Blog by: Suryakant Tripathi
Prof Greg Whyte believes – and has proof – that anyone can achieve extraordinary fitness, even dough-bellied middle-aged men and busy working mums.
The innovative exercise scientist has successfully trained more than 18 previously lethargic or lumpy celebrities to complete iconic endurance challenges for Sport Relief, helping to raise more than £33 million for charity.
He transformed David Walliams from a self-confessed “chubby camp comedian”, who as a child had contrived to fail his Cub Scouts’ sports badge, into a powerful endurance swimmer who conquered the 22-mile English Channel in 2006 and 140 miles of the Thames in 2011. When Whyte met Eddie Izzard in 2009 the stand-up didn’t even possess a pair of trainers, but months later he ran 43 marathons in 51 days. And last February Whyte coached the television presenter Davina McCall to run, swim and cycle 500 miles from Edinburgh to London, including a harrowing 1.5-mile swim across icy Windermere.
“When I met Davina a few months before the challenge she had injured her hip and knee and she couldn’t swim a length of the pool without stopping. She was terrified of cold water, she had an unbelievably hectic work schedule and she had three kids and a husband to think about,” says Whyte, 47, who last year received an OBE for his work. “Her life is exactly the same as ours. But despite all her time commitments and doubts, she achieved something incredible. The truth is that we can all do much more than we thought possible.”
Whyte is a former modern pentathlete who represented Great Britain at the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games and won silver at the 1994 World Championships. He now works as a professor in applied sport and exercise science at Liverpool John Moores University and is a director of the Centre for Health and Human Performance in London’s Harley Street. His genius is to translate cutting-edge sports science ideas into deceptively simple, time-friendly formulas that ordinary mortals can adhere to.
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“It is about using knowledge in a way that accelerates success,” he says. “In the past fitness was about trial and error. Now we can refine training to help people get there quicker.” In his new book, Achieve the Impossible, Whyte has decided to share the nuts and bolts of his methodology. “Success isn’t an accident; you plan for it,” he says. “Whether you want to swim the Channel, lose half a stone or run your first 10k, the structure is always the same: you analyse your goal, identify what you need to do and work out how to achieve it.”
When working on celebrity fitness challenges, Whyte draws on his scientific knowledge to speed up results. Take weight loss, for example. “We used to think of running long, slow distances as the big fat-burner but that doesn’t alter your resting metabolic rate [the energy expended during normal rest and everyday activity]. If you do high-intensity exercise like spinning classes or circuit-training, or introduce 30-second sprint intervals into your runs and bike rides, your resting heart rate will be elevated for hours after you stop, so you will still be burning extra calories when you sit on the sofa in the evening.”
“Brick sessions”, in which you alternate three or five-minute bursts on the treadmill, rowing machine or cross-trainer for a total of 30 minutes, are one of Whyte’s favourite fat-burning lunchtime routines. By switching activities you constantly redirect blood flow to different muscle groups, enabling you to work at a higher fat-burning intensity for longer.
However, he says that normal everyday routines can also have a profound impact on a person’s body shape. “In modern culture we think we can get away with going to the gym for an hour and then sitting or lying down for 23 hours. That’s not true. When I talk about fitness, I talk about activity, not just exercise. Habitual activity throughout the day, whether it’s walking the kids to school or jogging to the park at lunchtime, is crucial for your everyday health.”
Regularly trying new activities, like squash or rowing, can also help: “When you do something new you are technically less efficient and therefore expend more energy.”
Whyte is keen to emphasise that the mind plays a crucial role in any health transformation. Tapping into the fields of neuroscience, psychology and psychiatry, he has developed seemingly uncomplicated motivational systems that cleverly mirror the way the brain functions, to stop your commitment levels dipping.
“The reason everyone’s New Year fitness resolutions fade away is because we give ourselves one big goal instead of several smaller goals along the way,” he says. “The brain is wired to crave progressive achievements and rewards to keep you motivated. If you have weekly targets to aim for, you reinforce your sense of achievement. Davina would text me whenever she hit a mini-target because she was so proud. Over time that developed her motivation but also her self-belief. When you hit targets all the time, your confidence inevitably grows.”
A bit of peacocking does no harm to your motivation levels either. “When I did a 20-mile run recently, I crossed it off on a chart on my fridge and all my children and friends saw that and said ‘Holy cow’. Others might upload something on Facebook. A reward or recognition can be incredibly powerful.”
Mention “diet” to Whyte and he will stare at the ceiling in despair. “They are absolute nonsense,” says the man who has published more than 200 peer-reviewed studies. “You will never sell a book with a title like ‘Eat a Healthy Balanced Diet’ but that is exactly what you are looking for.
“Whether a diet is based on liquids, meat or fasting, they all work in the short term because they reduce your calorie intake, and they all fail in the long term because they are non-sustainable. A diet is only effective if it can be sustained and that means three proper meals a day, a good variety of meat, fish and vegetables and the odd treat.”
Whyte promotes the complementary values of innovative scientific training methods and common sense, yet he stresses that the key ingredient in any quest for a better body is – and always will be – hard work.
“The celebrities I work with know what hard work is because they are incredibly driven and tenacious,” he says. “I remember talking to David Walliams about how he got his Little Britain TV show. It involved years of undetected work on radio shows and the stand-up circuit. That’s why when everybody was saying it would be impossible for him to swim the Channel, I was quietly thinking, ‘Yes he can.’ ”
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