University of Toronto professor urges people to slow down, unplug, be more productive

By Eileen Jones
Feb. 12 2014

Greg Wells wants Holland College students to eat, sleep, and live better.
More than that, he wants students to meet their potential.
An assistant professor of kinesiology at the University of Toronto, Wells is a scientist who has devoted his professional career to understanding how taking care of your body affects your livelihood.
In a keynote address during Mental Health Week at Holland College Feb. 11, Wells told students how to take better measures to take care of themselves.
Some of his suggestions may seem like common sense, but Wells provided examples of what certain foods do to affect the brain. It turns out there’s more to being healthy than just eating well and exercising to take care of your body — the brain is affected, too.
Wells asked the students who had a coffee this morning. Sheepish hands raised, but Wells has good news for students getting their morning brew every day.
He said caffeine is a “world class” stimulant and it can help you perform your best, but only when it’s used properly.
“Timing is everything with caffeine,” he said, providing a line graph showing the effects of caffeine over a few hours.
A person drinking a caffeinated beverage will be hit with the active drug after about 30 minutes, followed by a drop in effectiveness when withdrawal sets in.
Caffeine is similar to adenosine; a chemical that tells your body it’s sleepy. When you drink a cup, caffeine binds with adenosine receptors, which closes them off from telling the body to be tired for a temporary period.
“I had a double espresso about a half hour before this presentation so I’d be firing on all cylinders for you guys,” said Wells.
Answering a question from the audience about getting caffeine intake without the inevitable withdrawal symptoms, he laughs.
“People are always trying to negotiate with me on that one.”
Sugars and carbohydrates also affect the brain, he said.
“Everything we’re learning right now suggests sugars are problematic.”
He said too many carbohydrates make the brain feel relaxed and less alert. If you have a muffin prior to a test, you could perform worse than if you had caffeine a half hour before. Too much sugar actually impairs the brain from learning through damaging the brain’s blood vessels. It’s also how diabetes can be caused.
That’s not to say sugars and carbs are all bad for you, Wells said, but the key is moderation.
One uncommon suggestion from Wells was practising meditation. He recommended trying apps that aid meditation with timers and music.
“Stress releases cortisol, which stops you from learning. Meditation can really help if you find you are stressed out a lot of the time.”
Chantal LeBlanc, a student in the crowd, said meditation works.
“I really like it. I do it an hour before I go to sleep. It’s all about concentration.”
As far as exercise goes, Wells recommended as much as walking for 15 minutes a day, but he stressed a bigger point: Logging off from technology.
“In this era of constant connection to technology, typically we’re looking at screens before we go to bed.
“For one hour a day, I want you to disconnect and focus on something important to you. Turn off the screens.”
Wells said 58 per cent of Canadians are obese, supported by statistics from the Public Health Agency of Canada as well as the Canadian Institute for Health Information, and that it will only grow worse if people do not take their own initiative to take care of themselves.
“Look, I’ve got a seven-year-old that I’m working with. She’s fighting leukemia over and over and over again. She says, ‘Don’t let cancer ruin your day.’ A little seven-year-old girl like that.
“I hope it enables you to impact the world, because we really, really, really need you.”