Dr. Pankaj Vij has been practicing medicine for more than two decades, and has been a member of 24 Hour Fitness for almost as long (14 years). The father of two was born in India and went to medical school there before moving to the United States in the mid-’90s.
“At the time I didn’t know that it would be a difficult profession,” says Vij, when asked why he wanted to become a doctor. “I just thought it would be nice to wear a white coat and go around fixing people. But later I found out that it’s such a privilege [to help people]. Every word that comes out of your mouth is taken so seriously, and you get so much respect because of the difference you are able to make in people’s lives. I think it’s a very honorable profession that involves great responsibility.”
The internal medicine doctor, who specializes in treating obesity and metabolic diseases, recently released his first book, “Turbo Metabolism: Eight Weeks to a New You” (New World Library, 2018), which combines his dedication to health and fitness, with his medical training.
“My patients were asking me for something that they can refer back to, where they could find the information,” says Vij. “So I started putting some stuff together, like handouts, and pretty soon it started piling up into more and more and more information, and then one thing led to another.”
24Life asked Vij to share his own journey with health and fitness, what he hopes people learn from his book and why health care and fitness should be interconnected.
24Life: When and why did you decide to start studying metabolism?
Pankaj Vij: Probably about 10 years ago, I had the realization that we’re treating all these chronic metabolic conditions (type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, heart problems). They’re disorders of metabolism. Metabolism is nothing but energy flow, and so the chronic diseases I mentioned earlier, they’re caused by an impairment in the way energy is flowing or being delivered to the body.
The big trigger for me was that my mother had a heart attack in 2007. Thankfully she’s done well. She’s really cleaned up a lot of her habits. That was probably one of the emotional sparks, but it was the realization that we need to treat the cause of the problem and understand the cause of the problem. Just treating the symptoms with prescriptions isn’t good enough.
More than 80 percent of the causes are lifestyle choices: nutrition, lack of activity, stress, lack of sleep, loneliness and lack of social connections. If you can fix the metabolism, if you can improve the energy flow, everything works better, you feel better, you have better quality of life. That’s the whole objective.
24Life: You refer to “metabolic syndrome” in your book—what does that mean?
PV: Metabolic syndrome is a term that we use essentially for impaired metabolism, and at the core of it is belly fat. Increasing waist circumference associated with high blood sugar, high triglycerides—which is one of the bad cholesterols—and low numbers on the good cholesterol: When you combine all these things, they often come together as metabolic syndrome. And the diseases that are connected to metabolic syndrome are type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. We’re also realizing many cancers are related to obesity and metabolic disorders, and even Alzheimer’s and dementia are the manifestation of impaired energy flow or impaired glucose delivery to the brain.
24Life: What do you see as the role of health care in relationship to health and fitness?
PV: First, I think that as healers, we need to model that lifestyle and that behavior ourselves. It’s somewhat shameful that a lot of health care practitioners and providers don’t walk the talk. So I think first and foremost would be [focusing on] your own personal health. Every single one of us is responsible for our own personal health, and fitness and nutrition are a huge part of that.
Everybody talks about the health care crisis and how we’re spending so much of our GDP on health. But we’re really not spending it on health care. We’re spending it on sick care. We’re spending it on catastrophic care. If we really want to get people healthy, we should be incentivizing people to eat better, to be more physically active. We should be incentivizing people to work out by giving them a discount on their health insurance, just as you might give somebody a discount on their car insurance if they go to safe driver training, or on their home insurance if they’ve got burglar alarms. These people are demonstrating that they’re taking care of themselves, so we need to give them a break because they’re going to be less of a burden on society.
The time is right for the marriage of health care and fitness. If you have a society that’s fit and eating right, it’s going to be healthy. People won’t need as many prescription medicines and we won’t need as many emergency rooms, intensive care units, surgery enters or long-term care facilities. But unfortunately, we’re not going in that direction. Childhood obesity is on the rise. We’re a society of people that are getting fat, sick and tired all the time. I think it’s time for health care and fitness to join forces.
24Life: As a doctor, what is your relationship with fitness?
PV: It is a top priority. I usually go to the gym after work, so you’ll find me at 24 Hour Fitness in the early part of the evening. If for some reason I get stuck working late or I’m not able to make it to the gym and go straight home from work, I’m crabby. My family can tell when I haven’t gone to the gym first. Fitness is absolutely my recess. Even if I only spend 45 minutes to an hour getting a quick workout in, I can go home with a fresh charge on my battery. I am very protective of this time and I get really upset if something gets in the way.
The only bad workout is the one that didn’t happen, right? And when I’m talking to my patients, I tell them that you only have to exercise on the days that you eat.
24Life: What do you hope people learn from your book?
PV: Your DNA is not your destiny. Your health outcome or whatever predicament that you’re in is not something that’s predestined and preprogrammed. It is something that is very much within your control to change. And if you make the right choices, if you make the right decisions for what type of life you want to live today, that can make all the difference in how you’re going to feel tomorrow morning. A lot of times people just feel helpless and hopeless and like they don’t have any control. But the fact is that there are things that you can do about it, so get out of that chair, get up and go forward because there’s hope, and there’s help available. You just have to do it.
The reality is that we all have the innate ability to heal ourselves to be healthy and whole. If we get the right information and if we have the right motivation, we can combine those two into relentless behavior change.
24Life: Your book debunks a few common medical myths—can you give an example?
PV: Well, one big one that people believe—and a lot of medical professionals believe—is that chronic diseases are unrelenting and irreversible. I’m talking about something like type 2 diabetes, or high blood pressure, or even heart disease, all of which are conventionally believed to be chronic, progressive and irreversible.
But the reality is that to a large extent, you can reverse the effects of these diseases, and in many cases you can reverse them completely, meaning that you’re no longer dependent on taking medications to help lower your blood sugar or blood pressure, and you’re able to function without getting chest pain or shortness of breath. There are so many people who have done this.
24Life: For people who are unhealthy, overwhelmed and don’t know where to start, which would you recommend prioritizing first: food, movement, sleep or stress?
PV: Well, if someone is 350 pounds and they can’t really move and breathe very well and they’re out of shape, or even if they’re not that bad, I think the number one thing has to be food. Food is medicine. And you can get a lot of improvement in your health just by fixing the food part first. Exercise is hugely important; exercise has over a hundred different health benefits. Fitness includes exercise but then I would argue that nourishment from nutrition is part of fitness. You can’t out-exercise your mouth, right? You’ve got to fix what’s going into the mouth because the swallowing muscle is pretty strong.
Exercise would come second, not primarily for weight loss but more for all the health benefits: improving mental clarity, improving mood, improving psychological function, improving muscle tone, improving bone health, improving skin health, improving digestive system, improving immunity, improving lifespan. If there is anything that we have that could be considered the fountain of youth, it would be exercise.
But really it’s a three-legged stool. The third leg would be the emotional piece that comes with stress management and sleeping. It’s like three legs of a stool—you can’t have the stool standing on any one leg.
24Life: How has fitness changed your life?
PV: It has totally changed my life, my mental outlook, my psychological state, my physical confidence, my physical appearance. Discovering fitness has been so transformative in everything that I do. Physically I know that I look much better, I have better posture, I don’t get tired, I can work harder, my mental clarity is so much better.
And like I said earlier, that’s the type of role model that I want to be. I want to walk the talk, whether it’s with my patients, my family or my children.
Photo credit: Anna Pelzer, Unsplash; Courtesy of Pankaj Vij