To be completely honest, I am always surprised by how much information discussed in these interviews could be applied to business professionals of all industries. Much like the other discussion, I thoroughly enjoyed my conversation with Nate VanKouwenberg, owner and founder of Next Level Strength & Conditioning. I’ve known Nate for some time, and I knew heading into the conversation that his extensive background in all things wellness related could provide great insight. What astonished me most, was the omnipresent overlap between our fields. This discussion provided me with a lot of practical and pertinent information on taking care of my body and I will dive into that more later in this post. I wanted to start out by discussing a few takeaways on the tight link between financial planning and physical wellness.
So much of what Nate shared, as a strength & conditioning coach, resonated with what I do as a financial planner. First and foremost, at their core, both fields are about goal setting and planning. Everyone has different goals for their body – some want to increase their strength, some simply want to look great, others want to feel good, and most want a little bit of everything. In the case of physicians (especially those in training), the goal should be to use the time parsed out for wellness most efficiently… to help them look and feel better within the constraints of what could be an 80+ hour workweek. Even if the desire is there, most doctors don’t have the time to be a top-tier weight lifter or a prolific marathon runner, especially if other goals like growing a practice or raising a family take precedent. This is why maximizing their available time is so essential. How each doctor tackles this is unique and dependent on each individual’s goals, body-type, and most importantly what workouts they enjoy. Set a goal, automate your routine as best you can, and find a way to make it measurable so you look forward to it.
I would encourage you to listen to full interview of this episode of ‘Planning on Call,’ the podcast, here:
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This is the same way one should look at financial planning, in that different goals and circumstances can dictate very different financial plans between individuals. Again, in the case of a doctor, they need to be efficient in their financial planning. Most doctors are not able to start saving seriously until their mid-30s, and many are dealing with pretty serious debt burdens as well. This can be impactful to long term savings, especially when factoring in the power of compound returns and saving early. Doctors, therefore, need to take their savings plans seriously when they start earning at a higher rate and need to find creative ways to get as much as possible into tax-efficient vehicles to make up for any lost time.
The other fitness principle Nate discussed that overlaps considerably with financial planning is the importance of finding balance. Creating long-term habits around healthy living is much more impactful to longevity than crash diets or fad workout routines. Finding a balance that works for you between being healthy and allowing yourself to enjoy life is extremely impactful long-term. Nate uses the ‘80/20’ rule in his own life, this rule focuses on being strict with his routine 80% of the time and allowing more flexibility 20% of the time, which I believe resonates in both physical fitness and finances. Being aggressively tethered to a stringent set of rules can lead to burnout, especially given how many hours physicians work in their careers. So whether it’s allowing for cheat days… to miss the gym or to treat oneself to a night out, a person has to allow themselves some time to enjoy their journey. As Nate says in our conversation, “you can’t pour from an empty cup.”
With that said, let’s dive into some of the nuts and bolts of our conversation on physical fitness. Nate trains high-performance athletes, in addition to being founder and owner at Next Level Strength & Conditioning, he is the RIT University Men’s Hockey Strength & Conditioning Coach, a certified Functional Strength Coach, and a USAW certified Sports Performance Coach. In these roles, Nate has trained many Division 1 and professional athletes.
Given his experience, Nate had great insight into the overlap between physicians and professional athletes. Both groups are a small subset of the greater population that has had to undergo a lot of stress and testing to get to their position. Both groups also have a daily demand to perform at a high level, and the overexertion ends up putting a lot of physical and mental wear and tear on the individual. Therefore learning how to take care of their bodies, in these careers, can be different from most people, which is important to understand in fitness goal planning.
In the case of doctors, Nate defines three clear goals in regards to working out – to feel good, to look good, and to perform at their best. In his opinion, the most important thing to focus on to accomplish these goals is strength. In his words, ‘strength training is where you get the most bang for your buck.’ Strength done right, is not about getting bigger or bulkier but about increasing longevity, mortality, and overall fitness.
Nate stressed to focus on functional strength, not isolation training. Therefore stop thinking about working out specific muscle groups and start thinking about body movement patterns. These patterns come down to squatting & lunging, hip hinging, upper body pushing, upper body pulling, and core stabilization. Focusing on these movement patterns ensures you will hit every muscle group, whereas focusing on individual muscle groups runs the risk of missing important pieces of vital movement patterns.
Strength training is the most efficient way to use calories and to keep your heart rate up. In addition to this, you are also building functional muscles throughout the body that will make you feel and perform better. Lastly, strength training also increases your basal metabolic rate, which in turn, increases the energy you burn at rest.
Where to start?
Creating a strength training program doesn’t need to be complex – it should include each of the muscle movement patterns, should focus on good form, and should push you on the last few reps. The best part… it doesn’t require a gym. Most people need a few pieces of equipment such as kettlebells, suspension training straps, resistance bands, or even just a weighted book bag. In regards to the weights, only a few are needed, weighing between 25% and 50% of your body weight. From there Nate recommends picking one exercise per movement pattern and doing the same exercise 3 to 5 days a week for 2 weeks. Throughout these workouts one should vary repetition (reps) and weight, starting between 5 and 15 reps, and as the reps go up the weight goes down (one note for surgeons – an extra core and upper body pulling exercise per week may be a good idea). After the 2 weeks are up, switch the exercise patterns, and start the process over.
When it comes to workouts, Nate also stressed more isn’t necessarily better. People working at their job 80+ hours a week can hurt themselves by working out too much. Proper training isn’t about pushing the bounds of the body as hard as possible in a limited amount of time, it’s about doing the correct workouts, with the correct form, to connect to your goals. The objective is not to be sore all the time, it is to feel good.
All this focus on strength training is not to say cardio workouts are bad, it has definite health benefits and a place in fitness planning. However, pushing your body too often with the same cardio workout can wear on joints so switching it up is important. In Nate’s opinion, the key to a good cardio work out is that it’s safe, the individual enjoys it, and it’s connected to the individuals’ fitness goals. There is no such thing as a perfect cardio workout, so be sure to mix things up.
Nate also mentioned that you can’t turn fat into muscle. Everyone has abs… while many people strive for defined six-pack abs, and a little known fact is that the best thing for abs is table push-aways, not crunches. Above this, working your core is about being more functional and feeling better, whereas losing fat is about calorie intake/outtake. Understanding the right workouts are important but understanding the overall benefits is gold. This brought our conversation’s focus to ‘The Other 23’, the 23 hours of the day outside of working out spent eating, sleeping, and breathing.
Nate’s first recommendation was to take some amount of time every day to focus on deliberate breathing. This has incredible benefits to overall body function and your mental state. Then when it comes to nutrition, it’s all about quality sources. As little processing in your food as possible is key, so the fewer steps from nature to your plate, the better. This means avoid eating on the run because these meals usually end up coming from vending machines, fast food restaurants, or bodegas. This is tough for doctors, so it does take some planning. In planning meals, make sure every plate has a protein, a vegetable, a high carb source, and good fat. Portion control is vital, so don’t use food as a release, but note that carbs are not horrible – especially for doctors who work 80 hours a week and need energy. For a good resource on this type of information online, Nate recommends Precision Nutrition – https://www.precisionnutrition.com/.
The last thing Nate wanted to focus on was sleep. He emphasized that sleep is astonishingly correlated to your performance and function. Sadly, for most of us (especially doctors), sleep is usually an afterthought. It’s understood that it may be difficult for a person to get 8 hours of sleep every night, but it is important to find time when you can to prioritize sleep. This means taking naps and catching up when you can, even if it is a fourteen-hour binge sleep once a week.
When a person does find time to sleep, managing to get quality sleep is also immensely important. Getting the best sleep is actually less about duration and more about quality. The most restorative qualities of sleep are in deep sleep. For high functioning people like doctors, turning off the brain to get this type of sleep can be difficult. This is why sleep hygiene is so vital. Begin by addressing the right position to fall asleep in when the opportunity presents itself. Think about how much coffee is being consumed and be careful with alcohol intake. Blackout the bedroom and if that’s not possible wear a mask. Make sure the room is quiet and if that’s not possible, think about using a white noise machine or phone application. Temperature is also important and Nate recommends mid-sixties for sleeping. Also very important in today’s age is making time before bed without checking electronics/ keeping eyes away from blue light. Lastly, as Nate mentioned earlier, focus on deep breathing from the belly if someone is having trouble sleeping. Using meditation apps can be helpful for this if someone has trouble focusing on their own.
To end the conversation, Nate wanted to highlight his biggest take away for doctors – schedule thirty minutes a day for self-care. Whether that time is spent planning meals, doing yoga, focusing on breathing, or working-out, take time out of your day to focus on your wellness. As Nate mentioned, the path to healthy living is more about the journey, not the destination.
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