I never had any intention of releasing two books so close to one another, I simply found it unfathomable that while the world is shutting down and talking of masks and isolation, so few doctors are talking about how to actually optimize your own immune system during this crisis. If ever there were a time for leadership and to transform & protect your health for life, now is that time.
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?
I describe this in many of my books and refer to it as the health continuum. Society has made the idea of optimal health far more difficult than it needs to be. If one wants to lose 50 pounds, that goal seems insurmountable for most. The average teenager doesn’t worry about heart disease because they think that’s decades down the road. If a drug can mask the symptoms of my bad habits, why worry about it now? But that’s exactly why daily habits are so incredibly important. You didn’t gain those 50 unwanted pounds overnight. That heart disease took years to develop. In fact, I challenge you to pick any major disease that works differently. We all know of someone who died of a heart attack and the response is “wow — and he was so healthy”. I’m sorry but he wasn’t. That sweet little old lady who fell and broke her hip — those bones were becoming brittle long before that. If you just found out you have cancer, again I’m very sorry but those cells were changing long before that. I see the same thing in my health center with your spine and nervous system and my next door neighbor the dentist will tell you that your cavity started long before your toothache.
Your health is determined by your daily habits and this downhill decline begins long before you ever feel it. Eating one cookie won’t kill you but eating like that every day over the course of your life will kill you.
How have habits played a role in your success? Can you share some success habits that have helped you in your journey?
I don’t know of any successful person who doesn’t appreciate the importance of habits. There are many but 3 that first come to mind are 1. Never stopping learning. Yes, this is a habit. Many people don’t realize it’s estimated that the field of knowledge in healthcare significantly changes every 4 years. What this means is that even if you were studying full-time to become a doctor, some of what you learned in first year is no longer applicable by the time you graduate. There’s not a single day that goes by that I’m not reading, listening or watching something new. 2. Your morning routine. How many people do you know of who dread getting out of bed or even worry about it when they go to bed the night before? What kind of way is that to start your day and what tone does that set? Here’s where I give a shout out to Hal Elrod’s “Miracle Morning” and the simple habits you can take to dramatically change your day. 3. Take your vitamins every morning. One of my sayings that I often tell patients is “Vitamins work — the only requirement is that you actually take them”. This is one of my specialities and the good science is quite clear. To make this a habit, leave your bottles out on the counter or right by your coffee maker, not hidden out of sight.
Speaking in general, what is the best way to develop good habits? Conversely, how can one stop bad habits?
There are many things that one can do to develop new good habits. As I’ve alluded to, start small and stay positive. Pick the easiest of things so that it’s almost impossible to fail. Last but not least, decide and commit to better habits and a healthier life. Many people don’t realize that the word “decide” literally means to cut off all other possibilities. As such, once you start, there should be no turning back. Set up a cue or trigger, make it easy and have a reward.
One place where people have it backwards is that they’re looking to find the motivation for their new habit. Instead, let’s turn to science and Newton’s 1st Law of Motion — every object will remain at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line unless compelled to change its state by the action of an external force. What does that mean? As Nike says “Just Do It”. Instead of looking for motivation to do the habit, it’s doing the habit that will bring you the motivation.
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.
Just as our bad habits lead to our demise, developing good habits are essential for optimal health and wellness. Three simple yet powerful ones are as follows: 1) the habit of getting restful, adequate sleep every night. This is possibly the most underrated of what I refer to as the 5 Keys to Health where one would actually die sooner from a lack of sleep than they would a lack of food. Improper sleep can affect everything from brain function to the inability to lose stubborn fat and of course sets a terrible start to the next day. 2) Regular daily exercise for the body, mind and spirit. The science is quite clear where exercise optimizes performance, helps prevent most major disease and is a better anti-depressant than any drug currently on the market. 3) As previously mentioned, the daily habit of taking professional grade vitamin supplementation every day. Does this replace good nutrition? Of course not — that’s why it’s called supplementation meaning “in addition to”. But most never come close to obtaining the nutrients necessary to perform at an optimal level.
Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?
1) To develop the habit of restful adequate sleep, make it a priority. Go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time every day. Shut down your technology, any negative thoughts and especially pay attention to what should be a lack of lighting. The dividends will be wonderful. 2) To develop the habit of daily exercise, we need to make time for it, not find time for it. Book it into your schedule just as you would any other important appointment. Lastly, change the word “exercise” to the word “enjoy”. Imagine the difference and likelihood of accomplishment if you chose an exercise where you had to enjoy yourself daily versus the chore of exercising every day. 3) To develop the habit of daily vitamin supplementation, 2 things are necessary. First, find a health professional that you trust to provide you with the best vitamins for you. Not all vitamins are created equally. Second, leave them on your counter ideally beside your coffee maker where you can’t miss them.
Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal performance at work or sport? Please share a story or example for each.
Good habits for optimal performance at work and sport would of course include the good habits necessary for optimal health. Specifically for work, I would also include the habit of always tackling your toughest challenge first, eliminating all distractions and not just delegating but rather eliminating what you can.
Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?
To develop the habit of tackling your toughest challenge first, simply take one minute before you even get to work to determine what challenge is most important to accomplish. Then take just one more minute to realize how much easier everything else will be once that’s off your plate. As Brian Tracy puts it, you want to “eat that frog”.
To eliminate distractions, consider turning your phone off or switching it to airplane mode until that first challenge is completed. Tim Ferris of The 4 Hour Work Week would set up an autoresponder on his email where he would only answer emails for 30 minutes a week. While that might not be practical for you, Ferris said it was amazing how many people stopped emailing him.
As for delegating and eliminating, appreciate that there is a difference between efficient and effective. You might be very efficient at something but it may serve little purpose and in fact may not be necessary at all. Develop the habit of taking just a few minutes to determine if the work you’re doing is really even necessary in the first place.
Can you share three good habits that can lead to optimal focus? Please share a story or example for each.
As someone whose focus of expertise is on brain health, this is a hugely important question. One needs to understand that being able to focus doesn’t just mean that you have to concentrate harder. Your ability to focus at an optimal level will be dependent on the health of your brain and its neural connections. As such, your first good habit is to do all the healthy things that I’ve already mentioned for brain health and focus, namely; proper nutrition, restful adequate sleep, daily exercise for the body, mind and spirit, and professional grade vitamin supplementation.
Secondly, I would definitely add the habit of seeing a good neuro-functional doctor of chiropractic. There is exciting new research that demonstrates that chiropractic adjustments can have a direct effect on the pre-frontal cortex and helping to improve brain function. Just be sure to choose your chiropractor wisely as not all chiropractors practice in a neuro-functional capacity.
Third, get away from the myth and habit of multi-tasking and focus on only one thing at a time. Yes, I know many people think they’re great multi-taskers but consider this experiment. What I’d like you to do is time yourself while you complete this simple task. Simply count out loud as fast as you can from 1 to 26. Then immediately recite the alphabet from A to Z. Record your total time. Now I’d like you to accomplish the same end result of reciting these numbers and letters but this time you’ll multi-task, switching back and forth between numbers and letters while timing yourself. Specifically you’ll say out loud 1, A, 2, B, 3, C, 4, D, all the way to 26, Z. Ready? Go. So how did you do? You can’t tell me that you can’t count to 26 or that you don’t know the alphabet (and if you cheated by writing it down, you’ve certainly proved my point). But every time you switch your focus, no matter how simple the task, you have to re-focus and lose time.
If you’d like further proof, I’d even suggest to you that you can’t walk and talk at the same time. Sure, it can be easily done if it’s casual conversation, but have you ever experienced that if the conversation turns to something super serious the two of you will actually stop walking?
Can you help explain some practices that can be used to develop those habits?
If you’d really like to improve your focus, get into the habits that I’ve previously discussed of optimizing your health and brain function to enable optimal focus in the first place. Secondly, make it a practice to start and finish one and only one task before moving onto the next.
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?
What you refer to as flow is what I refer to as being in the zone. It’s a wonderful state of being 100% immersed and focused on something you enjoy, has value and is challenging yet its accomplishment seems almost effortless to others. To achieve this state involves a number of factors. First, be passion about it. Second, remove all distractions which have become all too common-place in this social media driven world. Third, maintain your health and brain power at optimal levels which requires daily action through nutrition, exercise, restful sleep, proper nervous system function and healthy thinking.
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.
There is a movement I actually originated 15 years ago when I founded National Health Day in Canada. It’s been proclaimed by the mayor of Ottawa every year and I’ve appeared in the national media. Its purpose was twofold; one was to understand what the word health actually meant (contrary to our sick-care world) and two was the idea that health is your responsibility.
Health — “the optimal state of physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”.
There are 3 key points to this definition; 1) they’re not just telling you what health is, there actually telling you what health isn’t. There is no other word in the English language that I’m aware of that does this. That would be like defining an apple by saying it’s a fruit that’s not a banana. 2) It is holistic in nature being physical, mental and social (I would add spiritual as well) and 3) by its definition health is the optimal state. As such, there’s no such thing as being pretty healthy. If you’re not at an optimal state, you’re really not healthy.
Now imagine if the entire world understood this definition and actually acted upon it. By far, the leading cause of death in the western world is chronic disease which is largely preventable from ever happening in the first place. If the world is ever to become truly healthy, we must switch from a sick-care system to a health and wellness paradigm. Instead of arguing about not having enough money for healthcare, we should be discussing what paradigm that money should be spent on in the first place.
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 🙂
This is an interesting question that really made me consider the possibilities. Unfortunately, many of my choices such as Muhammad Ali and JFK are no longer with us. Ideally, it would be someone that I could learn from and could help me teach the world on what true health is all about. From a purely personal place since childhood I’ve always had a thing for space travel where I’d like to fly to the edge of space and have already done a zero gravity flight from Cape Canaveral. Maybe Richard Branson would take me for lunch on his next space flight.
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Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success.
Thank-you for the opportunity. I’m always willing to share the truth about health.