Where do I even begin? When I think of Ben Greenfield, I think DEPTH. He has competed in bodybuilding, Ironman triathlons for almost a decade, and raced professionally as an obstacle course racer. He actually signed a contract with the Spartan Race Pro Racing Team for 2017. His podcast is consistently in the top 5-10 in the Health category on iTunes. In 2008, he was voted the Best Personal Trainer by the NSCA. Ben is undoubtedly recognized as one of the top 100 most influential people in health & fitness. He stays on top of the latest cutting edge research when it comes to weight loss, muscle gain, nutrition, anti-ageing, brain function, multi-sport performance, and beyond. My palms were sweaty for this episode because I wanted to stay sharp and keep up with Ben as closely as I could.
- (6:56) – Deciding to go the fitness route vs modern medicine
- (10:05) – Using novelty and variety of sport so you don’t get stuck in a rut of comfort
- (13:37) – Eating for brain function
- (18:50) – Liquid nutrition
- (23:00) – Using genetic data, DNA analysis, and blood testing to see how dietary and fitness changes are affecting you physiologically
- (30:45) – The importance of reading and writing to stay ahead of the curve
- (33:30) – Make art everyday
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Hey, this is Ben Greenfield, and you’re listening to The Airborne Mind Show.
Hey guys, Misbah Haque here. Thank you so much for joining me today and welcome back. If you’ve been loving the show, I haven’t been pushing this too aggressively, but I would really appreciate it if you could head over to iTunes and leave a five-star review. I’ve been getting a lot of cool emails, DMs, and things of that nature, let me know how much you enjoy the show. And that usually makes my day, but if you want to go above and beyond and you want to be awesome, search The Airborne Mind Show in your podcast app, hit write a review, and leave your thoughts. Good or bad, I’d love to know what you think. The other thing I would encourage you to check out is all the free training resources at theairbornemind.com.
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Where do I even begin when I start to talk about Ben Greenfield? This guy has competed in bodybuilding. He competed in Iron Man triathlons for almost a decade, is a professional obstacle course racer. Also, just signed a contract for the Spartan Race Pro racing team for 2017. And when I think of Ben, I think depth. This guy is able to go so deep on a variety of topics, health, fitness, nutrition, weight loss, muscle gain, anti-ageing, biohacking, sports performance, you name it. His podcast is consistently in the top five or top ten in the health category. And he has a ton of content that has been around for a very long time. He was voted the best personal trainer in 2008 by the NSCA.
And he’s also recognized as one of the top 100 most influential people in health. He’s also written a book called Beyond Training, which is a New York Times Bestseller.
And man, I pretty much wanted to get into how he uses fitness and nutrition and all these different things to optimize brain function. Because I think if you’re listening to this podcast, realize by now that if you go down, everything else goes down, right? Whether you’re a coach, an athlete business owner, mom, dad, husband, boyfriend, girlfriend, whatever. You understand that if you are not performing at your peak potential, that affects everything else around you. This was such a wonderful conversation. He is a really busy dude, so I wanted to get his insight on how he’s able to do this. Now, we also were super pressed for time. We had only about 30 minutes or so. I did my best to try to pack in as much as possible.
And so with that being said, I hope you enjoy this one. And more importantly, I hope you do something with it. Please enjoy. Ben, welcome to the show, man.
Thanks for having me on dude.
Yeah, man. You have your own podcast, you are somebody who was voted the best personal trainer by the NSCA in 2008. Also on a path to studying medicine and along the way, you ended up pursuing fitness in a pretty unique way at the time. And so for those who don’t know, tell us a little bit about how you got started in all of this and where this deep fascination of fitness and nutrition performance kind of came for you.
Well, I’ve always been interested in getting the most out of the body and the brain. When I was younger and was a tennis player. And so running up the hills back behind my house, learning how to use agility ladders, learning how to potentially branch out from having a Big Mac every day before tennis practice to eating things that might support the body a little bit better. All of it stemmed from tennis and then I branched out into competitive bodybuilding and did almost a decade of iron man triathlon. I race professionally now in obstacle course racing. But a lot of it for me has been trying to figure out how to get the most out of the body to keep it from dying during some of these masochistic events that I do.
But of course, I’m also on a constant quest to try and get the most cognitively out of myself as well. I’m running a lot of companies and, as you mentioned, doing a lot of podcasting and also quite a bit of writing and freelancing and speaking.
And so for me, a big part of it also is just wanting to get the most out of the brain. Honestly, spending time in the trenches, doing what I love to do and, and trying to maximize human potential. So, for me, it’s always been an infatuation. I’ve never been morbidly obese or sick with some horrible disease or something like that. It’s just something I’ve always been interested in.
And why did you end up pursuing the fitness route versus the medical world?
Mm well, when I was in college, took all the pre-med courses. I love science and took 28 credits a semester during four years at college and had a 4.0 GPA and was on top of my class and everything. I got accepted to some medical schools coming out of my undergraduate degree and decided that I wanted to spend a little bit more time delving into and deciding what to do. So, I got a master’s degree in biomechanics and exercise physiology and then wound up getting offered what at the time for me was a lot of money to work in the private sector in hip and knee surgical sales.
I did that for around four months and over the course of that time got totally disillusioned with modern medicine, working with all these orthopaedic surgeons who had like big houses and boats, and we’re really not that happy with life.
And they were working in a broken medical system, planting overpriced hips and knees into sick patients. I realized the hospital was one of the most dangerous places to even step foot into because of all the disease and bacteria. And nobody seemed happy. It left a really bitter, nasty taste in my mouth being, being in modern medicine. I literally quit that job four months in and walked across the street from my apartment into the local gym and asked for a job. And at that point, had been in personal training all through college for five years. I’d managed the wellness program at the University of Idaho. I had a sports nutrition certification and had a conditioning coach certification.
I looked pretty good on paper. I started, within about two months, managing the entire gym and then branched out and started my own series of personal training studios and gyms. And for the next six, almost seven years, helped people get fit and did a lot of cutting edge stuff. We had high-speed video cameras in our facilities where we’d analyze gait and bicycle fits. We did a lot of platelet-rich plasma injections and did blood and biomarker testing, back when almost no personal training facilities or doing anything like that. Partnered up with local physicians and the medical community to do a lot of “exercise is medicine” events with them. Also, did indirect calorimetry and VO2 max testing for metabolic rate evaluations.
I took all the science and nerdiness that I’d learned in university and in studying to potentially become a physician and trans mutated that into the fitness sector instead.
Yeah. And we’re going to come back to the blood and biomarker testing because that’s something I’m also curious to ask you about, but something I find fascinating about you is that you’re a competitive athlete, being a triathlete, done obstacle racing, but you also throw things like tennis and jujitsu and all these different things into the mix that are just different expressions of movement. But you do it with the intention to understand how it affects you cognitively. It just makes you think a different way and react a different way. What’s your thought process? How do you choose what type of exercise that you’re going to do for the day when you’re trying to get a specific stimulus out of it?
Well, first and foremost, it’s whatever seems to be the most fun, right? Whatever makes you happy. But in addition to that, if you want to get a little bit more scientific, first of all, novelty, variety, and challenge have been shown to do things like connect the left and right brain hemispheres, increase gray matter, cause better neuroplasticity and neurogenesis, improve the rate of motor neuron firing, etc. There are all sorts of things that take place when you introduce new challenges to your body and your brain. And so, part of it, for me, is every single week I try and do something that is new, and that could be using the same modality to achieve something new, like learning a new song on ukulele or guitar or something like that, or going to play tennis, but experimenting with a one-handed versus a two-handed backhand.
And sometimes it can be learning a new modality altogether. For example, I’ve recently taken the dive into gymnastics training. I’m learning how to do handstands and muscle-ups and things that are entirely new for me. A big part of it is keeping my finger on the pulse of what seems fun at the time. What seems interesting. What’s come across my plate as far as an opportunity. What my kids might be interested in. Right now my kids are into jiu-jitsu and they’re into chess and they’re into little things that are attracting me along the way just because it’s ways I can spend time with my kids. But ultimately there’s not a whole lot of planning or precision that goes into the activities that I choose, as much as I just make sure that I’m constantly seeking out novelty, variety, and challenge.
The rule that I live life by is every day I need to do at least one thing that makes smoke come out of my ear. Or something that makes me a little bit uncomfortable from a mental standpoint so I don’t get stuck in a rut of comfort from that standpoint. It could be something that makes my body struggle, not just my brain. Like going anaerobic for two minutes or doing something uncomfortable, jumping into a cold pool, or whatever. But then every quarter, I try and do something that just scares the hell out of me. Whether it’s some kind of an event that I’ve signed up for, or an open mic night or you know. Or travelling to some exotic locale where I don’t speak the language and not familiar with the area.
Something that really keeps my body and brain guessing on a far more intensive level than I might do in the comfort of my own home.
Yeah. So, you use these different expressions of movement to stay sharp, both physically and mentally. How do you incorporate nutrition into all of this? You’re obviously experimenting with tons of different things but are there certain things that we should pay attention to if we’re trying to improve cognitive function? Something should look out for when we’re designing our food profile and really diving into nutrition?
Well, first of all, I don’t get too anal-retentive about nutrition. I pretty much eat anything. We have goats and chickens and the forest out here that live in. I’ll eat anything from wild plants to fermented grains and beans and legumes to homemade sourdough bread, to goat milk, to roosters and chickens and eggs that get sacrificed. Also, don’t have a specific nutrition philosophy in terms of a restrictive diet, as much as if it’s real food, I eat it. But when it comes specifically to your question about brain performance, there are definitely things that I go out of my way to do. For example, eating foods that are rich in choline, that’s really important for your brain health. And so I eat a lot of things like eggs with the yolk, organ meats, a lot of wild-caught fish, and grass-fed beef.
I avoid fluctuations and don’t avoid sugar and carbohydrates, but what to avoid are fluctuations in blood sugar or any activity or food that would cause long-term rises in blood sugar. Because it’s the time during which blood glucose stays in the bloodstream or rapid fluctuations in blood glucose, which would necessitate a release of insulin by the pancreas that tends to be most deleterious. And so, what that means is, for example, I’ll choose the time that I eat carbohydrates to be the time that they’re going to spend the least amount of time in the bloodstream. Or cause the least number of fluctuations in blood sugar. So that would mean, for example, in a post-workout scenario, specifically post resistance training or post-high-intensity interval training. You have a real upregulation of the glute four transporters responsible for transporting glucose into muscle glycogen, for example.
And so, it’s during those times, in a post-workout scenario within anywhere from 20 minutes to three hours after a workout, that I will eat the majority of the day’s carbohydrates. For me, that’s at the end of the day because your body temperature and your grip strength, reaction time and your post-workout protein synthesis, all peak between about 4:00 and 7:00 PM. So that’s the ideal time of day to do a hard workout. That means that most of the carbohydrates that I eat are occurring with dinner. Whether I’m going to do sweet potatoes or yams or rice or whatever. And the same could be said for fructose, right? Your muscles don’t have the enzyme necessary for taking fructose and converting that into muscle glycogen.
Any fructose that you consume is going to either get converted into liver glycogen or if your liver glycogen stores are empty. It’s going to get converted into triglycerides, which can be an independent risk factor for heart disease and cause some metabolic issues if you’re not careful.
If I’m going to consume fructose, like fruit or wine or alcohol or something like that. I’ll do it when I know that my liver’s glycogen stores are a little bit tapped. For example, if you really want to do fruit, and I don’t do a lot of fruit anyway, but after an overnight fast in the morning. A smoothie would be one time you could do that. Or for me, it’s usually because I haven’t had many carbohydrates during the day and I finished up a hard workout. Usually, I’ll have my daily glass of wine at about 7:00 PM in the evening. At some point after my workout, when my livers had a few its glycogen stores tapped out. Rather than having a glass of wine after dinner when my liver glycogen stores have already been replenished by for dinner.
So, there are little things like that that I’m definitely aware of, specifically when it comes to blood sugar. And part of that is that I’m so careful with that as I have done genetic testing and do have a relatively higher than normal risk for Type 2 diabetes. So, very careful with my blood sugar levels. And there’s also this concept that the more ketones that your brain is utilizing for fuel, typically the more cognitive clarity that you tend to have. The lower your risk of things like dementia and Alzheimer’s. And so that’s another reason from not just a metabolic standpoint but from a cognitive standpoint that. I try to be careful, especially with sugar fluctuations. But of anything that I pay the most attention to when it comes to diet, it is blood sugar and to a slightly lesser extent, fructose.
Okay. I watched your video the other day on the Joe Rogan Hulk load shake. And this is from a long time ago, but there were some additions and some tweaks that you made to that. And had some really cool explanations behind that. And we don’t have to stick to just the Hulk load shake. But what are your thoughts on liquid nutrition in general and using that as kind of a means to get in some of those micronutrients and things we may not be getting from real food throughout the day?
Well, I don’t consider a smoothie to be not real food. All I do in the morning is just take a whole bunch of plants, sometimes it’s wild plants that I’ve collected from the forest. Like nettle or wild mint or Oregon grape root, or something along those lines, sometimes in the winter. It’s more things that we’ve purchased from the grocery store, like kale or bok choy or spinach. I throw that in a blender with some coconut milk or some bone broth, a little bit of lemon juice or lime juice. Typically some kind of collagen or gelatin source, whether it be bone broth or powdered collagen or powder gelatin. I blend that up and then I throw a whole bunch of chewy things in there, right? Like nuts and seeds and unsweetened coconut flakes and sometimes some raw dark cacao, things along those lines.
I eat it out of a mug with a spoon so that the digestive enzymes in my mouth get to work on it and it kind of gets slowly absorbed. And sometimes I’ll take an hour to go through a smoothie. I’m definitely not like making some liquid that sucking down because that doesn’t tend to satiate my appetite. And you get better nutrient absorption when you chew your liquids, versus when you drink your liquids. But as far as the whole liquid nutrition thing goes. There’s not really much of a difference in terms of absorption with liquids versus solids unless you’re exercising, in which case. They have shown that liquid nutrition sources during something like a marathon are going to be better absorbed, than a solid source.
So, if you’re running a marathon, choose a gel or a drink versus something like a bar. But ultimately, in your day-to-day nutrition, it doesn’t matter that much. I frankly just do the smoothie because I like it. Not because under the impression that I’m going to get better nutrient absorption than if I did eggs and spinach or something like that. So ultimately, I like to drink a morning smoothie, but there’s nothing magical that happens with liquid versus solid, from that sense. When you’re trying to really maximize micronutrient absorption, you’ve got to delve into the world of IVs. For example, in order to really push nutrients into your body at a faster rate than you’d get from food.
And I certainly do things like that. Later on today, for example, I’ll give myself a Myers’ cocktail, where I’ll tie a tourniquet around my bicep and. To shove a needle into my vein and do a push IV of glutathione and vitamin C and vitamin B12 and a whole bunch of different nutrients into my system. And that’s really how you mainline micronutrients into your body. You don’t really get any significant difference between eating a salad versus drinking a smoothie, aside from the slight fact that when blending something. Do get a pretty rapid breakdown of cellulose from plant-based fibres and you do increase the rate of absorption. But there’s not really a significant difference in terms of your macronutrient status if you were to say,
drink a smoothie versus eat a salad or blend your eggs versus frying them or something like that. I just like having a big blended shake, full of tasty things for breakfast. And that’s really why when I do that, but my kids do scrambled eggs with vegetables and so does my wife. It’s just kind of personal taste, more than anything else.
Absolutely. Coming back to the blood testing and the biomarkers, you’ve gotten to work with a lot of CrossFitters and triathletes and been able to notice. What are some things that we are deficient in? And I feel like as somebody who is involved in functional fitness and is doing it for health and longevity. We’re heading towards a place where we can be a little bit more objective with this stuff. I think you’ve mentioned it before. It’s a great idea for CrossFit gyms to partner up with different blood testing places that can provide that service so that you can be a little more objective about what you’re doing. If somebody wants to get started, what are some things we should be looking for? What are the types of tests that we should be getting? How is that of benefit to people?
When a client comes to me for coaching, for a consult, or when somebody asks me about the best test that they should get. Typically, my recommendations are first of all, just once in a lifetime, to get a genetic evaluation. You don’t have to get a full $10,000 genome sequence. They’re actually available for as low as $1,500 now. But just a basic test from 23 and Me. There’s another company called DNA Fit that I like. There are even less expensive sources where you can get your genes tested and that’s a salivary test, done from your own home for as little as a hundred bucks. But you can take that data and export it to other websites like Genetic Genie or Promethease.
There’s actually a really good website called not 23 and Me, but 23 and You. That has a list of all the different sites and services out there that you can import your genetic data into.
And the genetic data is important because it’s not only interesting to see where your ancestors came from. Are you from a Northern European population that would have traditionally had more fish and meat and fermented foods and salted and cured foods? Or are you from a sub-Saharan African or Southeast Asian population where your carbohydrate intake might’ve been higher and salt intake might’ve been lower? But also what kind of snips do you have for specific risk factors? Do you have poor methylation status? Do you need to go out of your way to take a multivitamin that has methyl-tetrahydro folic in it? Do you naturally produce lower amounts of endogenous antioxidants?
So would it be a good idea for you to supplement with glutathione precursors or inositol cystine or superoxide dismutase or some other sulfur-based antioxidant? Or do you have, as I mentioned for me, a higher than normal risk for Type 2 diabetes? So you’re going to really go out of your way to control blood sugar levels? Another one that I test high in is higher than normal risk for prostate cancer. So, I go out of my way to eat a fresh tomato every day, or a handful of fresh cherry tomatoes every day. And typically, I’ll cook those down to concentrate some of the vitamin C and the lycopene content. And so a valuable test to get at least once in your life would be a DNA analysis. I’m also a big fan of blood testing.
I do blood testing quarterly to keep my finger on the pulse of how dietary and activity changes. That I make are affecting things like my cholesterol particle count, vitamin D status, thyroid hormone status, white blood cells, red blood cells. A whole bunch of things that are really, really best to test via blood. I typically will go through, for example, a company like Wellness FX. They’re really good for blood testing and for giving you almost a dashboard. You can log into that allows you to compare previous tests to your current tests and keep your finger on the pulse of what’s going on. It’s a good, centralized place to keep track of all data. I’ll do the blood test quarterly and I recommend everybody to get a blood test at least once a year.
DNA tests would be once in a lifetime. A stool test is another one that I really like to look at for everything from parasites to yeast, to fungus, to any type of inflammatory markers, such as lactoferrin in the digestive tract.
You can even look at things like pancreatic enzyme production, all sorts of interesting things when it comes to a stool analysis that blood and that saliva can’t tell you. And so that’s also something that I recommend, like blood, to do on a yearly basis. Although, if you’re symptomatic, let’s say you’ve travelled to Thailand and come back and your guts feeling kind of off. You might just do that as a one-off test more often than once a year, depending on your lifestyle and your symptoms. But I am a fan of doing a stool test about once a year or so. And then the last test that I like in addition to these would be some way to test your hormones.
Because even though a blood test will test your hormones, your hormones fluctuate throughout your normal 24-hour cycle. And so typically, I used to recommend a salivary test for hormones. And that’s where you drip saliva into a tube four times over the course of 24 hours to look at your cortisol, testosterone and how they’re fluctuating/changing throughout the day. Now there’s a better test for it. It’s a urine test called the Dutch test. So I recommend that instead if you really want an accurate glance at your hormones. It’ll tell you your testosterone, cortisol, DHEA, even things like melatonin, and that one’s called the Dutch test or dried urine test for hormones.
And that’s one that I also recommend, especially for athletes or people who really need to need to check on their hormone status. Or anybody who struggles with things like brain fog or fatigue. And maybe wants to test to make sure they’re not having adrenal issues.
So, your basics are blood, guts, saliva for DNA, and then urine for hormones. And then that kind of covers it. But if you really want to take a deep dive or you have medical issues or performance issues that just can’t figure out. Or just want to cover every base possible, you could also get a really extensive micronutrient evaluation. There’s a company called Genova that does an ion panel that’s all your amino acids, fatty acids, minerals, micronutrients. All these things that some of these more basic tests don’t cover. I don’t think that’s necessary unless you’ve done these other basic tests and you’re still having issues you can’t put your finger on. Or you just want to super-duper customize your supplementation protocol or even your dietary protocol. That type of ion profile comes in really handy too.
I try and keep a running list of most of the lab tests that I recommend or that come across. Or that found to be helpful over at greenfieldfitnesssystems.com. If you go there and click on Labs, you can see a lot of these labs I talk about, but those are some of the biggies.
Okay, awesome. And I’ll get that linked up in the show notes. Now this one, you mentioned that you read and listen to up to five books per week, and sometimes that includes podcasts in the mix. How do you view that learning process and how do you take in all that information? What is the implementation look like for?
Well, it’s just like writing is a muscle, right? I’m writing a fiction book right now and write for 15 to 20 minutes a day. It flows a lot better than if I were to say, wait until Saturday and write for two or three hours on a Saturday. And the same could be said for reading. Reading is like a muscle, especially speed reading. Usually, I’m trying to get through a book every two days or so, like a proper size paper book and a lot of my reading I’ll do in the evening. For example but I buckle down just like I’m going to lift weights, right? Take out a pen, take out the book, check out the table of contents, and see what I’m going to read.
Then I go through each chapter with a pen, reading with intention. I have a rule that can never go backwards in a book. So, knowing that I’m never going to see that page again really helps me ensure that getting the most out of that page. I just go from top to bottom, flip the page, keep going. I’ve been doing it since I was eight years old. Also, would go get books from the library, bring them home at 4:00 PM and read until they were done, which would often be 2:00 or 3:00 AM. I read hundreds of books every year using that method, literally just sitting down and reading. I always have a book around, rarely watch TV. I’m a complete idiot when it comes to anything currently going on in Hollywood.
But I read with veracity every day, no matter what. Even if it’s like late at night and I’ve been to a party and had a few drinks and my wife and I had sex that night and it’s like 1:00 AM. I will still roll over before I flip off the light, I’ll grab a book and I’ll read at least two chapters. That’s always my bare minimum. And that’s just something I do. I’ve just realized that that’s what in many cases sets me apart from my competition. Or whatever it is, being really on top of the latest cutting-edge research in health, fitness, nutrition, biohacking, anti-ageing, and beyond. I’m just always, always reading books.
Very interesting, man. I want to be respectful of your time. So, I have one more question for you. What should a coach or athlete take away from this podcast? How can they make themselves better by listening to this?
I would say one of the best things that you can do, and that I find that most people don’t do enough, digests a lot of content. Especially the type of people who listen to podcasts or who read books, but a lot of people really don’t use that content creation muscle enough. And so another rule that I live life by is that I create art every day. And that might mean that I am recording a podcast or an audiobook. I am shooting a video or writing an article. But not a day goes by that I don’t create a piece of content. Over the past decade that I’ve been in this business, I’ve created well over 30,000 different unique forms of content that are out there for people to access.
It’s a slow-rolling snowball in terms of content. But if every single day you create something, even if it’s small, and put it out there for people, stuff adds up pretty quickly. That’s my biggest recommendation, especially for athletes or coaches, is don’t let a day go by where you don’t create something helpful for the world. And you’d be surprised at how much of a benefit for both yourself and the rest of the world when you do that, even though it’s a little bit uncomfortable. Think about creating content as something before you digest content. And so typically when my productivity and creativity levels are high early in the day, I create something.
And then a lot of that book reading and stuff that I talked to you about earlier. That’s something that I’ll save for later on in the day because I found that the digestion of content takes up less cognitive and physical energy than the creation of content. So, a big thing is to make art every day, baby.
I absolutely agree with you. And I think a barrier that a lot of people have is, “Oh, well, this already exists,” or, “people are already talking about this. I have nothing new to add to the conversation.” And would recommend two books. I don’t know if you’ve read these before, but Steal Like An Artist and Show Your Work by Austin Kleon. I think those are two staples that give you a bit of a different lens and different perspectives on how to view art, how to make it, to think a little bit more creatively, and share it as well.
Yeah, absolutely. I’ve read both of those. Those are great resources.
Awesome, man. Well, once again, thank you so much for taking the time to do this. How can we support you? Where can we point people to? Where people learn more about you?
You can just Google me, Ben Greenfield, and you should come across most of my material. I also have a book that’s jam-packed, 500 pages of bio hacks and tips, everything from performance to digestion, to hormones and sleep, and beyond. And that’s over at beyondtrainingbook.com if you want to get my book. But yeah, those are a couple of good resources for you. My website’s bengreenfieldfitness.com and the book is at beyondtrainingbook.com.
Awesome, man. Well, once again, thank you so much for doing this
Cool, man. Well, thanks for having me on. I’m honoured.
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