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“5 Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Dramatically Improve One’s Wellbeing”, With Sara Hodson of the LIVE WELL Exercise Clinic

Make a date with exercise. The most successful thing you can do is simply add exercise to your calendar. The moment you add it to your calendar and book time for yourself the same way you would do an appointment, the more likely you are to be successful at it.

As a part of my series about “5 Lifestyle Tweaks That Will Dramatically Improve One’s Wellbeing”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sara Hodson, BHK, ACSM CCEP.

With a 16-year career in chronic disease and exercise, Sara is a leader in the movement of clinically-based medical fitness programs. With a professional background in cardiac rehab programming and diabetes, Sara launched the LIVE WELL Exercise Clinic in 2011 with a deep passion and recognition of a gap in Canada’s healthcare system for medical fitness programs that allow people to be highly successful in a safe, supportive, supervised exercise environment. She is smart, nimble, hard-working and passionate and a mother to four children.

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 completed my undergrad at the University of British Columbia, majoring in kinesiology. During my education there, I took a job at the athlete’s fitness gym where I would work for the next three years. When I started the job, I was informed that I had to spend half of my shift in a senior fitness program. It was then that I was exposed to the idea of exercise for health, not for performance or physique.

A lot of the members of the senior program had gone through cardiac rehab programs, and I started to wonder what a cardiac rehab program was and how I could work a program like that. This led me to gain my post-graduate qualifications as a certified clinical exercise physiologist through the American College of Sports Medicine. From there, I landed a job in a public hospital-based cardiac rehab program and that’s where I worked for the next decade.

A major component of cardiac rehab is a supervised exercise with a health focus, where people are monitored and kept safe so they can truly live life to the fullest no matter what the status of their health is. In addition to the exercise component, our program provided education sessions for the community, delivering one-hour talks on how exercise is medicine for cancer prevention, mental health, bone, and joint health, diabetes, prevention, etc. In my 10 years working in the cardiac rehab program, there were two specific things I heard over and over again: “I wish I had a program like this 10 years before I had my heart attack” and “Where can I go to receive this type of care and inclusive programming that is health-focused because our gyms, community centers, and fitness programs are not delivering this.” Hearing these two things repeatedly, I began to realize that the world had been delivering exercise as if it’s only about performance and physique. There within existed this massive gap between traditional medicine and traditional fitness approaches, and that’s where my business, LIVE WELL Exercise Clinic, was born.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?

I opened the second LIVE WELL clinic in an office building in Vancouver, so I was among several other businesses. One day, I was working in the clinic when a man walks in and says, “Hey, I’m looking for Sara” to which I replied, “Hi, that’s me.”

The clinic happened to be next door to a company being run by a man named John DeHart. Several months into my business operating, John would always find himself sharing the elevator with someone in exercise clothing — either coming or going from the clinic and he would ask, “Where are you going?” Fortunately for me, LIVE WELL members are very passionate about the program, so they would rave to John about how the program was changing their lives in meaningful ways. At the time, he was highly involved in his other company, yet his intrigue in what I was doing with LIVE WELL brought him into the clinic that day and his belief in me and the concept kept him coming back each week where he would meet with me one-on-one.

I had never taken business classes or had any formal training — I learned everything I knew by showing up to work every single day and learning, but also through mentorship, which has been my best and fastest route to being successful. I could tell almost immediately that John would be an incredible mentor to me as we were so aligned in terms of purpose and how healthcare can truly transform lives, and we put thought into how we could scale my business to impact more and more communities.

Eventually, he put a leadership team in place at his other company so that he could come on board full-time at LIVE WELL. Later on, he told me that he has what he calls his “personal painted picture,” which is where he sees his life in 10 years. When I met him, in his painted picture was starting a fitness program for older-aged adults. By both of us choosing to seize the moment, we’ve grown LIVE WELL to 18 clinics throughout Canada and are gearing up for our launch into the U.S.

Can you share a story with us about the most humorous mistake you made when you were first starting? What lesson or take-away did you learn from that?

When I started my business, I had just left the public healthcare sector after the cardiac rehab program where I had worked for the last 10 years was at risk of closing. I immediately realized the grave consequences that could come for so many people with the dissolvement of the program, so I knew I needed to act and act fast. I opened my first clinic in 2011 and was fortunate enough to have great success with the support of my community. With such a strong debut, I opened my second clinic quickly in December 2012.

I often joke that in the early days, I was really naïve in a business sense and that’s why I was so scrappy in how I did things. As I said, I didn’t study business in school and didn’t have any formal training on how to start one. I didn’t know how hard it was; I didn’t even look up how many businesses fail each year. I just decided that I was going to open a business, bringing medical fitness to the broader public, and I didn’t look back.

When John DeHart walked into the clinic that first time, he asked me what my conversion and retention rates were, how I got leads, and I literally told him, “I have no idea what you’re talking about.” There I was, on my second clinic, and I didn’t even know what most would say are the fundamental things you should be measuring from day-one. Although I look back at that time and am a little embarrassed, I was so aligned in my purpose that it had worked up until that point. But in order to take my business to the next level, I had to learn those things. I took advantage of my one-on-one meetings with John. I didn’t know the answers to his questions at our first meeting, but the next time I met with him, I came back with all the answers and ways on how I was going to operationalize those key factors into my business. It was then that he decided he was going to work with me. My biggest piece of advice when you’re given the opportunity to have a mentor takes it. Dig into your business; be coachable; show up.

Can you share with our readers a bit about why you are an authority in the fitness and wellness field? In your opinion, what is your unique contribution to the world of wellness?

Beyond my education and credentials, I genuinely feel that LIVE WELL is making a difference in people’s lives. For the majority of people in the cardiac rehab program at the hospital, they had to have a heart attack or a cardiac episode to join the program. I had people die on my waiting list and others wanting to be a part of the program, but couldn’t because they hadn’t had their heart attack yet. It was important to me to create a space that would be accessible to people who wanted to live their life to the fullest and take control of their health before a medical emergency occurred. We’re transforming lives — in fact, LIVE WELL has helped thousands of people improve their health in a variety of ways, ranging from members reducing their antidepressants to getting off blood pressure

medications, and even reducing insulin.

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? Can you share a story about that?

I’ve always believed it’s the people that step up in the early days — when there’s a lot at risk and everything to lose, that really believe in you as a person — that is owed the most thanks and gratitude. For me, those people were my family — my mom, dad and sister — and my community at large. They really supported me, both financially and emotionally, and encouraged me. When I quit my job to start LIVE WELL, I had just given birth to my fourth child who was six months old when the first clinic opened. They never asked me if I should be doing this if I had really thought about it if I should think twice if I should really quit my job to pursue this. I’m the type of person who doesn’t have doubt in myself and they didn’t doubt me either. If they had, it might have distracted me from my ability to move forward, but they never did.

Of course, there have been very important and influential people that have supported me throughout the last eight years since I started my business, but without those people that stepped up in the very early days, I might not have had the traction to propel forward at the rate I did.

Ok thank you for all that. 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?

Unrealistic expectations: For many of us, we quit things before we even start them because we’ve placed extreme and unrealistic expectations on ourselves. When it comes to working on ourselves — whether it be our health, our holistic wellbeing, our relationship with exercise/fitness, our healing — there is no quick fix, no silver bullet. Because when we talk about these things, we’re really talking about behavior change. Sustainable behavior change is something that takes time, so it’s important to be committed for the long-term. We have to work from a position of behavior first, outcomes later.

Not knowing your “why”: Your “why” is your essential purpose for doing something. The reason why we make lifestyle behavior changes is that we have a greater purpose for ourselves. It’s important to know why you are doing things and to be very clear about it. Hardship and disappointment will come — it’s inevitable — but if we are deeply rooted in our way, we will have a much greater chance of success. Our why can be viewed as the light at the end of the tunnel and in difficult moments, will allow us to realign with our purpose and stay on track so we will not fizzle out.

Doing something you actually hate: We’re far more likely to adhere to things when we enjoy them, and when they’re our own ideas more than the ideas of others. Specifically, when it comes to exercise and fitness, it’s important to find an activity that you love — knowing that you may never love exercising or the act of being fit, which is OK. Fitness is a proactive habit that we have to develop over time, but for many of us, we get caught up in the performance or physique ideas of fitness, which is not sustainable. We overdo it early on and then quit because it’s too big of a time commitment, or a plethora of other excuses.

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.)

At LIVE WELL, we use the Sparks Method™, a proprietary five-step method, to help our members achieve what we call the 7 Healthy Habits™ — seven habits that we need to adopt in order to have full overall wellbeing. Below are a few of the 7 Healthy Habits™:

  • Make a date with exercise. The most successful thing you can do is simply add exercise to your calendar. The moment you add it to your calendar and book time for yourself the same way you would do an appointment, the more likely you are to be successful at it.
  • Be a nutrition scout. The Boy Scout motto is “Be Prepared,” which means you should always be in a state of readiness in mind and body to do your duty. In this case, your duty is your nutrition. Meal plans and diets are not going to work because we give up on them. Why? Because they are a cookie-cutter method that doesn’t adhere to our own personal values and beliefs. Therefore the moment a meal shows up on a diet or meal plan that we don’t like, we throw out the entire thing — it just becomes too easy to toss. What we want to work on instead is planning to be prepared for our nutrition so that we can be successful. My biggest tip here is don’t try to do a big, sweeping all-or-nothing. Start small. For example, if you want to reduce the number of times a week you order takeout, don’t set yourself up to quit and say you’re going to not order takeout all week. Instead, say you’re going to only order takeout four times this week versus five, and use that fifth time to cook yourself a fresh meal at home.
  • Meet yourself weekly. Life is fast-paced, and we often don’t take a moment to pause, plan and prepare. Take 15–20 minutes on the same day every week to plan for the week ahead — add exercise sessions to your calendar, plan your meals and make your grocery list. You can also use this valuable time to reflect back on the last week — what did you learn about yourself, what worked and what didn’t? Then write down 1–3 things you will put into practice in the week ahead, and be specific. For example, “I am going to bring my lunch to work on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday;” “I am going to exercise from 7–8 a.m. on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday;” “I am going to meditate daily for five minutes from 8:15–8:20 a.m.” Committing time to yourself every week requires discipline, so be sure to add this “date with yourself” to your calendar.
  • Celebrate the small wins. It’s our human nature to only celebrate the really big-ticket items in our lives and to always push the goalpost forward. But every day we should look for something small, like a positive habit, to celebrate. For example, “I showed up for my workout when I didn’t really want to” or “I chose a salad for lunch instead of a burger and fries” or “I cooked at home instead of ordering takeout.” Celebrating our small wins on a daily basis actually propels us forward and it builds what we call self-efficacy, which is really the confidence we have in ourselves.
  • Find an accountability partner or health coach. Having someone to help keep us focused and accountable is so important because habit-change is hard, and we constantly feel pulled away in different directions when we’re trying to live a healthy lifestyle. Surround yourself with people who are going to support you and encourage you to make healthy choices. Accountability is truly one of the keys to success in building sustainable and long-term healthy action.

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?

Our weight is not the biggest determinant of our health; our fitness is. Our daily dose of physical activity is the number-one predictor of our overall health. Where we have traditionally placed exercise with weight loss, there actually isn’t a strong amount of evidence to show that exercise contributes to it. However, where exercise is crucial is in the weight management picture. It absolutely has to be part of our lifestyle when on a weight loss journey because in order to maintain our weight loss, we need to be exercising and that’s where the research really supports it.

I would say in a world of instant feedback and expectation of an instant result, there are some things that exercise provides us that literally can be received in 10 minutes or less, including:

  • Increase in mood and energy, and alleviation of stress. We know that in as little as 10 minutes of physical activity, we can actually elevate our mood and reduce stress. Exercise is literally proven to bring us joy.
  • In the first 30 days of starting regular physical activity, we see an improvement in the quality of our sleep. Not necessarily that we sleep longer, but we sleep better. And, as we know, sleep is a huge contributor to our overall health and a lack of sleep is a health risk.
  • From a healthy vitals-standpoint, in as little as 10 minutes of exercise, we can lower our blood pressure and blood sugar — even in just a walking program.

These benefits truly provide the instant results we are looking for in today’s society that have nothing to do with weight.

For someone who is looking to add exercise to their daily routine, which 3 exercises would you recommend that are absolutely critical?

For me, it’s not a particular exercise, but rather finding a physical activity you love, knowing why you’re doing that activity, finding a tribe of like-minded people, and then starting low and moving slow. Exercise will look different to everyone, so instead of sharing three exercises, I’ll share three habits that can help you incorporate and keep exercise in your daily routine:

  • Start low and move slow. It’s okay for your exercise to feel easy in the beginning. Most people start a new fitness routine, overdo it and quit because it’s too big of a time commitment. For instance, say, right now I don’t exercise at all, so I start off working out only two to three days a week. This is a low threshold so it’s something you can be successful at and build upon. From there, move slowly, and gradually increase your routine either from three to four days a week to five or six, or increase each workout from 15 to 20 minutes. At the end of the day, it’s not about getting fit, it’s about creating a lifestyle habit to enhance your life and allow you to live it to fullest.
  • If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. The funny thing about humans is that we find something that works and then we stop doing it! If something works for you, keep at it. If you find another exercise that interests you, add it to whatever you’re currently doing that’s working. These can be as simple as walking a new route, increasing your pace every five minutes for one minute, adding a hill to your walk, trying new resistance training exercises. Our bodies are smart, and it’s our job to keep challenging ourselves so we continue to reap the benefits of our hard work.
  • Keep habits-focused, not goal-oriented. I firmly believe that we must be habits-focused, not necessarily goal-oriented. To know if your exercise routine is working for you, rate your mood and energy on a scale of 1–10 before and after. A sustainable exercise routine isn’t about the number of pushups you do or how fast you run, it’s about feeling good in our lives.

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?

The concept of “no pain, no gain” needs to stay in the ’80s. People should always feel comfortable with the type of exercise they’re doing. Using the Rated Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale, which is an intensity scale from 0–10, with 0 being no exertion and 10 being very difficult activity, you should begin an exercise regimen in an RPE range of 2–3. It’s very realistic to maintain a fitness program somewhere around 4–6 RPE, but at the end of the day it’s a subjective rating and you’ll know if you can push yourself a little further. If you want more intensity, the best way to push yourself safely is to slowly increase the intensity, either the amount of time, distance, pace, or weight and resistance used. However, to obtain positive health benefits, it’s sufficient to aim for an RPE of 5–6, starting at 2–3, knowing that it will take months to get achieve.

However, if you play sports or do heavy exercise, you should make sure to stretch before and after, stay hydrated and most importantly, listen to your body! That’s the best way to prevent injury to yourself.

There are so many different diets today. Can you share what kind of diet you follow? Which diet do you recommend to most of your clients?

I follow the Sara diet because that’s the best diet for me. I believe that every person has to choose their own approach to nutrition, which takes into account their culture and values. Food is being talked about more and more, especially around certain diets like keto, plant-based and so forth. While there is a lot of research that would lean towards a plant-based diet, rather than moving people from one extreme to another, how can we encourage people who maybe eat meat to incorporate more plant-based foods into their existing diet?

The reason why diets and meal plans don’t work long-term is that they don’t respect the individual. Diets are a very customized process that’s ever-changing, but we should try to determine ways that we can better our nutrition. For example, I had one of my members recently tell me that they used to eat red meat three times a week and now they’re only eating it once a week because they’re introducing healthier foods into their diet.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story?

“No Sweat” by Dr. Michelle Segar. Reading it showed me that what we were practicing and implementing in our program through the experiences we were sharing with our members was validated by science by someone completely outside our organization. Dr. Segar did extensive research into how we move into true motivation with exercise, and we didn’t even know it at the time! For me, meeting Dr. Segar confirmed that what we were doing in our program was absolutely evidence-based, aligned with Dr. Segar’s findings backed by 25 years of research.

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? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I believe that we are inspiring a movement, and we are creating an opportunity for people to belong to something, be heard, and to be cared for, after feeling hopeless about their health and lifestyle choices. Time keeps ticking whether we like it or not, so I always ask, in a year from now, where do we want to be? I want to create an environment that empowers someone to change where they are going to be a year from now so that they realize the potential within themselves that they have the power to make changes to live a healthier lifestyle. My one-sentence boils down to: “You’re worth it,” and that’s the message we need to hear in a society that fails people when it comes to the perspective of diet and that fitness is all about physical appearance and performance.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?

For me right now, my phone screensaver and laptop background is an image of Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx, with a hat that says, “don’t be a lady, be a legend.” It speaks to me because as I continue to expand and grow my business, I have never felt that I’m a woman playing in a man’s world. But as I continue to grow, I’ve learned that while it's appropriate to be kind and respectful to everyone, I think it’s a powerful message to women to know that they can speak up, reach for their goals and be a legend, which is a really powerful word that raises the bar.

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 :-)

For me, at this stage in my career, I am very inspired and feel connected to the message of vision and empowerment that Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx, stands for not just to women currently in business but to anyone who is looking to start their own business. Not only do we share the same name, but we are both mothers with large families and ambitions to run successful companies. In the spirit of mentorship, I always believe in putting myself out there and asking for things that we even believe are beyond reasonable or possible. I’ve never shied away from making big asks, so Sara Blakely, I would like to invite you to come to have lunch with me the next time you find yourself in Vancouver! Or better yet, I’ll come to you — just send me that calendar invite!

What is the best way our readers can follow you on social media?

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.

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