Whether he’s advising people on the best ways to keep it or finding new ways in his own life to live it, maintaining good health is never far from Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s mind. His devotion to uncovering the truth about medical disasters and advancements is clear in every newscast and interview he gives.
I recently spoke with Dr. Gupta in between flights on his way back from Cambodia. Even while juggling a busy schedule and waiting for his next flight, he took the time to answer my questions with the same graceful authority and steadfast passion I’ve come to know from his television reporting. His openness and willingness to share his thoughts on various issues was not only insightful, but also gave a closer look into a man who is living proof that hard work, diligence and courage will get you far in life. In an article for Guideposts, Dr. Gupta wrote, “I’m often in the midst of disaster, drawing on my years of training as a neurosurgeon. I hope my work gives people a context in which they can view medicine and health on a broader scale.” Through sharing his experiences in the trenches and behind the scenes of hospitals around the world, Dr. Gupta sheds much-needed light on the ever-changing landscape of healthcare.
Starting the Journey
Long before Dr. Gupta accompanied the U.S. Army on rescue missions to Afghanistan or broadcasted the latest news from the tsunami aftermath in Japan, he was just a Michigan University student with a passion for medicine.
His interest in the field of medicine came at an early age. His grandfather had suffered a stroke and was being treated at a local hospital when Dr. Gupta got his first glimpse into the world of neurosurgery. He remembers being fascinated by the neurosurgeons who were treating his grandfather and decided right then that he too wanted to help others in that way. After receiving a B.A. in biomedical sciences at the University of Michigan and an M.A. from the University of Michigan Medical School, he went on to complete his residency in neurological surgery at the University of Michigan Health System in 2000.
During a stint in Washington, D.C., he met Tom Johnson, who was CEO of CNN at the time. This introduction later served as the catalyst for his foray into television. While in Atlanta to interview for a position at Emory University, he bumped into Johnson who asked him to be a part of the medical division he was starting at CNN. Although he took the job at Emory, Dr. Gupta still thought about joining the news team. Upon further reflection, he decided it might be an avenue to bring information to the masses. So he took the position under the condition that he could maintain a schedule that would allow him to see his patients and perform surgeries. As exciting as this new venture was, he was not willing to give up his first love, practicing medicine.
Today, Dr. Gupta still holds practicing medicine as one of his top priorities, even taking himself out of the running for U.S. Surgeon General in 2009 after he realized the position would mean time away from family and diminished opportunity to perform surgery.
Beneath all of his accomplishments, however, you will find a humble man who, at the end of the day, just wants to spend quality time with his family. “I consider getting married and having kids my proudest personal accomplishment,” he says.
A Healthy Dose of Wisdom
If you’ve followed his broadcasts, you may recall his reports on the dangers of sugar, whether diet can prevent heart attacks and the health challenges that the obesity epidemic has caused.
Even in the face of these sobering realities, Dr. Gupta remains positive that we can turn things around. He feels that one of the most impactful tools is prevention. “Prevention is probably the biggest thing, medically, morally and financially,” he says. “If we keep people out of the hospital in the first place, creating that cultural prevention is what’s so important.”
Dr. Gupta says one of the first things you can do to improve your health is eat less. “It’s a funny thing, but as human beings we simply eat way too much food. We eat twice as much food as we need calorie-wise,” he says. “I really enjoy food and am not going to give certain things up, and that’s fine, I just eat less of them. That’s how I started.”
He advises people to look at their plates at their next meal and take one third of the food away.
“If you’re already eating the right number of calories, it’s really important to focus on what those calories are.” This means making sure they come from healthy sources. Dr. Gupta goes on to explain, “I’m a great believer in exercise, but I think that if you can get control of your diet, everything else will come. I think diet is probably the most important thing.”
Dr. Gupta feels that people don’t eat or move as they should. “I think if we just go back to our roots a bit we’ll be a lot healthier and it will make a huge difference in our health overall,” he says. “Human beings used to eat sugar once a year. You got it when fruit fell from the tree and you could eat to your heart’s content. But how many apples and oranges could you really eat? And after the fruit spoiled, you didn’t eat it again for a year.” Today we are inundated with a seemingly endless supply of sugar in our diets, and it’s up to us to moderate it.
With a schedule as busy as his, Dr. Gupta strives to manage his time wisely. While no one method works for everyone, getting a handle on the tasks you need to accomplish gets you one step closer to a more productive day.
“First of all, I make a list every morning of the things I want to get done that day,” he explains. “The list is very realistic. I don’t put things on there that will really take two days. Instead I write down on my list what I want to accomplish today.”
Whatever activity Dr. Gupta has planned for his day – be it working on a column for a magazine, writing a TV piece, or preparing something for teaching rounds at the hospital – he gives himself very specific amounts of time to complete the task. “If you give yourself endless time to accomplish a task, you will take endless time to accomplish it. Always be really focused on how much time it’s going to take and at the end of that time, you’re done. So give yourself deadlines.”
Since 2007, Dr. Gupta has incorporated meditation into his life. Not only does it help to clear his head, but also to relax after a stressful day. Meditation can mean different things to different people, but finding a quiet place to sit in silence, even for a few minutes, can have a calming effect. Dr. Gupta learned the method he uses from cardiologist Dr. Herbert Benson of the Benson-Henry Institute for Mind Body Medicine in Boston, and he’s found the results nothing short of remarkable.
“I usually spend at least 20 minutes a day- if not 20 minutes twice a day - doing it, and it’s very relaxing. I find that I can lower my heart rate and my blood pressure objectively when I’m meditating as well, so it’s not just relaxing, but I can measure the impact,” he says. “I’ve adopted this phrase that I tell my patients in the hospital: ‘More meditation and less medication.’ Truly you can reduce your risk of heart attack or stroke by half by meditating twice a day.”
In addition to the physical benefits, making time for a workout can offer mental clarity throughout the day as well. “I try to (exercise) early in my day, and after I feel like I’m so much more productive,” Dr. Gupta says. “I break a sweat every single day – at least a minimum of 45 minutes to an hour.” He also travels with workout bands in order to get some exercise in while he is on the road.
Beyond exercise, regular checkups help to maintain a sound mind and body. If you are looking for a physician, he recommends visiting a hospital and talking with nurses who can often give the best recommendations.
“Also, find someone who will really listen to you and have a personal relationship with you. I find that lack of communication is probably at the heart of most bad medical decisions. People can’t understand what the doctor said or chose not to ask (for clarification) because of a bad relationship with the doctor,” he says.
Finally, Dr. Gupta recommends choosing a doctor who is going to focus on your overall well-being as opposed to just wanting to see you when you’re sick. If you’re finding it hard to remember to schedule that yearly check-up, try doing what he does. “I make an appointment to see my primary care doctor every year right around my birthday.”
Keeping informed is the best thing you can do for yourself and for your family. “As people become more knowledgeable, they’re not going to tolerate having unhealthy food that is exponentially cheaper. They will make the choices to have healthier food,” Dr. Gupta says. And making healthier choices about what we eat should be passed down to future generations. “I think parents play a role, but I think there’s a role that everybody needs to play, and that ultimately the consumer is going to drive that.”
Inside the 2012 Fit Nation Triathlon Challenge
Dr. Gupta is the first to stand up and practice what he preaches. In 2006, he helped launch CNN’s Fit Nation, a campaign to combat obesity. He traveled across the country bringing the message of regular exercise and healthy habits to college campuses.
“We’re trying to get very important health messages on television and I think the person who is giving those messages needs to put their money where their mouth is so to speak,” he says. In that spirit, he challenged himself as well as a few chosen viewers around the country to train for six months with him and then compete in the Nautica New York City Triathlon on July 18, 2010.
Although he had never done a triathlon before that event, he was excited to begin. “I’m a guy who is always focused on my health, but I think what I learned (from competing) was that until you take on a challenge like that, you may be doing a good job but there are so many places where you can improve.” He also recalls the cameras following him added to the pressure. “Fear of embarrassment is a very powerful motivator,” he says. “But it was daunting and it was hard. It was one of those things when you cross the finish line, you literally feel like you’ve just had a life event. It was one of the best feelings I think I’ve ever had.”
Choosing the people to accompany him on this adventure is always a challenge in itself. CNN was inundated with potential candidates from around the country and it was up to Dr. Gupta and a committee of producers to narrow it down to a lucky few.
“We want the people to represent many communities in the United States. They all have some sort of challenge they’re trying to overcome.” Joining Dr. Gupta in the race to the finish line are the “Lucky Seven” which includes Carlos Solis (California), Nancy Klinger (Minnesota), Denise Castelli (New Jersey), Rick Morris (North Carolina), Adrienne LaGier (Maryland), Glenn Calvin Keller (Texas), and Atlanta’s own Jeff Dauler of Q-100’s The Bert Show.
This year’s challenge will end on September 15 and 16 at the Nautica Malibu Triathlon. “This will be the first triathlon they will complete, and so far we’ve had 100 percent success rate with getting our triathletes across the finish line and I expect that not to change this year. I tell them that euphoric feeling when you crossed the finish line is something I want them all to experience,” he says. “These people are incredible, they put their whole lives out there and they share so much, they’re so vulnerable.”
But it’s all for a good cause. Showing America that no matter what stage of life you are in or what level of health, anyone can do it if they set their mind to it. “I think that the ultimate goal (for the Fit Nation Triathlon Challenge) is to look at the Lucky Seven. I hope that people watch them and feel some sort of friendship with at least one of the Fit Nation athletes. I think that’s how people actually start to incorporate things into their own minds,” he says.
In addition to the impact that he hopes the Fit Nation Triathlon Challenge will have on viewers, he feels it has changed him as well. “I think it was two main things. One is that the impact of diet on training cannot be overestimated. I thought I was a good eater before, but I am so much smarter now than I was,” he explains. “The second thing was it made me more time efficient. In a way (training) added time to my day that I didn’t expect because it forced me to be so efficient with things.”
After completing this year’s Fit Nation Triathlon Challenge, Dr. Gupta will no doubt be off to his next adventure. He seems to be at the helm of an endless quest for knowledge of how Americans can live healthier lives. This journey has led him all over the world, and it’s not over yet. If there is a health crisis, a new improvement in health care or a breakthrough surgical procedure, you can bet he will be there, taking us along for the ride.
Q-100’s Jeff Dauler Competes in Fit Nation Triathlon Challenge
The local radio personality talks about breaking a sweat and what drives him to be better
What are some of the challenges you faced while training, and how did you overcome them?
I expected there to be physical challenges - that was obvious. What I didn’t expect was the mental game that I would be playing every single day as the event got closer. Time management, learning to say “no” to people, and just convincing yourself to do something that you have absolutely no interest in doing were all lessons I learned very quickly. It’s easy to overcome any obstacle when you have a firm date when you have to show up and perform.
What have you learned about yourself during the training process?
I’ve learned to take total responsibility for me, to not feel any guilt when I can’t do for others because I have to do for me. I’ve learned to manage and budget time. I now strive to always be better. It’s like I have a purpose to each day now. And I have a far deeper appreciation for anyone who challenges themselves to be better every day mentally or physically.
What is your advice to others who want to complete a triathlon?
Put one foot in front of the other. Don’t look at the thousand plus yards to swim or the dozens of miles to bike and run. How long can you run today? For 30 seconds? Do it. Do it for a couple days, but then up it to 45 seconds, then a minute, then two, three, five, 10, 15 minutes. You just ran a mile! Keep going! Just start.
What has been your motivation to complete the Fit Nation Triathlon Challenge?
I am 100 percent responsible for the outcome. I have nobody else to blame if I don’t do this. Win or fail in Malibu, it’s all on me. I can’t escape it, make excuses, or pass it off on someone else. I have no choice but to do it, and at the end of the race I’ll know if I gave it my all. That’s what has me training every single day.
Who do you follow on Twitter for fitness inspiration? For fun?
Twitter has been a great teammate in the whole process! My coach is on there (@Aprils_Awesome) and keeps me honest. The @CNNFitNation family is so supportive. @michael_schlact and @CoyWire are always good for some inspirational quotes. @runnersworld and @TriathleteMag do a good job of sharing tips and advice. @greatist has helpful overall wellness thoughts. For a laugh or two, @DannyZuker & @chrissyteigen. Of course, I have to mention my radio family, @TheBertShow.
What are the top three songs on your playlist for working out?
I only listen to music when I run, and what playlist I choose depends on my mood that day, and how intense I’m going to go. Just to pass the time, Luke Bryan, Sugarland, Foster The People, Coldplay, Needtobreathe. To pump me up I listen to T.I.’s Bring ‘Em Out or best of AC/DC. It’s really all over the place.
Do you reward yourself for completing a good workout? If so, how?
The reward will come in September. Eye on that prize only. Although chocolate milk is a great recovery drink post-workout, and I do take advantage of that when it’s appropriate!