17 Sep 2018

Health tips from All Blacks conditioning coach Nic Gill

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 3:08 pm on 17 September 2018

While we can't all be All Blacks, anyone can use the techniques they use to get in shape and stay healthy, says strength and conditioning coach Dr Nic Gill. 

All Blacks haka

All Blacks haka Photo: Photosport

He serves up advice, recipes and health hacks in the book Health Your Self; The One Stop Handbook to a Healthier, More Energetic You.

Dr Gill has worked in physical fitness and sports education for years but has been unfit and overweight at times, he tells Afternoons' Jesse Mulligan, and that's nothing to be ashamed of.

"I was at university for eight years and then after eight years of university, I still didn’t really understand it. 

"Yes, I’ve been unfit, unhealthy, and I probably to be fair have a period like that every year where I feel like I’ve gone off the path. 

"How your health is changes all the time – as we get older, as the seasons change, daylight hours change ... you have kids, everything changes. 

"I think most people beat themselves up because they don’t think it’s okay to be unhealthy – it’s fine, everyone gets unhealthy at some point in time, it’s about trying to find out how do we get healthy again." 

Despite all of the conflicting advice about diets and exercise, what works is actually pretty straightforward, he says.

"The problem is that every week or every month or every year there’s a new ... 'sugar’s bad, fat’s bad, fat’s good now'.

"There was an article that came out a couple of weeks ago showing that we should have 55 percent of our calories should be carbohydrates – well, I don’t know many Kiwis who would even understand what that means.

"We don’t need to complicate it – get a good sleep as often as we can, eat lots of colour, try and reduce all the white, crappy, dull food in our diet … these are a couple of big shifts we can all make." 

Taking the first step and staying motivated is another problem, however.

"It’s not too complicated, but I never said it was easy." 

Find a reason to be healthy

The first step is looking at your motivation, Dr Gill says.

"My drive or my reason to be healthy is different to yours.

"If I say to myself 'I want to lose a kilo in the next six weeks' that doesn’t really motivate me. Why? Why do I want to lose a kilo? So I think definitely understanding big picture –where you want to go and where you want to end up.

67035726 - big belly man jogging , exercising, doing cardio in the park , slightly overweight, loosing weight. on a lawn of green grass between trees without leaves.

It's fine to try to get healthy, but if you really want to succeed it's best to figure out where you want to end up, and why you want to get there.  Photo: gcammarata/123RF

"You know, ‘I want to get healthy or stay healthy because I want to be running around with my grandkids when I’m 65 and keeping up' … ‘I want to be healthy so I feel good and get lots out of my day and if I’m not healthy I can’t, I’m tired’. 

When you know why you personally want to be healthy, it's also important to look at who that will affect and who will care about the changes you're making – loved ones, friends, family, workmates and so on – Dr Gill says.

"They’re the first two places to start, and then it’s a matter of what does it mean for me – what do I need to be looking at: is it my exercise, is it my nutrition, is it a bit of both, is it how much I’m eating or is it what I’m eating?" 

Make sustainable changes, one at a time

Aim for a long-term, sustainable lifestyle change rather than a quick diet, Dr Gill says.

"Most of us are trying to get healthier at some point in the year, some point in our life. We’re like ‘you know what, I need to get healthy’. 

"Actually, what we should be trying to strive for is a healthy lifestyle … we want to put something that’s sustainable in place."

Touring cyclists who ride at night are being told they are putting people at risk.

Photo: 123RF

That means figuring out what is important to you and what things you're willing to sacrifice.

"We are all so different, we like different things. I love chocolate, absolutely love chocolate, and not many days when I wouldn’t have a little bit of chocolate. I love beer, I love sausages, I love all those things that most Kiwis love. 

"With that love … you have to understand what’s emotionally important for you – what makes you feel good mentally – and what makes you feel good physically." 

Everyone has different priorities, he says, and if you want to get healthy, figure out what works for you.

"I just started playing around with what made me feel good eating, and what exercise made me feel good – what I could tolerate and what I could enjoy – and if I kept that at the top of my list then I was able to make some other changes. 

"It’s about ‘how does it make me feel if I don’t put sugar in my cup of tea’, and 'is it that hard'?"

It doesn't make sense to change everything all at once, instead look at changing one habit at a time.

"If you try and fix everything or change everything, it won’t work.

"We’ve just got to look at one key thing, let’s improve that, let’s move that, and then let us look at one other little thing that I might want to change." 

Eat for your needs

We each need to fuel our body according to the demands we're putting on it, Dr Gill says. 

"If we’re digging trenches, building fences out on a farm, you can probably eat a lot more food than if you're sitting in an office. 

"If you are busy physically during the day then of course you need energy … you should be eating for purpose, eating for what your body needs, not eating for eating’s sake." 

It's always a good idea to have colourful vegetables, he says.

“I”m not a nutritionist, but you look at root vegetables and they’re an energy reservoir for plants, so all the root vegetables are pretty high in calories and energy. 

Fruit and vegetables.

Dr Gill says colourful vegetables tend to have more nutrients, while root veggies are more energy-rich - so unless we're using a lot of energy we shouldn't eat too many. Photo: 123RF

"They’re not exposed to the sun so they don’t have a lot of colour, a lot of nutrient value. 

"This is where the whole 'eat a rainbow a day' comes from: have lots of colour because that’s where all the good stuff is, and all the dull white stuff is where the energy is."

Remember that if you're working out, playing sport or doing a physical job, you do need energy, he says.

Don't beat yourself up for slipping

Once you've got a plan in place, it's important not to punish yourself or overthink it if you slip up, Dr Gill says.

"I say to people if you have a bad day, don’t beat yourself up about it. If you eat poorly because you go out for lunch or you go out with some friends and just indulge a little bit, that’s fine. 

"Just know that, next day, you’re going to flick the switch and get back on track to this healthier person that you want to be, whatever that is." 

Be accountable 

It's not easy, but keep in mind that most of us have that little voice in their head saying it's okay to just let things slide, Dr Gill says.

"We all have a voice. Sometimes the voice is saying ‘oh, stay in bed, you can do the exercise tonight, before dinner’. It never happens. So I try and put my running shoes on before my voice even wakes up." 

No caption.

Photo: ocusfocus/123RF

"Recognising that you do have a voice and when is that voice loudest, I think that’s important. We’re all different." 

"[It's important to understand] the role that voice in your head plays and how to try and mitigate it, how to try and avoid it, how to deal with it."

One way to keep the 'little voice' in check is finding ways to make yourself accountable to another person.

"It’s important to have some sort of … person that you’re going to be accountable to, whether that’s yourself or a loved one or a mate. 

"I know that if it’s cold and dark outside and raining, and I’ve organised to go for a run with someone, well, I’m accountable to them because they’re expecting me to turn up at 6.30.

"If I haven’t arranged to go for a run with someone ... I’ll probably stay in bed, so it’s things like that." 

Get a good night's sleep

Sleep is part of the health cycle, Dr Gill says, and it's important to figure out how to get enough and maximise sleep quality.

"Unfortunately, sleep will dictate how you eat and how you exercise ... it definitely impacts on how we hold on to fat, definitely affects our cravings, definitely affects our mood, our energy levels.

"There’s a cascade of events that happen if we don’t sleep for long enough or well enough."

no caption

Getting a good sleep routine is integral to your health, Dr Gill says. Photo: Unsplash

He coaches the All Blacks to "aim for 10 [hours' sleep], get 9". 

"If you’re exercising three, four, five, six hours a day – and sleep is when you get your best recovery – then sleep is pretty important for an athlete. So we encourage naps in the afternoon and things."

Reducing screen time can be part of that, and it's especially important when you're young, he says.

"When you’re sleeping, you’re learning, when you’re sleeping, you’re growing, and so there’ll be a number of behavioural issues and learning issues that are associated with not getting enough sleep, a number of body fat issues ... we are less active than we used to be." 

Drinking tart cherry juice and eating two kiwifruit a day can help encourage sleep, Dr Gill says, but he warns not to overdo it. 

no caption

Kiwifruit are high in vitamin C, aid in digestion and help with sleep, but they also have a lot of energy. Photo: RNZ/ Nick Monro

"There’s elements of nutrition in there that propose to help us sleep better. Kiwifruit have been shown to have lot of benefits form a breakdown of protein and digestion perspective as well … but they also have an energy component to them. 

"People take it to the next extreme and all of a sudden think ‘okay well that means five kiwifruit’s even better for me’. Well, no, because five kiwifruit have got a lot of energy.

"We still need to have all those things in moderation … if we’re not burning it and using [energy], that’s a bad thing to be eating." 


Talking about the importance of squats is "a little pet thing that I have", Dr Gill says. 

"I’ve been in the physical fitness side of things for a long time and I just see young athletes and young people and even older people, they start getting niggles or injuries because they’ve lost function through their body.

"They’ve stopped squatting, they’ve stopped being able to use the ankle, knee, hip and back how we used to as a baby or as a young child – we grow, we sit in chairs, we sit on toilets, we stop getting below parallel." 

82735146 - adorable toddler in retro style sport suit going to lift a kettlebell

Photo: olgalistopad/123RF

"There are huge benefits [to squatting]. All of us should be trying to get back to normal function, which is being able to squat and … squat comfortably. 

"There’ll be long-term benefits from that." 

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