Dr. Wright Banner

On today’s episode, we are honored to welcome Dr. Vonda Wright, an accomplished double board-certified orthopedic sports medicine surgeon. Dr. Wright’s groundbreaking research has been instrumental in helping people achieve optimal fitness and mobility well into their senior years. She has authored multiple books that offer insightful guidance on aging gracefully, including “Fitness After 40,” “Guides to Thrive,” and “How to Be Strong.”

Dr. Wright’s extensive research has revealed that maintaining mobility is key to aging healthily and strongly. With her ability to communicate complex concepts in an accessible way, Dr. Wright is a leading voice in the field of sports medicine.

Join us as we explore Dr. Wright’s insights into the latest research on aging and mobility, and how to incorporate practical strategies to maintain your fitness and mobility. Enjoy

– The Surprising Link Between Mobility and Chronic Illness

– Science-Backed Tips for Rebuilding Muscle and Bone Density

– Reimagining Success: Why a Beginner’s Mindset Matters

– Power of Presence: Tips for Peak Performance in Every Moment

Listen to the episode here:

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Key Topics:

  • From a Cancer Nurse to Orthopedic Surgeon [00:04:40]
  • Mobility and Dr. Vonda’s Philosophy [00:26:51]
  • Mobility Blocks [00:37:56]
  • Lean Muscle Mass [00:45:36]
  • Brain and Heart Resilience through Mobility [00:52:57]
  • A Doctor in the Family [00:55:26]
  • On Lean Muscle Mass and Muscle Stem Cells [00:56:41]
  • On Supplementation for our Muscles [00:59:31]
  • Alcohol Does Not Destress [01:05:20]
  • For Night-Shift Workers [01:07:24]
  • On Women’s Biological Clock [01:09:48]

#197 Move Better, Age Better | The Benefits of Mobility on Chronic Diseases, Lean Muscle Mass, Bone Density, Brain Function, and Aging with Orthopedic Surgeon Dr. Vonda Wright

Welcome to the Gabby Reece Show where we break down the complex worlds of health, fitness, family, business, and relationships with the world’s leading experts. I’m here to simplify these topics and give you practical takeaways that you can start using today. We all know that living a healthy balanced life isn’t always easy. Let’s try working on managing life a little better and have some fun along the way. After all, life is one big experiment and we’re all doing our best.

“There is one pill that takes care of all the 33 chronic diseases we die of in this country and that is mobility and it is something that we’ve all been doing since we’re in utero and then one year old, we’re stepping out on our own saving our own lives through mobility. I did this series of studies starting in 2004 where I looked at, “Can we save our lean muscle mass with chronic mobility? Yes, we can even into our 80s.” Can we save our bone density? Can we save our brains? Can we use sports performance as a biomarker of aging? When do we slow down? Based on all of that, the answer is yes. We can control our futures by investing in our mobility every day.”

“It shows that in these animals, which we then reproduce these data in humans, we can recondition our stem cells by the mobility that we invest every day. We use these techniques now to pre-hab people for total knees or total hips or for surgery to make sure the whole body in the stem cells is primed. That’s beautiful data about how we can manipulate it even at a cellular level. We know that lifting heavy is another way to cause the replication of satellite cells and we need more of these. If we let time happen without reinvesting in our mobility, we’re acquiescing and giving in because we can change our bodies at a tissue level with this rump roast, flank steak study I did with our muscles and a follow-up study we know we can recondition our stem cells by mobility.”

My guest is Dr. Vonda Wright. She’s an orthopedic surgeon by training. She was a cancer nurse who ended up going back to medical school and becoming an orthopedic surgeon working with professional teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins. She has done tons of scientific research and data on aging, thriving, and using mobility, which is her secret word for exercise, to help with longevity.

What I found fascinating in this conversation is that reminder that pretty much if we can take care of ourselves and keep mobile at whatever level we’re able to, it’s not a competition, your body doesn’t slow down until you start in your 70s. Having said that, I have a dear friend of mine who was performing at the highest level until he was 84. Like many people that I have on this podcast, she talks over and over about our lifestyle and how about 80% of our training should be in Zone 2. What that means for someone like me is that’s about 130 beats per minute.

It’s not about killing yourself but it’s being mindful of your musculoskeletal system and aging, not shying away from those weights, what micro and macronutrients are you getting, and also focusing on, “Where am I today and where do I want to be?” Not pining for, “I used to be athletic when I was younger,” and how that doesn’t help at all. She has a book called Guide to Thrive. Her next book is called Strong. Her whole thing is about your body and your brain. When you exercise, you release hormones or proteins that support your brain, and bliss. She is smart and hard-charging. I hope you enjoy Dr. Vonda Wright.

Dr. Vonda Wright, welcome to the show. Thank you for joining me.

It’s my pleasure.

I have to say, I don’t know how you do it. People are busy. You have a blended family and you have all this going on but it’s a practice and then trying to do research on people and all these different things. Before we dive into Guide to Thrive and some of the other things that you work on, I would like to hear from you what are the tools that you use personally.

When we see people like yourself, we think, “They’re a little smarter than the average person,” which you are. It’s when you realize all of the things that you’re juggling, you have to develop your own tools whether it’s in your training, eating, de-stressing, and relationships. Even a project like this where you’re writing a book, maybe take me through how you organize it all in your world.

All the various things we have going on in the air at the same time. You’re right, Gabby, we’re all busy and we have a lot of things going on. We have our families, we have our children, and we have our jobs. I learned a long time ago while I was in my seven years of surgical training and then having a baby at 40 that I can do a lot of things but I can’t do them all at the same time.

I’ve become good at block timing. I’ll admit to your audience that after going three weeks nonstop, I am getting home late, I’m seeing my daughter in the morning, and then texting the rest of our children all day, I rearranged my night schedule. I went home and watched TV with my husband for a couple of hours. All of us have those challenges. The things that I do from a health and organizational standpoint that keep me as a middle-aged woman, I’ve been through menopause, and I know what the energy challenges are, the things I do are what sustain me.

I know that this middle period of life for many women can be extremely challenging and it was mine but this is what works for me and what I’m writing and the follow-up to Guide to Thrive, which is called Strong because that’s how I want to feel now. I want to rewrite the narrative of how women and my demographic perceive ourselves. We are not victims. We can be strong, healthy, vital, and joyful. This is what I do.

I have gotten control of my glucose spikes and my sugar. I love sugar, Gabby. I’d rather eat cookies for breakfast. Here’s the deal, three Girl Scout cookies are 180 calories of sugar. What it does is destroys my brain and put adipose fat in places that are more than an inconvenience. What I’ve done and what I advise the women and men I take care of is I focus on lean protein. I don’t demand people just to plant protein, it’s lean protein.

[bctt tweet=”The price of experience is aging.”]

I recommend green leafy and high fiber. If we’re going to eat carbs, which I’m fine with people doing, it has to be complex carbs. I want them to eat protein throughout the day. These are not revolutionary things but this is how I have controlled my body composition. As an orthopedic surgeon, I also work out but I do not overtrain. You’re a pro athlete, I work with a lot of pro athletes, and my husband was a pro athlete. You do not gun it every single day. You base train 80% of the time.

My clients and myself measure lactate thresholds. I know the heart rate where we are most effective. You don’t end up in my office hurt all the time because of over-training. I recommend base training. We sprint a couple of times a week. We feed ourselves gorgeous whole things that do not spike our blood sugar. It matters. It’s made my brain mine again. It’s helped me control my body composition at this time of life. That’s a long answer, Gabby.

No, it’s not. When you say base training, it’s pretty much like Zone 2. You’re not saying, “You’re huffing and puffing.” It’s like, “Let’s get the heart rate up. Let’s be working.” That’s important. In this message, I often find that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander and we don’t have to peel out men and women. However, it feels like women think they can cardio themselves into skinny, thin, or whatever word we’re using. Guys gravitate more toward weights. Especially as we get older as females, I see you banging iron, lifting weights, and being powerful. It doesn’t mean my favorite thing is I don’t want to get too big and I’m like, “Do you know how hard it is to get big?”

“How many years it takes?”

You started as a nurse and then decided after working with cancer patients and doing intense things, “I’m going back to medical school.” Pretty much, you get spit out of that process at around 40 years old.

I did, anyway.

You pushed everything. You’re in that practice and you’re seeing patients as a nurse. A lot of people would’ve been like, “I’ve already invested all this time in being a nurse and I have a career.” This doesn’t have to be somebody who goes from one thing and then decides to be a doctor. A lot of us go along and we do our duty and we do what we’re supposed to do and then we do get these little voices inside us that go, “You might be good at this other thing over here.” Now you’re an adult and you’re in your late 20s. Where did you get the courage to say, “I’m going to take this new path and go to medical school,” especially given all that it takes?

I love that question, Gabby, and I don’t get that question often. I appreciate you thinking about with me what it takes to pivot as an adult. When I think about this or describe it, I use those words, strong and courageous. As a cancer nurse in the ‘90s, it was a privilege to work with people who every day were fighting for their lives. As a 20-something-year-old, I learned so much about life. a lot of the details that we worry about every day, I don’t care about, because I have seen people in their throes.

After I had done that for about six years, I realized that I could continue to have an impact and go back to medical school. The biggest pivot and the real lesson that might be valuable was when I pivoted at 48. I did this and went back to medical school. Here’s the lesson from that, “I’m going to be whatever age I’m going to be when I’m done anyway. I might as well be doing something where I can make the biggest impact or I could stay there in my nursing job forever.” that would’ve been fine because I loved being a nurse. I knew that I had more work to do in a different field.

When we get too comfortable, we limit our capacity to help people. We limit our capacity. The biggest pivot that people comment on the most, at least in orthopedics, is I went at 48 from being the medical director at the UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex, which is a huge 185,000-square-foot building where I did all my aging research. Because UPMC is such a great sports department, everybody would’ve wanted that job.

I decided that because there was a ceiling there for me as a woman surgeon, because I had a high capacity and knew that I had more ability to lead, I could either stay there and be comfortable forever and limit myself. I could make a giant pivot, gather up my strength and my courage, move my family to Atlanta, and realize the capacity that I have been given. That’s what I did and that’s what it takes for people.

There’s nothing wrong with living where you are. If every day you doubt that you are living to your full potential and the gifts you’ve been given and if it’s only courage that you’re lacking, what’s the worst thing that’s going to happen? Probably, no one is going to die, which is my perspective from cancer care. Listen to that perspective.

Did you go into that? It seems like it happens at two different monumental times. When you’re a nurse, did something that your family taught you or after seeing people living and dying, you go, “Life is short, I’m going to roll.” Later, I would imagine your husband and everyone has to maybe be on board to go, “We’ll all move over there.” I’d like to know if it was realizing the preciousness of time. Kids have taught me that. It’s like, “You’re alive, we can work whatever it is out.” Before, I was more interested in, “What’s their job going to be? Who are they going to be with?” You realize, “First things first, we’re here. What do you want to do?” Where did you get that from the first time?

I realized that, at 24 years old, what I was doing was too easy for me. Between getting my master’s degree, I was teaching at a university, I was running a cancer institute, I thought, “This has been good but I cannot sit here and do the same thing for 40 more years.” Yes, it took a big pivot. It’s largely women I took care of with breast cancer. At that time, cancer care was given in the hospital. It was the time called primary nursing when I was the same nurse that took care of them every month for six months when they came in.

It was just me and them at night and I was seeing them taking control of the little things that they could control in an uncontrollable time. They taught me that you have to take control of what you want. You have to do what you want because you’re never guaranteed. In the middle of the night when I’m sitting with them in their rooms, they’re clicking through QVC because all they can control is what they buy in the middle of the night to try to have control again. When it came time for me to try to pivot, I thought, “I can’t control everything about this long journey I’m about to do but I can control whether I sit here for the rest of my life.”

Dr, Wright Caption 1

Dr. Vonda Wright – There is no bad food, it’s how we prepare it, or how much we consume of it.

You then become a surgeon. I don’t know how you manage to have a practice. You worked at a prestigious group. You’re working with the Penguins. You’re working with high-profile athletes. Now you’re also having a baby.

How about that one, Gabby? I am thankful for this person. When I married Peter, I got five amazing children. Truly a gift was having my daughter when I was 40. You’re asking me how in the world did I manage that all? Gabby, it took me a village. I don’t know what it takes you but it takes me and it takes my parents to help me. It takes me realizing that she could be just as well strapped to me in her little Baby Bjorn while I’m writing my first book than anything else. I took her everywhere. You incorporate kids and they become a part of it. She traveled with me since she was three weeks old. I took her to New York to do a speaking gig. She has grown up in the public. She can converse with adults. I don’t think kids need to be separated from the worlds that we live in, do you?

I agree. One time, I said to my husband, we were traveling and we have my middle daughter, and she was three and she had her little rolling suitcase. She was going in the line because we always made them walk. Even if you walk slower in the airport, it’s like, “We got to go.” I never used strollers or things like that. I said to her, “She’s a trooper.” He said, “We’ve trooped her.” We expose them, to your point.

Was there a moment? With females, we always feel like it’s an either-or. You said you can do everything but not all at once. You bust your ass in school, you’re finally in your practice, and now you’re going to turn around and have a baby. Was there a moment that you thought, “This might impinge on my ability to kick ass in work.”

I can be excellent every single day with every interaction I have with people who come to me in musculoskeletal pain. Having six children together and taking care of a big family does not impinge on my moment-to-moment being excellent. here’s the thing that I’ve learned from peak performers whether they’re surgeons, athletes, or executives, peak performance is born in every moment. Not every moment is a peak performance moment. We all peak at some point but we have to try our best. I talk to people about how every detail matters to me when it comes to my patients in surgery.

To answer your question, every moment with my patients can be excellent but there are moments when I’m not there. Every moment with my daughter can be as good as I can get it or with my older children or with my husband. I block my time. I take vacations with them when somebody else is helping me with my patients. I came home and lay on my couch. There are also moments when I am integrated. I may be on vacation sitting under a cabana and they’re playing and I’m answering emails. I am still there and I am still managing all my worlds. It’s how I get it done.

For me, the key is how do we be less apologetic. That’s something that is inherent. I feel this way all the time, it’s like, “Am I doing this enough?” Showing up and also being a great example, think of the example you’re being to your daughter, is powerful. Thank you for indulging me. When I see someone like you juggling all this, I’m like, “How are you doing that?” Sometimes when things look easy for people, you think, “Oh.” Getting out of the hood and realizing, “You have a practice, you have a family, and you have your own self-care practice and things like that.”

You have Guide to Thrive. One thing I want to say that I appreciate is it’s like a workbook. Making people accountable and participating in it and touching and feeling is a powerful tool for people. I’m curious how you go from orthopedic, you’re solving at least some symptoms, and to now going, “Let’s back it up even further and get people to get on top of it.” Was this because of your own practice or what is it in you that was like, “I’d like to help people sooner.”

The research that I’ve done is my entire body of work. I am glad right now more people have gotten on this bandwagon. In 2004, when I started, nobody wanted to talk about active aging. My first book was called Fitness After 40 and it was in partnership with Dick’s Sporting Goods. We put out some great products to help people take control of their mobility. Even 40-year-olds at that time couldn’t stand the number 40. Now, it’s cool to be 40 and above, it’s some of the best times of our lives. At that time, no.

I didn’t want to be writing my opinions. I wanted the science behind it. Foundationally, I’m an academic surgeon. I started doing research to undergird these books. As lots of your guests have stated, we did some of the first research to show that if you maintain your chronic mobility, my job as an orthopedic surgeon is to save your mobility and in doing so, I’m saving you from the ravages of chronic disease.

There is one pill that takes care of all the 33 chronic diseases we die of in this country and that is mobility. It’s something that we’ve all been doing since we were in utero and then one year old, we’re stepping out on our own and saving our own lives through mobility. I did this series of studies starting in 2004 where I looked at, “Can we save our lean muscle mass with chronic mobility? Yes, we can even into our 80s.” Can we save our bone density? Can we save our brains? Can we use sports performance as a biomarker of aging? When do we slow down? Based on all of that, the answer is yes. We can control our futures by investing in our mobility every day.

I’m getting all passionate about it now. It’s been such a part of my whole career. If I write books or get on TV, 5.5 million people have to hear me say that saving your mobility is going to save your life. We’re not destined to go from the vibrancy of youth to the frailty of old age unless we choose to. We can choose our path. Why I started writing is to expose my research and the message that we can be healthy, vital, active, and joyful to more people.

I also realized in the writing of Guide to Thrive, Gabby, that we plan everything in our lives. We plan our financial futures and our kids’ education. We plan our neighbors’ kids’ education for God’s sake. We make plans about everything but few of us make strategic plans for our health and longevity. When you say that Guide to Thrive and its sequel, Strong, is a workbook, it is because I’m asking people to write a business plan for their health. The four steps, create a vision, take action, change attitudes, and then assess and reward, that’s a business plan but we’re applying it to our health.

Did you grow up active yourself?

I grew up on a farm in Kansas. At the time when, your mom sent you outside and said, “Don’t come back till the sunset hits.” We ran all over the farm. My father is an amazing example of the premise that if you invest every day in your mobility, you can save your own life. There is not a day that I do not remember him being an endurance runner. On the farm, sometimes my mom and I would be like, “Where’s dad?” We’d have to go look at the map on the wall, “He took the yellow route today, it’s 12 miles, and he’ll be back.” He showed me that this is possible. Even at his age, with a total hip, he’s out 5 or 6 miles a day walking. I truly believe it.

When you say mobility, this is more for the reader, a lot of times, depending on the person, mobility is stretching and how well you get up from a chair. When you’re talking about mobility, from your perspective, how are you defining it?

I stopped using the word exercise in about 2004 because everybody’s faces get blank and they turn away for any reason not to talk about exercise. We can fidget, that’s mobility. An office person can get up twelve times a day, that’s mobility. When I’m prescribing it for people, I define it as three hours a week of purposeful motion, preferably in base training with 2 or 3 sprint intervals after that.

[bctt tweet=”Heavy is different for every single person.”]

In my own example, even at my age, I can get my heart rate up to 186 and keep it there for a sprint interval. My base training is 125 beats per minute, which is four on a treadmill, and it feels like nothing. With consistency, I’ve changed my body composition and that’s the health part of it. You don’t have to kill yourself with high-intensity interval training every day, which is why people end up in my office. I’m happy to see them but nobody wants to be in an orthopedic surgeon’s office.

You are unique and also a representation of a group of doctors that I see more and more in all different fields from mental health to GI specialists to orthopedics. Normally, someone would say, “Dr. Wright is a hammer and you’re a nail. That’s what she’s going to do. More and more, it’s the bigger conversation about, “How’s your exercise life? What is your strategy for mobility?”

I appreciate that because not only am I hearing it more and more but you’re giving people an opportunity to take another route. Typically, you wouldn’t get a ton of nutritional training for you to be an orthopedic. It’s such a huge part of the puzzle. You talked about sugar and you’re being insulin sensitive and things like that. Where did you come up with your philosophy to share?

In my original books, my nutrition was centered around the concepts of anti-inflammation and simplicity. The meals I prepare for my family are simple, a protein, a beautiful vegetable array, a complex carb, and that’s it, three things. I am a continual learner. I have a curious mind. I download books from Amazon nearly every day and my husband’s like, “What’s more stacks of books?” I read all the time. My philosophy has changed over time from simply anti-inflammatory.

When I was about 48, about the time when I was saying, “Do I stay in Pittsburgh forever and swirl the drain or do I move on?” I cut out added sugar for the first time in my life, I went cold turkey right after Thanksgiving, and I don’t even know why I chose that time of year. I’m an old ballet dancer. I was hurting all the time. I was inflamed I could barely get out of bed. My brain was a little foggy. I attributed that all to my sugar load because I did love sugar. I cut it out for the first time and I saw what it did for me. I no longer felt my body, which is the way I prefer it. I prefer not to feel my body.

Number two, without trying, the first time I did it, I lost twelve pounds. Americans eat sixteen pounds of added sugar every month by putting packaged food in their mouths. You know this but people out there reading might not know that if you read the back of a label, it’s going to say things like, “Six grams of added sugar.” For what? When I did it the first time, it was profound. I started learning more and more.

I’m not wearing it now. Usually, I show people. I am not diabetic but I wear a continuous glucose monitor because I’m addicted to my data and I want to know whether I’m spiking. I have my optimum health clients do this too. When I first did it, I was curious. I put it on and my fasting glucose was 97 and I freaked out because it was three points away from pre-diabetic. I think I’m doing well. I will not have any part of that.

I learned over three months what spikes me, how to eat my veggies and my fiber first and then my protein, and control the spike. Now, unless I’m just eating the dark chocolate that’s in the drawer of my desk right now, I don’t spike. I was also not happy with my base glucose being in the 90s. I’ve added tons of lifting heavy weights. I’m lifting heavy three times a week.

I saw those legs.

That has lowered my whole glucose baseline from 90s. It runs about in the high 80s right now. I know when I’m hungry, I’m hungry because my sugar is low. It’s been a miracle in terms of how I feel. I don’t feel my body. I’m sleeping and my brain is clear, which is critical for me. I attribute it to what I’ve learned about nutrition and metabolic health. I put all over my social media the pictures of mitochondria that I took in college with an electron microscope. I’m that science geek.

I wonder, are there people that you love their nutritional philosophy that helped you or influenced you? It’s funny, you can get a naturopath talking about it but when there’s someone like you who I think people look at it even a little differently and still bridging the gap of nutrition is medicine, and getting people to buy into that. Is there anyone in particular that you align with some of their philosophies that have helped you?

I have two nutritionists that I’ll name and then one scientist turned celebrity. I’m a science geek. I love being curious and reading the original research. I’ve had the privilege of working with a sports nutritionist for more than twenty years who is the sports nutritionist for the Steelers, the Penguins, and now is the sports nutritionist for Kansas City Chiefs, her name is Leslie Bonci.

She has corrected me many times over the years with the philosophy of don’t shame food. It is not the food’s fault. I would post something about this or that and she’d like, “Vonda, don’t shame the food. It’s not the food’s fault.” There is no bad food, it’s how we prepare it, or how much we consume of it. That’s a different philosophy of being punishing about our diets. We’re bad for wanting that. It’s quantity, how it’s prepared, and how it’s processed.

Number two, my current sports nutritionist here in the Lake Nona Performance Club is Sarah Logan. She manages her nutrition clients using macros and using the lactate threshold. It is all science-based, we’re counting protein grams, and it’s all individual. It’s not like, “Everybody’s going to eat the same soup or grapefruit or whatever.” It is specific because that’s the way medicine is right now, Gabby, it’s precision. Everybody gets their own thing because we’re all individuals.

Number three, the whole glucose flattening thing. I did read part of the book. I don’t even know her real name. She goes by the celebrity moniker, Glucose Goddess. She looked up all the papers. I didn’t trust her. She’s written books like me. I don’t expect people to trust me. Go read the articles I cite in my books or read my original research. When she wrote her book and she cited the papers, I went and read all the papers and she was telling the truth that it matters what order we eat or food. Those are all the things I apply to my patients right now. I keep saying lactate threshold. It matters how you metabolize and everybody’s different.

Her French accent also makes the word glucose sound better. The fact that she could make it simple and stupid for people and that behind it is our layers, I appreciate it. At first, that wouldn’t be our go-to but it’s seeing the value in someone, “How do we reach people?” When you have patients come in, male and female, and let’s say they don’t have a big physical strategy practice, what are you seeing?

It’s interesting, women deal with more in different ways. Also, we talk to each other, like, “I feel overwhelmed.” We might chin up and keep going but at least we bring it up. With men, sometimes, they’re experiencing a lot of things but they’re not talking about it. They’re not as sensitive. We grew up with our cycles. We’re more in touch with our bodies, “I’m feeling this,” or, “I’m feeling that.” They could be going through andropause and they don’t know it.

Also, I’m trying to get people to realize that mostly what they’re going through is probably pretty common and it’s okay. What are you seeing as the blocks or the things that keep either the group typically male or the typical females that don’t have an athletic background or didn’t grow up with a movement practice as the barriers to pivot or to try something new?

97% of orthopedic surgeons are men. I do have this deep understanding. A lot of times, they either feel fine, “I’m fine with my apple belly. I’m fine. I’m successful.” It’s hard to admit that maybe you’re not and maybe you want to feel better. When I start working with men, one guy says, “I’m doing all these things but I want to be in vibrant health. I don’t want to be just healthy-ish.” He didn’t use that, I used that. He wanted to be vibrant and what was that going to take?

Dr, Wright Caption 2

Dr. Vonda Wright – What I want people to realize, no matter what age or stage of health or life they’re in, is that you are worth the daily investment in your health. You are worth it.

Another guy I met with was like, “I want to look good and I want to feel good.” It may not be about health at all. It’s about how their persona is going around and what it’s going to take. Women will come to me all the time in my office maybe with a frozen shoulder or their shoulder’s gotten inflamed and they can’t even lift it up anymore. With a few minutes of listening, they say things like, “I am falling apart. I do not understand what’s going on,” or, “I can’t sleep anymore.” As I’m listening, they start to weep.

What makes women not seek relief is sometimes a little ashamed of talking about it. It’s like, “I don’t want people to know that I’m falling apart or I’m miserable because I can’t sleep.” I’m going to say this is true because there’s no place for mean girls anymore or not that there ever was. Once you start talking about it, women face each other when we talk.

If you and I are in the same room, we’d be sitting across from each other. Men sit side by side and spew out facts. Women talk to each other. I may say to you, “I had a little too much sugar. I’m inflamed right now.” It would start this conversation where if we would bring it up, we would be supportive. You would say, “Von, you need to do this.” I would say, “Gab, we need to think about it this way.” Sometimes we’re afraid to bring it up because we think we’re the only one.

It’s this idea, “It’s perfect. Everything’s perfect. I’m fine. Everything in my house is fine. It’s good.” We always have to stay in touch with this and stay on top of it and keep making adjustments even when we quote no. It’s also important for people to realize that we don’t arrive and land on the answer and then we’re good. This is an ongoing conversation based on also what time in your life, what are you navigating, and what are you dealing with.

It’s important also though with men, unless they already have a practice, to be like, “How are you feeling?” Maybe we’re sometimes guided more by our waistline than they are. They’re like, “I’m successful so everything’s okay.” It’s pivoting that mindset. You talk a lot about mindset. You also talk about something that I appreciate, which is not to covet your youth. It’s like going, “It can be fun and okay even right now.”

Maybe we’re learning. If you’re working with sharp-end-of-the-stick athletes and there are some things that we can learn from these high-performing 25-year-olds that we can incorporate into our training or eating or what have you, that’s awesome. It’s not to wish, “I wish I was my old self,” or, “I wish I was younger,” or any of that.

Gabby, we only remember the good things. What is it about 25 that was so good? It was easy. We could go do whatever. We forget, at least I didn’t and maybe everybody else did, we didn’t know ourselves. We hadn’t had enough of the richest of experiences. The price of experience is aging. When I talk about the mindset that we need to make 40 through 60 or 70 healthy, vital, active, and joyful, we cannot be optimized.

When I’m talking about this on stage, I physically pivot. If we’re always looking behind us and trying to remember whatever those years were, we cannot pivot and move forward into some of the best years. If you’re always looking behind, you’re going to trip and you’re going to fall. We can appreciate those times, we can take from them, and we can have memories of what it was like when things were easier.

My research and the research of many others in exercise science show that there is something about the tactical acumen that you get from twenty years of doing the same sport or the same thing. You can read the court, you can read the waves, and you can read the ice. Every skilled practice gets better with reps. You may not have the same stride as you did when you were 20 but you know your game better if you’re still competing.

Endurance athletes are winning in their late 30s and 40s. Their muscles are different, they’ve got the tactical acumen that you cannot get without reps, and it’s the same in life. I encourage people to pivot their mindsets and remember the good things but have a forward-facing view to face their future. That’s what I’m asking. You cannot go forward by looking back.

The other thing too is emotionality. You’d be too tired and bummed out if you were constantly thinking about the way it was or how you used to be to have the energy to do what it takes and to be who you are now and who you’re becoming. It’s almost like trying to scoop all of that focus and strength up for what it takes to do what you’re saying.

I want to talk about lean muscle mass. It sounds superficial. I saw something that you presented of a slide that I thought was amazing about this 40-year-old triathlete. Maybe it was the quad and it was this juicy muscle. It was a 70-year-old sedentary person, which would look as you would expect. You click to a 70-year-old triathlete and it looked as juicy and great and healthy as the 40-year-old. The slide looked almost exactly the same.

That was a pivotal study, Gabby. That was huge. The study you’re describing is old at this point but it was one of the studies in my quest to prove that mobility is key. What I did was I took athletes from 40 to 85, I did MRIs, and lay there in the tube very still. I took the MRI slices right across the quads. If you’re envisioning this, it looks like a piece of ham. There’s a bone in the middle, and on the top, there are gorgeous quadriceps, thick, and hardy muscles. On the bottom, there are the hamstrings. There’s a thin rind of peripheral fat.

When I use sophisticated NIH software to look inside the muscle, there was little marbling. We’re talking about the difference between a flank steak, which is lean, it’s all lean muscle mass, and maybe a Kobe beef where there’s fat everywhere. The 40-year-old’s quad had gorgeous muscle, strong, and no intramuscular adipose tissue. In the second picture you’re describing, we sit around for 30 years, we lose our muscle architecture, we lose our strength, and we become grossly infiltrated with fat. I’m going to say it again, fat is not innocuous, it is a noxious metabolic organ hanging around in unsophisticated and unpretty locations. The second picture is what happens.

The third picture that you’re describing is of a 70-year-old triathlete and you would’ve thought that I just took the next slice from the 40-year-old, gorgeous muscle, low intramuscular adipose tissue, and strong. These are not professional athletes. They are everyday people like me who happen to invest every day in their mobility.

We know, number one, we can preserve our lean muscle mass with mobility. Number two, what we’re talking about now, this is part of this curiosity and learning curve, is lifting heavy weights at every age will help us build and maintain lean muscle mass, which is what we need to control our metabolism, and our glucose spikes.

I’m an orthopedic surgeon and I also want you to have lean muscle mass so that you do not fall down when you’re 60 from a standing position and break your femoral neck. Here’s what happens, if you fall and break your femoral neck, 50% of you will not return to full function and a full third of the men will die. Let’s not do that. Let’s invest in keeping our lean muscle mass built.

For women, I want to add this stat. It’s important for us because if we do nothing, we will lose 20% of our lean muscle mass during our perimenopausal years. Most health insurance does not allow you without paying for it yourself to get a DEXA scan, which is your bone density. Until you’re 65, ladies, it’s too late. We need to know.

They’re not expensive also, Dr. Wright. They’re $200 or something. I appreciate that you brought this up because then you know. Don’t go to Starbucks for a few weeks and save those $200 and get that yourself.

Do you know what that allows you to do? My Starbucks drink is $8 so I don’t go there much anymore. I bought the espresso machine for $0.30. We have our own drinks. Get your DEXA scan and know your bone density so that you can safely go lift heavy weights. You build lean muscle mass and you build bone density at the same time. It’s a twofer.

[bctt tweet=”When we get too comfortable, we limit our capacity to help people. “]

I have an artificial knee. I’m tall, I’m 6’3”. My legs are long. Even with me when I’m lifting, I’m still strategic about knowing the load. Sometimes people go, “I have never lifted.” They hear the word heavy. You’re saying time under tension and you’re not telling people, “You have to, right out of the gates, become a powerlifter.” In your book, you can see some of the tools and weights that you use. I want to also remind people, there was no excuse. You don’t have to sit there and harness up with a weight belt and be like, “I’m ready,” and chalk up. You’re talking about time under tension and lifting some weights.

I’m glad you said that because heavy is different for every single person. I say I lift heavy. I’m squatting 115 pounds. In high school, I squatted 215 pounds so it’s not heavy. Number two, thank you for mentioning that because for some people who are starting out, lifting their own body weight is heavy. That’s where we start.

What you’ll find in my older books is that I wanted people to use functional lean body mass. You can do so much work. Because I’m curious and I’ve been reading, my next book is going to work people through the body weight and we’re going to lift some heavy weights because that’s how you recruit muscle fibers for the long term. It’s part of the evolution of learning. Science is not static.

Do you remember who Tony Horton is, the Power 90?

I do.

Tony Horton had to recover from Huntington’s and he had a beautiful approach. Here’s a guy who’s athletic, ripped, could do all this stuff, and now he’s starting again. He took the approach of, “It’s going to be exciting to watch how much I get to progress.” For example, if you talk about hanging like grip strength, people might go, “I can only go for a few seconds.” It’s like, “Isn’t that awesome because now the next time you do it, it’ll be a little more. In a few weeks, it’s a little more.”

My husband is good at being a beginner. It’s okay. You talk a lot about that. It’s reminding people that there’s so much growth when you’re trying something new and not to be freaked out about it. Dr. Wright, as we start to come more towards the end, I’d like to get a brass tax-y a little bit. For example, you talk about the musculoskeletal system and now more and more people are saying, “We should treat this like another organ.” How that can impact and make our brains more resilient.

Let’s talk about this. During COVID, I had all this time on my hands like people did. One of the things I learned to do was bake sourdough, which was a mistake, or churn butter from cream, which was a mistake. Here’s what I also did, I also became certified as a hardiness coach. The truth is that I wanted to help my peers. Doctors are under stress and there’s a high suicide rate among doctors. I thought, “I’m going to use this time.”

What I learned about becoming a hardiness coach and focusing on the three Cs of hardiness is that it’s not just about our brains. The fact is that one of the ways we can be more hearty is mobility. How about that? Mobility? The contraction of skeletal muscle, curling biceps, lifting overhead, and running, causes the transcription of a protein that goes directly to a part of our brain called the locus coeruleus, which is the resilience and heartiness part of our brain.

You think you’re moving for your mobility or your body composition but mobility is directly tied to our brains not only because of the endorphins we release, the good feeling. It causes the transcription of a heartiness protein that makes us mentally stronger. That research was done originally on prisoners of war, army rangers, and people who overcame tremendous life challenges. It’s wonderful data.

I have to ask because you have so much information and this is more of a selfish question. Does anyone in your family listen to you? Is your teenage daughter like, “Oh my God.” Laird and I have been relatively consistent for over 30 years in our practices. As my kids get older, they’ll adopt a practice. You have a teenager and your husband, are they like, “Here she goes again.” How does that work?

It’s not for lack of trying, Gabby. I got to give them credit, all six of our kids are in shape, and they value mobility and it’s not because I told them to. It’s either they’ve grown up with it or they value their own health, they’re all doing it. My daughter, poor girl, can recite everything I’ve said because she’s been around. They don’t listen to me for medical advice, they’d rather listen to anybody on TV. I’m too close to them.

We have an expression in our house, an expert, somebody who lives a mile away. I was curious.

I sometimes say, “You know I’m a doctor, right? You know I did the work.”

You’re talking about picking up your underwear too.

That’s true.

When you talk about lean muscle mass, how does that also play with muscle stem cells? I even know there’s a relationship there and people are interested in stem cells.

My lab at the University of Pittsburgh studied a form of stem cells. At the time, we called them muscle-derived stem cells because we found them in muscles. Now, we know them to be satellite cells, which are in the public right now. They’re the stem cells found in muscle. They’re along the lining of the blood vessels. We know they decline with age unless you do something about it. We know they decline with estrogen unless you do something about it.

Here’s the gorgeous data, it’s another study we did and there are lots of these. We took satellite cells from little old lady mice, They’re 2 years old, and they don’t wanna do anything but sit there waiting for their next food. Maybe they’re 80 or 90 years old in people years. We took their stem cells and the stem cells were no longer fat and healthy, they were no longer producing growth factors, and they had turned on the genes that caused death as an active process.

We took them and indeed I bought mouse treadmills and made these little girls run and they don’t want to like the rest of the public but they did it twice a day for two weeks. You’re envisioning this, “Come on, girls. Let’s run.” Do you know what happened when we sampled their stem cells again? The stem cells were no longer dying, they were plump and healthy, and they were producing growth factors. It shows that in these animals, which we then reproduce these data in humans, we can recondition our stem by the mobility that we invest in every day.

Dr. Wright Book 1

Guide To Thrive

We use these techniques now to pre-head people for total knees or total hips or for surgery to make sure the whole body and the stem cells are primed.  That’s beautiful data about how we can manipulate it even at a cellular level. We know that lifting heavy is another way to cause the replication of satellite cells and we need more of these. If we let time happen without reinvesting in our mobility, we’re acquiescing giving in. Because we can change our bodies at a tissue level with this rump roast, flank steak study I did with our muscles and a follow-up study, we know we can recondition our stem cells by mobility.

I love that you used the word mobility, I’m getting used to it now. I know it’s all personalized and I believe in that too but are there supplements of sorts that you personally have added or you try to cycle in?

Yes. There are 9,000 supplements and you can’t do everything. I do it based on what I know is most important to me. I’m interested in anti-flu inflammation. I’m interested in energy levels. I’ll tell you what I take personally and then I’ve launched a supplement series for menopausal women. I am interested in supporting women to get everything they need in this perimenopausal period. The supplements I’ve launched are called Nova MD. You find them at DrVonda.com.

Here’s what they give us, they’re supportive because we’ve got a lot to do and our bodies need several things so they include all the micronutrients we need, all the B vitamins that we may or may not get from our food. Most women I know are trying to diet and live on a thousand calories a day, which will never work for you. B vitamins are critical for many things in our body. We’ve added augments of ashwagandha and green tea extract and matcha powder, all of which are great for multiple systems like our brains and our hearts and as an antioxidant.

One ingredient that we’re excited about is because we want to support our estrogen receptors, which are empty now with estrogen, fluctuating and moving around. A little of the science. There are two baskets that many of our tissues have that are called estrogen receptors. Estrogen fills those baskets, the alpha basket and the beta basket. The alpha basket works on organs dealing with heart disease and breast cancer. The beta does more functions of the brain and many other body functions. We could spend three hours talking about this.

We want to fill those baskets. Sometimes women choose to do that with hormone replacement therapy and I love that, I do it myself. Sometimes we need more. Some women choose not to but we still need to support our bodies. We have added to Nova MD an ingredient that comes from rhubarb. The chemical name is ER 371 but it’s an extract from the natural plant rhubarb that you make pies out of. It fills the estrogen B basket and helps do things like relieve night sweats and clear brain fog. It supports us along with the other ingredients.

I’m not trying to make myself 20 again but I am trying to consistently feel amazing. I want to be supportive enough. These are the things that I found in my diet that I needed support with. I partnered with an amazing formulator and these are truly meant to support women. I don’t think women should suffer during this time. The other supplements that I formulated supports energy. I take NAD+ plus every day. There is an energy balance in our body supplied by this compound called NAD+ plus with aging.

When we’re in our 20s, it’s about 80 in our cells. The first time I measured my NAD+, it was 20. I was exhausted and I was having my 3:00 PM energy slump every day. Now that I do all the things that I do and supplement with NAD+, I am energized until I am done with my day. That’s important to me. That’s the other line. Micronutrients filling the estrogen B basket with our rhubarb extract and energy supplementation are all in Nova MD. It’s simple and it’s meant to support because we deserve that.

I’m going to bring up one last thing. I’ll throw Joe De Sana under the bus because I love him and he’s tough so he can take any bus throwing. You were on his podcast, Spartan Up! I love Joe and I love his message and his love and grittiness simultaneously, I feel like he has two hammers. It’s like, “I love you. I’m kicking your butt. I love you.”

“I’m kicking you because I love you.”

I want to see his kids rebel. I do have this thing. You guys talk about and nobody wants to hear it but booze is not your friend. We’ll blame it on Joe because he is a tough guy. I certainly never believe in telling people what to do. If you’re looking for resources, we can have these conversations and see if people go, “I’d like that idea.” I understand, people go, “I de-stress and all that.”

At the end of the day, male or female, regardless actually of your age, the accumulation has a whole other impact on people if they’ve done a lifetime of it. It’s weirder if you don’t do it but it’s to remind people that if you’re trying to navigate these roads of feeling the best that you can and having good sleep, alcohol is not working.

I agree with you, it does not work to shake my finger at people and tell them not to do something. Drinking is such a culture. People love their two glasses before they go to bed. Here’s why I have stopped drinking alcohol based on the research. It’s not based on socializing, it’s based on research. If you need all the research, listen to Huberman’s three-hour podcast. He summarized it all. We have always known that alcohol kills brain cells.

Even though we now know that we can regenerate neurons, that’s enough for me because I need all of those. Number two, alcohol consumption is a profound lifestyle modifier of breast cancer risk. I have decided not to use alcohol because I don’t need my breast cancer to be more than 1 in 7. That’s another huge reason for me.

Number three, I am careful about protecting my sleep. Why would I do something to purposely harm my sleep? We may pass out and not be aware when we’re sleeping after alcohol but that is not restorative, that is not regenerative sleep, that is just passed out, and there’s a big difference. Those are the three reasons based on sound research that I have chosen not to do that in my life when at one time I did.

You were a night shift worker and they say getting that recovery back is challenging. Do you have any tips or suggestions for people who have schedules that if they’re night shift workers or if it’s the way it is?

It’s hard to be on the night shift. It’s a devastating time to work and I did it for seven years. For night shift and day shift, in general, the things you hear all the time about sleep are research-based. Go to bed at the same time and wake up at the same time. Do not pollute your sleep with alcohol before you go to bed. If we’re looking for ways to ease into sleep, use rituals. Ritual means something whether it’s sports or your nighttime routine.

I take my magnesium right before I go to bed because it’s a good way to ease into sleep. I use melatonin. Melatonin puts me to sleep faster and it doesn’t make me sleep longer but I do that. Do you know what else I’ve started doing? Even though my youngest is 15 years old, I still have mom ears and I hear everything at night. I’ve started wearing my AirPod noise-canceling little earphones and it even makes my sleep better if you’re somebody who sleeps lightly because it’s that important. Those same rules will work for night shift workers too during the day and as well as blackout curtains.

Dr. Wright Book 2

Fitness After 40

Dr. Wright, I’m going to wrap this up. Also, I have to ask one last question. If you realize it or not, your story is inspiring. You were later married and busy and all these things. That’s hard for a lot of people, especially when they’re trying to do something. To take on a career is hard. Men maybe have different liberty because they don’t have a biological clock, I get it. For a woman, were you always hopeful that you would find love? Did you not worry about it? How did you stay open to it? I’m curious because I appreciate that it all came together but it wasn’t like, “That was first and then the career.”

I love you asked this question because Peter Taglianetti is a pretty special man to tolerate being married to a surgeon. I don’t always control everything, although I think I do. The true story is I had been in love before and I lost that. When I met Peter, I was at a place where I wanted different things because I was older. I wanted a true partner, Gabby. Maybe I should quit apologizing when I say this but I am a surgeon at high capacity and I can do it for myself.

I was looking for someone at this late point in my life that would have my back. Usually, I have other people’s backs and I’m the fixer. I realized that maybe you don’t want to think this but when I analyze myself and knew myself, I needed somebody who expressed their love to a family like my dad. My dad would’ve died for us and he always had our backs. It wasn’t glamorous. We knew he was the steady rock.

When you know yourself well enough, maybe you’ve taken the time to marry later in life or gotten to know yourself. I realized that that’s what I needed, I needed somebody who would have my back. Usually, I have people’s backs and I needed somebody that I understood that they love me when they had my back or that they would die for me. It’s not that it’s ever been challenged but I knew if that ever came up, he would. Does that make sense? That’s how I got open to it.

It makes a lot of sense. I remember when I met my husband, I was like, “He can deal with all the things that I can’t.” In the day-to-day, I could deal with pretty much everything on my own. It was having somebody, to your point, for me personally, that I felt protected. I felt he would be there for me. I understand that.

It’s an interesting gear shift because when you’re high performing and hard-charging, having that opportunity to also say, “And I would like to have somebody that makes me feel comfortable or safe.” Especially with younger women now, that’s an even bigger dilemma because they were raised earlier to be hard-charging but yet somehow males don’t know, “Can I step in? I don’t know how to step in.” It’s understanding that many things exist at the same. I was curious about that.

Something that I consciously do is that I don’t have to make all the decisions. I trust him. If I need to be protected and have somebody have my back, I need to trust him enough that I don’t have to make all the decisions and I don’t have to second guess his decisions. If they’re truly family decisions, we’ll make them together.

I trust him enough to make them because nothing sabotages a relationship more than someone trying to change somebody else, trying to second guess somebody else, or raising somebody else. Their mama raised them. You want a whole person. I trust him and I try not to second guess the decisions that I don’t have to. There is that letting go that my own ego has to let go.

I appreciate you letting me ask you. When I do the research, things come up in my mind about, “I wonder how that was.” Sometimes people see you and you’re hard-charging and all this stuff and it’s like, “And…” You’re a person who’s using these tools in real-time to navigate. If there was something that you could say to a male or female reader or patient, if I forgot something that was an important invitation from you, what would that be?

Something I’ve worked on my whole career is motivating people to invest in themselves every day. Here’s what I’ve realized, Gabby, any amount of self-help books, any amount of lecturing, or any external motivation doesn’t work. What I want people to realize, no matter what age or stage of health or life they’re in, is that you are worth the daily investment in your health. You are worth it. The time you take whether it’s 10 minutes or 3 hours to take care of yourself is as important as the time you take to take care of everybody else. It’s maybe more important because then you will take care of them. You are important and you deserve it, that’s what I want people to understand.

Dr. Wright, will you remind people of every place that they can find you?

Go on Instagram, I am @DrVondaWright. I’m Dr. Vonda Wright on the internet. If you are interested in seeing how I’m supporting women in their menopause, you can find the supplement line and some information at Dr.Vonda.com and it’s called a Nova MD. I pop up in a lot of places and if you google me, you’ll see places I’m speaking or presenting. I’d love to meet you there.

Thank you so much for hanging out with me and letting me ask you science questions and personal questions.

It’s been my pleasure. Thank you so much.

Thank you so much for reading this episode. Stay tuned for a bonus episode where I go deeper into one of the topics that resonated with me. If you have any questions for my guest or even myself, please send them to @GabbyReece on Instagram. If you feel inspired, please hit the follow button, and leave a rating and a comment. It not only helps me, it helps the show grow and reach new readers.

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About Dr. Vonda Wright

Dr. Wright headshotDr. Vonda Wright is a double-boarded, fellowship-trained orthopedic surgeon and internationally recognized authority on active aging and mobility. Dr. Wright’s practice focuses on minimally invasive surgery for hip preservation, shoulder and knee reconstruction, cartilage restoration, orthobiologics, and the latest in injury prevention and performance optimization. An intra-preneur, Dr. Wright was the founding director of the Performance and Research Initiative for Masters Athletes (PRIMA) and her pioneering research in mobility and musculoskeletal aging is changing the way we view and treat the aging process. Dr. Wright cares for athletes and active people of all ages and skill levels from the Division I Georgia State Panthers, Pens Elite developmental hockey teams, University of Pittsburgh Division I athletes, World Rugby 7’s, Olympic track and field athletes, and the Atlanta Ballet. She is a pioneering physician and thought leader for the new legion of E-Sports athletes.