Dr. Greg Wells is a physiologist with a gift for explaining the complexity of human performance in ways we can all understand. As such, he is an expert source for media outlets during major sporting events like the Olympic Games. As a scientist, broadcaster, author, coach and athlete, Dr. Greg Wells has dedicated his career to understanding human performance and how the human body responds to extreme conditions.
Parvati Magazine: When did you know you were destined to be a communicator and teacher as well as a scientist, and how has that shaped your life?
Greg Wells: I don’t think I’ve ever really known that I was destined to be a communicator, to be honest. It has been a slow evolution with lots for failures and a few successes. When I was fifteen I broke my neck in a swimming accident in Florida, and I learned a lot about the human body in that time. That sparked an interest that led me to study kinesiology. Then when I graduated from my Ph.D. and could not get a job in sport science, I ended up getting an opportunity to do exercise medicine research at [Toronto’s] Hospital for Sick Children. That led to my research career. Then, in 2010, an old friend asked if I could help with video segments that were being produced for the Olympics and I ended up commentating the Vancouver and London Olympics, so my communication career was born. Ultimately, I can see that I have always been interested in human health and performance. And I’ve had the chance to explore that in research, medicine, television, books, expeditions and lots of other really cool experiences.
PMAG: What drives you to both participate in and study athlete performance in extreme conditions?
GW: I love studying the human body and how it performs when it’s optimized—like at the Olympics—and when it’s compromised—like when someone has cancer. We can learn a lot from these extremes, that can benefit everyone, regardless of where they are on the human spectrum. We can learn from how athletes sleep to recover. We can learn from how exercise helps children with chronic disease. The analogy is that you’re not going to find problems or limitations of your car when it’s idling in your driveway. You’ll discover all the challenges on the racetrack. Then it’s up to the team to learn how to overcome the challenges and keep them from happening in the future. That’s exactly what I try to do in my professional life—but with people, not race cars!
PMAG: Tell us about your work at SickKids and the Exercise Medicine Research Program.
GW: Dr. Allan Coates at SickKids had the vision to begin to use exercise to help children with Cystic Fibrosis (CF). We are now building the research program to explore how to prevent, diagnose and treat chronic illnesses in children with CF, some cancers, lupus, heart conditions, obesity, and other health challenges. The program is growing and the idea of using exercise as medicine is spreading around the world. It’s a very exciting time for us.
PMAG: Your latest book, “The Ripple Effect”, offers concrete advice on using a “one percent better” strategy to create a better life. How and why does that work so well?
GW: The “one percent better’ idea is simply that I think we’re more likely to make permanent and positive changes if we make small changes and stick with those micro-improvements over time. For example, 15 minutes of walking—if done consistently over time—will result in a 24-40% decrease in your risk for breast cancer and colon cancer. It’s not a lot of exercise, and it’s not intense exercise either, but the magic is in the small amount of exercise that gets added up over a long time to make a huge difference in people’s lives.
PMAG: What project are you currently involved in and excited about?
GW: There are a few. My PhD student Gillian White is doing some very interesting research on how we can use exercise to improve mental health in children after treatment for cancer. My other PhD student Jessica Caterini is exploring how we can use exercise for children with CF and heart conditions. Their results will set the stage for intervention studies where we can figure out what kind of exercise is best for different diseases. Right now, we don’t know if aerobic exercise, strength training or even stretching are best for kids with different conditions. I’m hopeful that we can come up with those answers soon.
Greg Wells, Ph.D., is a physiologist and exercise medicine researcher at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. The author of ”Superbodies” and “The Ripple Effect”, Greg is a sought-after speaker and a regular contributor to The Globe and Mail, CBC, CTV, TSN, and newspapers and magazines around the world.