“Interview with Rob Turner on Exercise and Health”

Many people are very confused about exercise and how it should fit into their lives. We asked our friend Rob Turner if he would help our audience get clarity on the subject of exercise as it relates to health. Rob is a former professional athlete turned strength and nutrition coach. He is the founder and owner of Functional Performance Systems, a private fitness facility in Southern California.

1. Since you have spent time in your life as a professional athlete, what were the upsides and downsides of the experience?

Not many have the opportunity to experience Division 1A football or professional football. It’s a special experience playing in front of sometimes 75,000+ people. There aren’t many occupations that match the challenge, uniqueness, or overall environment of sports.
The biggest upside to sports is being a part of a team with a common goal and building relationships with your teammates. There is something about being in difficult situations that bond people together. Most of my best friends came by way of my sports career.

Another upside that helps me as a health & strength/conditioning coach in many ways was how the sport and my coaches gifted me many useful traits such as attention to detail, perseverance, hard work, commitment, dealing with adversity, consistency, and competitiveness. These are traits that will be a part of me forever because of my sports career.

One downside of professional football from my experience is that you’re never really in control. There is little loyalty in professional sports with a “what have you done for me lately” work environment. Teams constantly bring in new guys to workout in the effort to find better players. If the team signs a new player, somebody usually has to go. Maybe it’s you that is let go, or maybe it’s your best friend on the team.

I’m not complaining about these aspects; I accept them as part of the game and as part of being a professional. One of the reasons I didn’t pursue football following my release in 2008 from the LA Avengers (AFL) was that I wanted to take more control over my life.

2. How did you develop an interest in nutrition?

I was nutrition-conscious throughout college and in the pros because I was looking for an edge to improve my athletic performance. My teammates would often comment about how I watched what I ate. Turns out that I knew little more than mainstream knowledge. I probably did little to help my cause athletically as it applied to nutrition.

Not being satisfied with my health was the propelling force that eventually led me to Dr. Peat’s work. I had repeated intestinal pathogen infections after I left football that were promoted by a “protein type” metabolic typing diet. A protein type diet is similar to that of a low carb approach, which I now know to be the antithesis of what I should have been doing especially given my activity level.

Eventually these repeated GI infections and poor diet were teamed with thinning hair, difficulty putting on weight, and also a very high total cholesterol (~390 mg/dL). I knew something had to change nutritionally. My health was a big motivator for me to seek out new information.

When I stumbled upon Dr. Peat’s work and began reading his free articles, the material spoke directly to me and my experience. I had “ah ha!” moments several times. I was able to piece together how hypothyroidism, acting possibly for many years, was the root of my issues and how both my diet and sports career did little to help the situation.

Around this time, coincidentally one of my high school friends told me about a program where I could learn more about Dr. Peat’s writings. I contacted the woman coaching the program and started immediately. Because of my intense interest in the material, she and I ended up partnering, and we still coach an updated version of that same program to people all over the world today.

3. Being a strength/conditioning coach, along with your knowledge of  nutrition, seems like a great combination for helping people to reach their  goals. What’s the difference between training an athlete or training a 38 year old businessman looking to lose a few pounds?

Athletic training has a single purpose in mind – improved sport  performance at any cost. Athletes tend to be young (teens and 20s) and very motivated to get stronger, faster, and better at sport skills.  Their desire to improve makes them dedicated to eating well and taking time away from training sessions to do restorative modalities to improve recovery. The businessman might not have this type of time or motivation level.

Hormonally and metabolically, young people are better equipped than older individuals to handle the stress of training. Despite an athlete’s readiness, training hard consistently can compromise overall health because the rigors of training, practice, and competition are
taxing to the musculoskeletal, endocrine, immune, and nervous systems.  There is thus a trade-off for the athlete – improve performance, decrease overall health. Some athletes are better suited than others to withstand the physical punishment.

With the businessman in his late thirties looking for weight management, I keep in mind how the corporate world and the aging  process in general can take its toll. I discuss my intended training  ideology with him, reminding him that he is not Lebron James or Georges St-Pierre and making it clear that a more moderate approach to  training is more beneficial. Compared to the athlete, the businessman’s program is more balanced when it comes to health and gym performance.

My objectives in the gym for Mr. Businessman would be first to address  posture, breathing, and mobility issues with corrective exercises then progress to using resistance training to maintain or increase the metabolically active muscle mass in the effort to change the body shape.

The movements used to accomplish this mimic those used by the athlete, but the businessman’s workout sessions are lower volume and  less frequent than the athlete’s. “Eccentric-less” exercises (for example, a prowler push or sled drag) can add training volume without compromising recovery. If the businessman were to train just  like an athlete, his age and stress level may slow recovery between sessions, eventually leading to adverse outcomes like injury, fatigue,  low libido, sleep issues, reoccurring sickness, or a lack of motivation.

Nutrition should complement the resistance training. Training  increases nutritional demands so the onus is on the trainee to eat well. Simple initial changes like eating balanced meals frequently, getting enough protein from the entirety of the animal (muscles, connective tissue, organs), using a raw carrot daily for bowel health, exchanging grains & beans for ripe fruit and milk, and avoiding polyunsaturated fat rich foods can start to create momentum in the right  direction. These dietary changes are supportive of the resting metabolism, governed largely by the thyroid system, which is key for regeneration from workouts, sleep quality, and increasing energy expenditure at rest.

4. Would you agree with the connection between exercise and better health which doctors promote?

I define a stressor as anything that interferes with energy production or increases the demand for energy. By this definition, exercise is a stress that is often teamed with inflammation. In that light, exercise is not health promoting. The aging process and degenerative diseases are associated with the same factors – increased energy demands, metabolic suppression, and inflammation.

All of the athletes (including myself), personal trainers, and fitness  enthusiasts I’ve worked with nutritionally are metabolically  suppressed by these standards. I heard an MMA fighter (Michael Bisping)  mention his resting heart rate of 32 beats per minute in an interview
last year. Would he be in better “shape” when his heart rate reaches 10 beats per minute? This metabolic suppression is one of the adaptive consequences of consistently training hard. If you are making a living as a pro athlete or the like, then I can see why you’d train hard and train frequently. If you’re an accountant with a wife and kids seeking weight management, I’d take a more conservative approach if health is  a prime concern.

Dr. Hans Selye said that “every stress leaves an indelible scar, and  the organism pays for its survival after a stressful situation by  becoming a little older.” Our stress system is designed to act intermittently to bail us out of occasional stressful situations; but for some, the fight or flight response is being depended upon too often.

Modern exercise techniques often put the body in the fight or flight survival mode intentionally. If the stress burden is consistently high outside of the gym, I don’t think it’s wise from a health standpoint to raise it further with frequent, vigorous exercise. Over time, repeated stresses can affect us at the cellular level creating  adaptive changes such as a slowed heart rate and suppressed resting  body temperature.

I don’t believe it’s as black and white as I explain though. The type of exercise chosen, the frequency, and duration, whether it’s voluntary or not, the person’s state of  readiness, the altitude/environment, and the trainee’s sex and age are also factors in the reaction to exercise.

5. Crossfit, Bootcamps, TRX and p90x are high intensity exercise programs that are very popular right now. Is your style of training people similar?

I differ from those methodologies in a few ways. I work 95% of the time on a one-on-one basis with gym clients so the fitness video or group model doesn’t align with my facility. When clients exposed to these models come to FPS, I sometimes find postural issues, asymmetries, and poor motor control doing basic movement patterns.

The group model allows for cheaper rates, but more potential problems can slip through the cracks and go unnoticed because of the coach to client ratio. Many times the individuals seeking the help of a fitness professional are overweight with external signs that their cellular energy is slowing down along with hormonal imbalances and high stress levels from various sources. To achieve fat loss for this type of client, commonly the strategy is to ramp up adrenaline using low intensity, high density  exercise, and/or carbohydrate restriction, spurring the stress-induced use of stored fat.

Since stress hormones have anti-inflammatory and stimulatory effects, trainees can feel really good with the strategy; but these stress systems are not meant to function frequently. The more the adrenal stress cascade is playing a role in daily function, the faster the aging process occurs and the more the thyroid system is being suppressed.

Shows like the “Biggest Loser” make it tough on some professionals because many clients’ expectations are to be beaten up in the gym because the people on the show get quick “results” with that type of training. Societal demands are also at play as well because clients want their body to change yesterday. If all the client desires is quick results, then this strategy may be the best option. But if the client wants more of a balance between health and sustainable weight management, then there are other options available.
6. Can you share with us some recommendations for exercising?

For the general fitness trainee who is looking to improve the body proportions, consider all of the stresses and that will help determine how much exercise is right for the person. It’s about finding a balance between stress and rest. If you have a life that is not high in stress you have more freedom to expend yourself.

If you lead a stressful life, then training should be more conservative. Two signs there is an existing high stress load present is the accumulation of abdominal fat or a waking temperature and pulse rate below 98F and 75 beats per minute respectively.

Women get an additional sign of endocrine stress in the form of their menstrual cycle. If there are any signs of PMS, the progesterone to estrogen ratio isn’t balanced. Estrogen excess is antagonistic to thyroid function. The influence of estrogen makes women more susceptible to weight problems than men.

For the undernourished or over stressed, overtraining symptoms appear quickly. If you hit the wall with exercise, reduce or take a break from your training and switch your focus to nutrition, stress reduction, and lifestyle management. Exercise because you feel good to start. You should feel the same during and after the session.

If you’re concerned about health, the exercise chosen should increase the non-resting energy expenditure but should not be so stressful as to depress the resting metabolism (track the resting temperature and pulse rate for feedback). When the metabolism is revitalized, the body can  efficiently use stored fat for energy while the body is at rest without compromising energy levels, hormone balance, and cellular health.

The only time I use aerobic exercise (“cardio”) is if the client is an aerobic athlete. Aerobic exercise wastes the muscle tissue and fosters an unfavorable ratio between the catabolic hormones and anabolic hormones. The scale weight may go down, but that doesn’t always signify progress. The most bang for your buck is going to come from using resistance training. Weight lifting preserves the lean tissue, which is lost in aging and important for changing the body proportions and consuming stored fats.

For athletes, frequently training hard is part of the process of enhancing sport skills. A sport’s demands dictates the type of training used. As mentioned earlier, there are health compromises that athletes make for the sake of performance. Athletes need to be aware of this as does the public. Health and high performance often have an inverse relationship.


1 comment

  1. John Eels - March 1, 2013 11:21 am

    My favorite part of the interview: “Dr. Hans Selye said that “every stress leaves an indelible scar, and the organism pays for its survival after a stressful situation by becoming a little older.” Our stress system is designed to act intermittently to bail us out of occasional stressful situations; but for some, the fight or flight response is being depended upon too often.”

    I’d love to learn more about the connection between mental health, creativity and metabolism. You’re more successful to expand yourself when you’re at ease: “If you have a life that is not high in stress you have more freedom to expend yourself.”

    Thank you for the interview.


Have your say